By Mattijs van Maasakkers and Ben Wilson
Racial Equity Research Project at Ohio State University:
The racial justice uprising following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 prompted communities across the United States to consider effective responses. Some revamped their police use of force protocols, others examined funding alternatives to policing, such as social support response units, and still others looked deeply at the systemic issues plaguing their community. Efforts to unmask racial harm can create tension among community members about the focus and mission of such efforts, the manner in which systemic issues are discussed, and who should take the lead or might benefit from such an effort.
In June 2020, the Divided Community Project1 and researchers2 at The Ohio State University (OSU) began to receive inquiries from community leaders and interest groups seeking dispute system design insights and guidance. Aware of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) in other countries, OSU researchers began to investigate the growing number of communities across the United States that were creating TRCs to advance racial equity. Beginning in January 2022, this interdisciplinary group of OSU faculty began systematically preserving, coding, and analyzing several US-based governmentally convened TRC-style processes.
After a preliminary review of more than 30 TRC-style processes, the group focused its analysis on four: Charleston (South Carolina)3, New York City (New York)4, Carlisle (Pennsylvania)5, and the State of California.6 Each community pursued a racial equity initiative by appointing a commission; each with a unique mandate, scope, expertise, budget, and theory of change. The selection of these commissions was informed by a desire to include a range of jurisdictions, both in terms of size and geography, as well as different mandates, from advisory bodies to formal statutory entities such as charter review commissions.
Methodology & Research Design:
The design of many of these domestic racial equity initiatives was broadly inspired by the well-known South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and modified to meet local goals and interests.7 These commissions are government sanctioned, which potentially increases the likelihood that they will gain notice and influence. Calls to advance racial equity produced commissions with varied designs and theories of change.
Scholars at OSU identified four commissions, seeking to analyze their creation, dynamics, and outcomes. Much of the research effort was focused on detailed analyses of the commissions’ meetings. As a result of the COVID-pandemic, the commission meetings were all captured on video, creating an available archive for analysis. Student research assistants viewed all public meetings of the chosen commissions and categorized statements and interactions based on a set of topics provided by the research team. This process permitted rapid comparisons and analyses of how and when each commission discussed specific issues or experienced certain dynamics. Finally, the researchers completed semi-structured interviews with key commission members and staff, to gain additional insights to supplement the available public documentation.
Each commission experienced distinct but related challenges and opportunities for advancement of racial equity. The goal of the research team, beyond the intent to catalogue and understand these efforts, is to convey the lessons learned to those considering or planning similar commissions at the local, state, or federal level.
Commissions at the Center of the Study
I. The Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Conciliation in Charleston, South Carolina:
On June 19, 2018, Charleston City Council passed a resolution “recognizing, denouncing, and apologizing” for the city’s role in supporting and fostering slavery and committing to initiatives to ameliorate the vestiges of slavery. Following up on this commitment, Charleston established the Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Conciliation (SCEIRC) on June 9, 2020, through a unanimous vote by the Charleston City Council. The commission’s stated mandate was to create measurable outcomes, promote greater accountability, and coordinate community-wide efforts to achieve racial equity.
Thirteen commissioners made up the special commission, six city councilmembers and seven at-large community members. Each at-large commissioner oversaw one subcommittee.8 The design was intended to give political influence to the commission while keeping city elected leadership informed regarding the commission’s intermittent findings. Practically, this design was fraught because the term of the commission spanned an election cycle for the city council. Political opposition formed during the 2021 campaign season and multiple city councilmembers were targeted for their involvement with the commission. City Councilmember Carol Jackson lost her election to a political outsider who framed Jackson’s equity work as supporting violent riots and “defunding the police.”9
The SCEIRC experienced some level of turmoil throughout its tenure. Early in the commission’s work, a city councilmember who volunteered to sit on the commission was accused of interfacing with and passing along information to the Proud Boys, a white nationalist organization that promotes and engages in violence. Whether this interaction produced tangible interference with the commission’s mandate is difficult to measure. However, the disruption of expelling this city councilmember and finding a replacement added unnecessary work to the commission’s agenda. While swift measures were taken to expel them from the SCEIRC, their influence from the seat of city council remained.
The remaining SCEIRC commissioners undertook the incredibly difficult task of researching and proposing policy recommendations to assess and advance equity in the areas of housing and mobility, youth and education, history and culture, economic empowerment, criminal justice, health disparities and environmental justice, and internal review. Each of the subcommittees met regularly and produced a thorough review of the city’s role in racial inequity within the selected policy area. The report also featured an extensive audit of all public spaces and monuments to determine which of them memorialized and celebrated the institution of slavery. At the conclusion of the commission, a final report “mapped out a vision for achieving racial equity in the community with a mission of eliminating institutionalized racism in the City of Charleston.”10
The final report contained language that created a divide among the sitting city council members and the committee chairs. Although references to “reparations” appeared four times, “critical race theory” only twice, and “defund the police” never appeared in the 550-page report, the perception was enough for several sitting city council members to waiver in or completely withdraw their support for the commission’s product.
