A Lesson in Black Resilience - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because theirs is a small-scale model for what reparations can mean for Black Americans.

  • Longtime Portland, Oregon, activist Cameron Whitten launched a “Black Resilience Fund” to donate to local residents in need — swiftly raising more than $1 million.
  • His method is a direct wealth transfer that provides a miniature model for reparations.

It was the Sunday after George Floyd died, and Cameron Whitten felt like he had to do something. Never mind the fact that the 29-year-old had just come up short in a heated bid for the Portland metro council the month before, and could easily have been forgiven for wanting to slow things down. So the well-known Oregon activist posted on Facebook, asking people of color if they needed help — and asking white allies if they would be willing to donate to the cause. “We’ve survived a long, painful week that’s an extension of a year that’s challenged us to our core,” he began.

What emerged has been nothing short of astounding. Whitten hoped to maybe raise $5,000 — instead he reached $11,000 the first day. With the help of friends, Whitten moved the project to GoFundMe, calling it the “Black Resilience Fund” and setting a goal to raise $15,000 in a day. “We hit that within an hour,” he says.

By the end of three days, the tally was $155,000. And in less than a month, the duo had raised more than $1 million to aid Black businesses and individuals in the Portland area. Their next goal? To reach $1.5 million by the end of July, and hand out $300 each to 5,000 Black Portlanders. Their project has blossomed from a fundraising effort into a “mutual aid” network that includes 300 volunteers doing everything from passing out food boxes and delivering groceries to running errands and doing yard work — and yes, handing out cash. It also continues a trend across the globe of activist networks providing aid where governments have failed to do enough.

Other forms of reparations are either too slow or difficult to be universally applied.

Cameron Whitten

“The donation assisted with getting me and my children housed after months of homelessness,” said one recipient, Trayla, whose full name has been withheld for privacy. “Receiving this money from this fund makes it so I don’t have to choose between paying my rent or attending my oldest son’s funeral service,” says Elontene, another Portland resident who received aid. “I was the first person to hold him, and thanks to … [the fund], I can be the last person to hold him.”

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Cameron Whitten posted on Facebook, asking people of color if they needed help. His “Black Resilience Fund” hit $1 million in donations within a month.

The Black Resilience Fund’s success doesn’t just provide important lessons for those trying to address inequality and racial discrimination in the United States. It also showcases a real-life pilot of what racial reparations could look like, given that most of its donors are white and its recipients are Black. “Hypothetically, we are creating a $3 million wealth gap shift in our region alone,” Whitten says.

While some have argued that reparations could potentially take many forms, from making it easier for Black Americans to buy real estate to forgiving their student loans, Whitten advocates a direct cash approach similar to his fund. “The reality is that other forms of reparations are either too slow or difficult to be universally applied,” he says. For instance, forgiving student loans or offering free college would leave out those with poorer grades, or who might not be able to afford living costs to attend universities even with reduced tuition. But there’s a huge difference between Whitten’s fund and an incredibly challenging national effort: The donations are voluntary.

Whitten, whose activist roots trace back to the Occupy Wall Street movement, also notes that the “mutual aid” model — in which community organizers help their neighbors rather than large, organized nonprofits — was a response to the scandals that arose after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when aid intended for those impacted by the storm was inefficiently spent (or blatantly misused) by major groups like the Red Cross. In order to make sure they don’t repeat those mistakes, Whitten — assisted by a group of interns from Princeton University — is working to create an “equitable mutual aid model,” to make sure money is distributed in ways that most help the community.

A key reason for their success, Whitten says, is simply that others weren’t doing it — when he started the fund, there was no other direct organization for Oregonians to cover the daily needs of Black Americans during the pandemic. And it won’t be contained to Oregon: Partnering with the Tom Steyer–backed Beneficial State Bank, Whitten and the Black Resilience Fund will be hosting a Zoom call to teach other cities in California, Idaho and Washington how to lead their own racial-equity-focused resiliency funds. The organization has even shifted to public policy work, asking dozens of its Black businesses and recipients to write letters to Oregon state lawmakers to extend COVID-19 relief programs through the Oregon CARES fund. “The thing is growing,” Whitten says. “While we didn’t intend to build a movement, we have built one.”

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