Video story: Dropping in on a Fairer America

By now, Jan Roberts had expected to complete a 13,000-mile road trip for her social justice project, “Dropping In On A Fairer America.” 

Since late 2019, the Tampa activist had been lining up personal interviews with people across the country engaged in groundbreaking work to raise awareness about historic injustices against Black and Native Americans. 

Then COVID-19 hit and threatened to derail the project. 

Roberts might be a champion for social change, but at age 83, she wasn’t in a position to leave her home in Tampa and risk exposure to the virus. And she didn’t want to put anyone else at risk, either. 

She had already secured some amazing champions of social change -- people with thought-provoking and sometimes controversial solutions for creating a more just society. 

Her list included civil rights lawyer Steve Hanlon, a professor at the Saint Louis University (SLU) School of Law and former partner at the Holland & Knight Law Firm. During his tenure at Holland & Knight, Hanlon spearheaded the $2.1 million award from the Florida Legislature for survivors and descendants of Rosewood, an African-American community in Florida destroyed by a white mob in 1923.

Roberts also had a yes from Pennsylvania Rep. Chris Rabb, as well as Evanston, IL, City Councilman Robin Rue Simmons, both of whom have been working for state-level reparations for Black Americans.

To tell the Native American story, Roberts had lined up a half-dozen people, including Stephanie Gutierrez of the Lakota Founder of Hope Nation; Jana Walker of the Indian Law Resource Center; and Rjay Brunkow of the Indian Land Capital Company.

Roberts wasn’t sure what to do. “I was adrift for a while, but then thought that Zoom might work,” says Roberts.  

She mastered the technology that now seems to be keeping everyone connected, and began placing calls to interview subjects across the country. And as she was lining up interviews, the news exploded with Black Lives Matters’ protests and reports that COVID-19 was putting Black and other minority communities at greater risk due to long-standing health and social inequities.

“Everything suddenly seemed so timely,” says Roberts.

“Dropping In On A Fairer America” is one of several video projects Roberts has undertaken under the auspices of the Cultural Innovations Agency, a nonprofit organization she founded to address economic, social, and environmental issues.  

Her earlier projects have focused more on people who are working toward transforming the economy. (Read the previous 83 Degrees Media stories of Roberts’ earlier projects.)

This project highlights the work being done to transform Black and Native American communities.  

“The people I’m talking with have been immersed in this work for a long time, but this moment in history feels different to them,” says Roberts. “They have hope that there will be significant change coming. I think there is real momentum happening and a consciousness-raising that is wonderful to see.”

A work in progress

So far, Roberts has collected more than 10 hours of interviews, which she hopes to distill down and then curate into a documentary available to the public. Here are a few highlights from some of her interviews.

1. William Darity, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and co-author with Kirsten Mullen of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in 21st Century: 

“Slave-grown cotton gave rise to the U.S. as an economic power. The cotton sector was critical to the development of textile production, which in turn was critical to the rise of New York City,” says Darity.  

“After the Civil War, U.S. government’s failure to follow through on the promise of 40-acre land grants and the failure to grant full suffrage for Black men changed the course of this country. The capacity of Black men to fully participate in the political process was destroyed by a systematic white terror campaign. It could be argued that the Civil War continued under the guise of lynchings and what we now call the Black codes, an attempt to restore the conditions people lived in under slavery.  

“The Jim Crow laws were an established regime of legal apartheid.  In the 20th century, the GI bill facilitated college attendance and home purchases. There was a pattern of systematic exclusion of Black Americans from these benefits. Only two Black veterans in Mississippi got benefits from the GI bill.”

2. Kirsten Mullen, a folklorist, lecturer, and consultant on the concept team for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and co-author with William Darity:

“The Lost Cause is the term that the Confederates developed to romanticize, soften, and redirect our focus away from the Civil War having been fought by Southern states who seceded so they could retain the right to own Black people,” says Mullen. 

“There was an organized dis-memory project aimed at distorting the nation’s history to focus instead on the Southern culture, heritage and states’ rights. The largest sustained effort for the dis-memory project was from 1900 to 1920, especially during the 50-year anniversary of the war, when there was a concerted effort to organize parades, erect statues, and name streets in support of the Confederacy. There was even a group advocating for a Confederate holiday and a curriculum funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy for school textbooks.”

3. Steve Hanlon, professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, who is fighting for systematic change of the criminal justice system in the area of public defense. 

“There has to be a massive study involving the economics and history of slavery, which continued for two centuries and then evolved into the Jim Crow laws and more recently, the new Jim Crow era of mass incarceration,” says Hanlon.

“It’s common knowledge that public defenders have far too many cases. We give them (indigent people) the illusion of having a lawyer and the illusion of justice. Forty percent of our prison population could be released tomorrow morning without any public safety consequences whatsoever. If you would take that 40 percent and give them what they need, which are appropriate social services, you would save $200 billion dollars over the course of 10 years.”

What's new and what's next?

More recent Zoom interviews on Roberts’ list included Tampa resident Bre Perez, a descendant of the Poarch Creek Native American Tribe of Alabama; and Robin Rue Simmons, an Evanston, IL, councilwoman, who led the first successful effort in the country for reparations for Black citizens. The reparations will be paid for with tax revenue generated by the legalized sale of recreational cannabis and will go toward housing assistance, educational employment, and health care initiatives.

To continue her work and eventual return to the road after a vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed, Roberts has applied for a grant from Chicken & Egg Pictures, which supports female nonfiction filmmakers involved in storytelling for social change. She is hoping for funding to be available in 2021.

For more information, visit Roberts’ Cultural Innovations in Action. To watch her full interviews, go to CIA video interviews or visit Cultural Innovations in Action on YouTube

Here is a link to William Darrity's TEDx Talk on spanning the racial wealth gap.

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.