Chicago suburb began its reparations with housing grants. Now a national nonprofit wants to give cash payments to targeted residents

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A street sits empty as rain falls in the 5th Ward in Evanston on March 23, 2021. - Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — A national nonprofit is launching a cash payment pilot program for a small group of Evanston residents in an effort to show city leaders how a similar reparations program could work.

The move comes as Evanston continues to develop plans for its $10 million local reparations fund following the funding of a $400,000 housing assistance program earlier this week.

The Family Independence Initiative, headquartered in Oakland, California, has programs across the country providing direct cash payments to targeted residents. Now, the group’s leaders say they were inspired by Evanston’s reparations effort and are taking on a similar project in the northern suburb.

“The connection for Evanston came in because of the reparations work that they are doing,” said Ebony Scott, Family Independence Initiative’s partnership director in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain region. “We believe that direct cash transfers should be part of those reparations conversations, and should be one of the primary ways in which reparations are given to communities.”

As such, “Why don’t we go ahead and start deploying cash in Evanston just to show how easy and efficient it is? And, to respond to the community who said, ‘we also want cash to be a part of this,’” Scott said.

Evanston aldermen on March 22 approved a housing grant program to help with mortgages, down payments and home repairs for qualified residents. It was the first expenditure in the city’s landmark municipal reparations program designed to compensate Black residents for codified discrimination.

Evanston officials say the initiative is designed to address the discriminatory housing policies and practices faced by Black residents. The reparations program will be funded through marijuana sales tax revenue along with some donations.

But some Evanston residents have questioned if the housing program is the right use of the money and if it is a true representation of reparations.

Those concerns were echoed by Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, who was the only vote against the measure.

In a statement this week, Fleming said the Family Independence Initiative approach is more closely aligned with how many Evanston residents envisioned their own program.

“Many studies have shown that direct cash payments are proven to be the best way to end the cycle of poverty, and I applaud (the initiative’s) efforts to respect an individual’s ability to make the best decisions on how to spend their money,” Fleming said.

Now, the Family Independence Initiative is launching a program to give 25 Evanston residents $300 a month for 10 months. If there are more than 25 applications, recipients will be chosen at random. Applications are due April 5 and can be filled out at

To qualify, applicants must meet the same criteria established to participate in the city’s reparations programs. An applicant must have “origins in any of the Black racial and ethnic groups of Africa,” be a Black resident of Evanston between 1919-1969, or be that person’s direct descendant. Applicants also may qualify if they experienced housing discrimination due to the city’s policies or practices after 1969, according to city documents.

There are no income requirements to participate in the program, Scott said.

“Often the resistance to doing direct investment in people comes down to not trusting them, not trusting that they know what’s best for themselves,” Scott said. “We need to acknowledge that and move past it.”

Scott said her group in February approached Evanston’s Reparations Subcommittee to gauge interest and received a warm reception. But the nonprofit is neither partnering with the city, nor accepting city money at this time.

Evanston’s subcommittee on the topic is composed of aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward; and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

“I’m really excited to work with the Family Independence Initiative,” Braithwaite said. “They’re helping to check two boxes. They’re helping us move our initiative forward ... it is the first step in terms of delivering cash payments to those residents. It also helps us to address the early concerns that we heard.”

Scott said while the program was inspired by Evanston’s reparations effort, it is not by definition a form of reparations.

“Reparations needs to come from the people who have done the harm, and in this case it’s the government,” Scott said. “(Family Independence Initiative) has not worked in Evanston so we don’t have any harm to repair.”

Instead, her group works with governments to demonstrate how a cash payment program would operate, as they’ve already figured out the details.

“To continue to say we need to study it, we need to talk about it, really is not necessary,” Scott said. “We already know that it works.”

Scott said her group hopes to fundraise and expand the Evanston program beyond the initial 25 participants.

The Family Independence Initiative already operates in Chicago, Scott said, where 500 families are receiving $400 per quarter. In that program, 250 families are added each year, and participate for two years.

Scott compared the Evanston project most closely with the Magnolia Mothers Trust pilot project in Jackson, Mississippi. That project started in 2018 by providing 20 Black mothers in extreme poverty with $1,000 per month for 12 months, according to the organization’s report.

Now, the program is adding about 100 mothers per year, according to the report.

In the first year, the percentage of Mississippi participants able to pay all of their bills without additional support grew from 37% to 80%, according to the report. The percentage who could prepare three daily meals at home for their family grew from 32% to 75%. The percentage who completed their high school education grew from 63% to 85%, and the collective amount of predatory debt paid off totaled more than $10,000, according to the group’s own report.