After months of discourse, Madison’s Equal Opportunities Commission is looking for people to serve on a truth and reconciliation commission for the city. The group will have autonomy in creating educational opportunities, forums and discussion to bring to light Madison’s history of racial discrimination.
“More people from different backgrounds are taking deeper dives on issues of equity and race,” District 6 Alder Brian Benford said. “We want to help facilitate that.”
Benford introduced the idea for a truth and reconciliation commission in April. When he was first elected in 2003, he was the fifth Black person who had ever served on the Madison Common Council. The council has since diversified, but Benford said it’s a long overdue change.
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During his last term in office, he wanted to use his position on the council to begin a healing process in Madison. The city has been repeatedly ranked as one of the best places to live, but Black people have been historically excluded from this experience.
“We live in a ‘Tale of Two Cities,’” Benford said. “For Black people living in the city of Madison, it’s the most dismal place.”
Much of this reality can be attributed to historic conditions of oppression that have led to present-day injustice. According to Benford, Black people have been living in the city of Madison since its founding in 1856. From the beginning, they have faced marginalization.
Many of these early Black Madisonians were college-educated, but were denied access to the professional world, instead being relegated to work menial jobs, Benford said. Redlining has led to stark instances of housing discrimination. Benford also cited overrepresentation of Black men in the criminal justice system and a racial wage gap as examples of racism in Madison.
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The idea for a truth and reconciliation commission came from these instances of discrimination, as well as inspiration from previous efforts. One of the more famous examples occurred in South Africa to address the oppression that occurred under the Apartheid regime.
Minnesota, Maine and South Carolina. Such truth and reconciliation efforts seek to bring awareness to the systems of oppression that inform modern-day experiences.
“We believe that by raising a level of awareness and educating people … that there are amazing, generous people of all backgrounds in the city of Madison that would look at that as a call to action,” Benford said. “They would take action if they truly understood.”
But even a process intended to promote empathy comes with its challenges. Benford said political resistance to the effort would be likely. People find it hard to believe that the “Best City to Live” may harbor deeply rooted systems of inequality. Skepticism or resentment may develop as a result.
Another challenge that comes with truth commissions is that they require collaboration from people of all backgrounds. Benford emphasized that Black people did not create racial oppression. Ultimately, he said, the burden of dismantling racist systems comes down to white people, who must be willing participants in the process.
“There’s that notion of — do you pay for the sins of your fathers?” Benford said. “And what we would suggest is ‘no, you don’t.’ But you should be aware of the privilege you get from it.”
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Despite the various challenges, a truth commission has the potential to enable real change in Madison’s history of racial oppression. Benford said a process without political involvement stands a real chance of making a difference. While the current Common Council is more diverse than it has ever been, Benford said this has yet to translate into sustainable policies to help Black people.
Madison’s truth commission will be led by the people, focusing on documenting and discussing the real, lived experiences of the Black community. Benford is optimistic this strategy will provide the foundation for people to demand justice through tangible policy initiatives, not only in Madison, but beyond.
“There’s many reasons why people find Madison endearing,” Benford said. “To be the model city that I believe most of us want, it has to be a city for everyone.”
Celia Hiorns (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.
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