Like other communities across the country did in the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Providence sought to start a program offering reparations to Black, Indigenous and other people of color whose families have felt the effects of decades of discriminatory practices. As the city’s plan is underway, critics say the program is being rushed and its guidelines show White residents could qualify based on their income.
“If we are truly looking for a reparative process (and) something to heal the harms of the past, why are we rushing Black folks to work for money they might not even know about?” Justice Gaines, a local community activist, told CNN.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza approved the $10 million budget plan in early November, prompting the launch of the program days later. It was the result of more than two years of work by city leaders, activists and scholars, the city said. Some of those efforts included the creation of a commission to study the issue of racial inequity and reparations, the publication of a 194-page report detailing how people of color have been harmed by the city and their institutions for more than four centuries and a report outlining 11 major areas the city could address to level the playing field between White people and residents of color in Providence.
“These funds move us one step further towards closing the present-day racial wealth and equity gap,” Elorza wrote in a Facebook post announcing the signing of the budget last month.
The program does not include direct cash payments to descendants of enslaved people, a practice which has been discussed by reparations commissions across the United States. Instead, the city’s plan is to fund an array of initiatives aimed at closing the racial wealth and equity gap.
Initiatives include the creation of a workforce training and job placement program to help 100 residents of color, a program to accelerate investments in minority-owned businesses, funds to help the creation of Black-owned media outlets and African heritage cultural organizations, as well as a homeownership fund, said Keith Stokes, the city’s director of business development.
“Each and every one of these programs are tied to closing that racial wealth and equity gap,” Stokes told CNN. “Our people and families have been in the outside looking in for fair employment, fair housing, fair educational opportunities, fair health care access, and we’re looking to close that gap in the city of Providence with targeted programs and services.”
Because the $10 million is money the city received under the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the program does not limit eligibility to Black residents. The eligibility criteria include Black and Indigenous residents and people facing poverty who were born in Providence, are non-college students who have lived in the city for three years or moved to the city to attend college at least three years ago.
There are more than 189,000 people living in Providence, according to US Census data. White residents make up 53.2% of the population, followed 43.5% who are Hispanic or Latino and 16.1% who are Black.
At least 23% of the population in Providence lives in poverty, US Census data shows.
The city has said the funding is subject to federal regulations, but each initiative has been written to clearly reflect the recommendations made by the reparations commission.
Gaines, the local activist, worries many Black and Indigenous people “who are going to miss out” on the program. The application window for some grants is closing next week and the city is only taking bids for most of the initiatives on Monday.
Some of the younger, new business owners or nonprofit leaders may not have the same access to information as others to take advantage of the program given proposals are due so quickly, Gaines said.
Stokes told CNN city officials have been reaching out to “any and all potential participants in this program.”
“If people want to debate, process and policy and implementation, absolutely, they should. But the intent here has always been an intent to get these dollars and get these policies and programs out to the people and communities of the greatest need,” Stokes said.
Dr. Dannie Ritchie, founder of Community Health Innovations and member of the city’s African American Ambassador Group, said city leaders were so concerned with showing they were doing something on reparations, they failed to take the necessary steps to ensure something tangible could be achieved.
“It’s a catalytic approach to reparations not a transformative approach that would impact nearly all citizens and be sustainable,” Stokes told CNN, adding the state and federal government could partner with cities to rectify racial inequities.
While some funds may be awarded before Mayor Jorge Elorza’s term concludes at the end of the month, the city says additional funds from the $10 million will still be administered next year.
It’s unclear what the future of reparations efforts in Providence will be in the coming years. Months prior to his election, Mayor-elect Brett Smiley said in a candidate forum he would continue the program but did not discuss any details. CNN has reached out to Smiley for comment.