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A grassroots effort in Michigan is raising reparations — while the government lags

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A grassroots reparations effort in Michigan is making progress where government-led attempts have stalled. Sophia Saliby of member station WKAR in East Lansing reports.

SOPHIA SALIBY, BYLINE: 2020 was a turning point for Lansing, Mich., resident Willye Bryan. Between the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd and the health disparities that hit the African American community during the pandemic, she knew it was time for action.

WILLYE BRYAN: You start with slavery, which is the original sin, and it has left an aftermath of destruction in its path.

SALIBY: The answer for Bryan was for what she calls the debt owed to African Americans to be repaid through reparations. She started at her church, a predominantly white congregation. Pastor Stanley Jenkins remembers when Bryan first brought it up.

STANLEY JENKINS: And my first reaction was, well, that'll never work, and then immediately, I said, let's do it.

SALIBY: Most of the church stood behind them, pledging $100,000 over the course of 10 years. Eighty thousand dollars of that came from contributions from individual congregants.

JENKINS: There was a sense that people were waiting, even if they didn't know it, for somebody to take that first step.

SALIBY: The initiative became known as the Justice League of Greater Lansing. They visited many houses of worship in the area to explain their mission. One church committed half of the money it received through the sale of its rectory. People have written the Justice League into their wills. Last December, the church received a three-year commitment from another congregation in Lansing to contribute from its endowment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM ARTHUR: I mean, Justice League - who doesn't want to be part of the Justice League? Like, you guys did great on that name.

SALIBY: Pastor Tom Arthur presented the check.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR: We have one of these big checks, and here it is. This is to the Justice League for $3,684.

SALIBY: Now after less than three years, the organization has collected around $400,000. For Bryan, her work in Michigan is only the beginning.

BRYAN: Ideally, the national government would be healing those wounds, but that hasn't happened. We want to influence the state government. That hasn't happened.

SALIBY: She points to a bill to just study federal reparations first introduced by the late Michigan Congressman John Conyers 30 years ago. That has seen little action since. In the City of Detroit, a reparations task force has experienced vacancies and holdups that may delay the report it was charged with releasing this year.

BRYAN: As a grassroots organization, we want to influence the top level. We want to go from the bottom up and say, hey, look, the populus would like to see people be made whole.

SALIBY: And now the Justice League is experiencing its own turning point. For the first time, money from its fund will soon be redistributed as academic scholarships. The league's president, Prince Solace, says he wants people in his generation to be able to stay in the area with the help of money from the fund for home ownership and business support.

PRINCE SOLACE: If that ambition and drive and creativity is not coupled with financial stability and a foundation, it can't grow.

SALIBY: For Solace and Bryan, the core of reparations is to repair, and they see their work as a step in the right direction to normalize what they think fixing the country could look like.

For NPR News, I'm Sophia Saliby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 22, 2024 at 11:00 PM CDT
A Michigan organization, the Justice League of Greater Lansing, is raising reparation funds in the state. The secondary headline has been corrected.
Sophia Saliby
Sophia Saliby joined WKAR and ComArtSci in April 2020.
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