At its August 17, 2021, council meeting, the city was scheduled to address two prominent matters: whether to receive the SCEIRC report; and whether to extend a municipal ordinance requiring face coverings in public facilities. The controversial face covering matter drew considerable public opposition and created a politically charged city council meeting. Discussion of receipt of the report (which was largely a symbolic gesture to suggest that the council intends to seriously consider the SCEIRC’s recommendations) was overshadowed by the face covering debate. The vote on the motion to receive the SCEIRC’s report failed 7 to 6.
Creative planning and a careful approach proved capable of continuing to move the needle, even in the face of these challenging dynamics. While the council ultimately decided not to receive the commission’s report, the work of the commission continues to be advanced in two main ways. First, the city council elected to create a Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission to continue to advance some aspects of the work, without a specific equity focus. Additionally, councilmember-commissioners decided to incorporate some of the SCEIRC’s equity recommendations in Charleston’s most recent 10-year plan.
II. The New York City Racial Justice Commission
On January 28, 2021, then New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his intention to form a charter review commission focused on racial justice and reconciliation. In March 2021, the New York City Racial Justice Commission (RJC) was formed, consisting of 11 commissioners with diverse racial, cultural, religious, and professional backgrounds. The RJC was well staffed with an executive director, general counsel, policy advisers, and outreach and communications team. This charter review commission was tasked with reviewing the entire city charter and proposing amendments for a city-wide ballot referendum. The RJC focused specifically on ways in which the city’s charter could be improved to root out structural racism and put equity at the heart of city government.
The RJC carried out its work over the course of eighteen months. In the first nine months commission members engaged with one another and the public, crafted the recommendations and developed three ballot measures. In the second 9 months, the team participated in an information campaign to educate the public about the ballot proposals. While the commission operated under a robust and independent mandate, the RJC did experience shifts in political will.
The scope of the RJC was limited to reviewing the city charter, so addressing complex policy topics and undoing centuries of structural racism were not within the mandate. The RJC produced a set of recommendations called the Racial Justice Roadmap to propose future endeavors that city leadership should prioritize.11 Through engaging with the public, racial inequities were uncovered that, while not intentional, create considerable differences in impact. For instance, the RJC heard testimony regarding the way the city declines to enforce parking violations on holidays that are primarily celebrated by the white population but tickets during holidays that are specifically celebrated by other racial and ethnic groups.
During the second stage of the process (the informational campaign), the city spent considerable resources engaging with the public in various ways.12 The RJC employed a “layered approach” to community outreach. Significant resources were allocated for community-based organizations to promote the RJC’s work and engage in community education initiatives. This helped them to build broad-based support with people who were regularly engaged in community work and likely to be highly supportive of the RJC’s work. Advertisements specifically targeted minority communities by seeking out, for instance, racially and ethnically diverse, community-driven newspapers, radio, and TV stations. These types of interactions served as a reminder to people in the lead up to the referendum. Finally, social media played a significant role, as the RJC published a Social Media Toolkit that anyone, including commissioners and staff, could use to promote the commission’s work.
The RJC crafted three ballot questions for the November 2022 election in NYC. First, the RJC asked voters whether they should create a preamble to the City Charter which contains a “Statement of Values” to help guide the city government. This passed with 72 percent support. The second question they asked was whether NYC should establish a racial equity office, plan, and commission – it passed with 70 percent support. And third, they asked voters to create a “true cost of living” measure which calculates the actual costs that residents face living in NYC, which passed with 81 percent support. Members of the commission stated in interviews that receiving 70 percent support for their initiatives would give them a broad mandate to continue their work. NYC surpassed that benchmark and is advancing initiatives identified in the Racial Justice Roadmap, including establishing a reparations commission.
III. The Carlisle Truth and Reconciliation Commission
On November 4, 2020, the Carlisle Borough Council acknowledged the community’s history of racial inequity and committed to holding a racial justice town hall on January 16, 2021. In the midst of the racial justice town hall, an attendee recommended pursuing a truth and reconciliation style commission to surface and address the borough’s history of racism. On March 11, 2021, the borough council established the Carlisle Truth and Reconciliation Commission and they held their first meeting on May 25, 2021.
Carlisle, a town of roughly 20,000, appointed seven commissioners, including two co-chairs who were tasked with: (1) meeting the community where it was to engage in truth and reconciliation; (2) examining past and present policies, practices, and structures that contribute to systemic racism; and (3) developing guidance for borough officials to pursue equity and accountability through transformative change.
In the throes of a pandemic, Carlisle committed to community engagement by meeting people where they were. The TRC organized Thinking About Race Thursdays, a monthly conversation hosted by the community and scheduled just prior to the next borough council meeting. Commissioners also spoke one-to-one with community members who wanted to share their lived experience, concerns, or aspirations for the commission.
Carlisle did experience turnover among its commissioners. TRCs require extraordinary commitment from commissioners and staff, to be prepared for long hours and difficult conversations. The Carlisle TRC was established as a volunteer, unpaid body. While this is common in city government and a feature of other commissions, the nature of the work—racial inequity—is reflected in asking people of color to engage in free labor to correct historical injustices. The mental and emotional burden of the work should not be lost on city officials.
Carlisle achieved many of its aims and positioned itself to continue racial equity work. The Carlisle TRC’s Final Report identified short- and long-term policy opportunities focused on law enforcement, arts and public education, housing and neighborhood vibrancy, public health, business and commerce, indigenous relations, and a Standing Committee to continue advancing racial equity. The Carlisle TRC Mission Statement framed its work as the first in a sequence of initiatives that would begin to address racial inequity. The Carlisle TRC is a stake in the ground, so to speak, and a building block for the future.
IV. California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans
The California State Legislature initiated a Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans through Assembly Bill 3121, passed on September 30, 2020. The California Department of Justice provided dozens of attorneys and staff to help plan, facilitate, research, and synthesize the commission’s work. The task force consisted of nine members – five appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom, two appointed by President pro Tempore of the Senate Toni Atkins, and two members by the Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon.
The Task Force met in locations that held historical or symbolic significance to a reparatory effort. Members of the task force took hundreds of hours of testimony from scholars, faith leaders, and community organizations to help inform their work. In July 2023, the AB 3121 Task Force published their final report – an authoritative treatise on inequity and reparations across the United States. The eleven hundred-plus page document first recounts the historical and modern racial terror African Americans are subjected to. After establishing the record, the report offers examples of other reparatory efforts, policy recommendations, a methodology for calculating reparations, a public education plan, and the legal framework for advancing reparations.
Subsequent to the publication of the final report, task force member Senator Steven Bradford has publicly advocated for advancing its recommendations. Senate Bill 490 would be a major step forward. It would establish the California American Freedmen Affairs Agency, tasked with enacting the recommendations of the Task Force. The AB 3121 Task Force produced a comprehensive body of work and will serve as the model for reparations efforts elsewhere. Already, cities in California have moved to undertake similar work. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Palm Springs, and Long Beach are advancing racial equity at the local level. The AB 3121 Task Force is having an international impact as well. On November 16, 2023, former Task Force members formed a multinational group of over 400 advocacy organizations in a network called the Alliance for Reparations, Reconciliation, and Truth.
Additional Racial Equity Commissions and Organizations
While most of the TRC-style initiatives emanate from municipalities, other statewide commissions are underway in New York, Maryland, Kansas, Illinois, and Vermont. Other noteworthy racial equity initiatives include the Iowa City Ad Hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the St. Paul Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission, and the Evanston Illinois Reparations Committee.
Apart from the previously mentioned municipal commissions, the California Truth and Healing Council is a TRC-style initiative focused on indigenous peoples formed by an Executive Order from Governor Newsom.13 Its focus is on memorializing “California Native American narratives regarding the historical relationship between the State of California and California Native Americans to clarify the historical record of such relationship in the spirit of truth and healing.”14
Interestingly, the Evanston Reparations Committee is the first American municipality to pilot a reparations effort. The success of this project made Evanston one of the most influential municipal commissions and spurred the creation of a research and advocacy organization called First Repair, which is working closely with the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). Many communities pursuing TRC-style processes are networking with one another and expanding the capacity of future racial equity and reparations efforts.
Upcoming Publications and Project Status
The Divided Community Project provides guidance to community leaders who are looking to engage in racial equity initiatives. Part of that work includes the publication of two important guides: Planning Initiatives to Advance Racial Equity and Symbols and Public Spaces Amid Division.15
Researchers from OSU and beyond are also engaged in ongoing scholarship related to public TRC-style racial equity processes. Ohio State University Moritz College of Law’s Journal on Dispute Resolution published multiple editions focused on racial equity.16 An upcoming publication is expected from Amy Schmitz and Ben Wilson looking at how TRCs use social media platforms successfully, what conversations are inspired by their efforts, and what opportunities remain for increased engagement.
The research team is still collecting and analyzing the data and will continue to publish its findings. The preliminary findings of this research have important implications for the future of racial equity in the United States and highlight the need for further research.
Mattijs van Maasakkers is an Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning at Ohio State University. He holds a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his research interests include dispute resolution in the public sphere, the design of participatory processes and land use planning.
Ben Wilson is a Staff Attorney at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Catalyst Fellow at the Divided community Project. He holds a JD and Masters in Dispute Resolution from Pepperdine University, and his research focuses on social media use and racial equity in public dispute resolution processes.