By Niara Savage
The promise of 40 acres and a mule
An ambitious wealth-building initiative will provide 800 Black residents of Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota with $50,000 grants over the next eight years to support economic justice and financial well-being for descendants of enslaved Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The $50 million Open Road Fund, financed by the Bush Foundation headquartered in St. Paul, is intended to address race-based economic disparities and cultivate Black wealth. Indeed, the grants should not be labeled as “reparations” because the funds are simply not enough to repair the generational harms inflicted by the institution of slavery, said Danielle Mkali, senior director of community wealth-building at Nexus Community Partners. The nonprofit is stewarding the funds through community engagement and disbursement.
“It shares a lot of the spirit of what people think of when they think about reparations, and the reason why we are being so clear about distinguishing the Open Road Fund from reparations is that, as it’s designed now…it’s not nearly enough in terms of reparations for what is owed to Black descendants of enslaved African people,” Mkali said.
“What reparations should do and will do is impact every descendant of enslaved African people. It would be a profound and significant apology from our state governments, from our national governments. There would be a profound investment financially, educationally, with all kinds of different resources that attempt to acknowledge what descendants of enslaved African people have endured, and what our ancestors have endured,” Mkali added, noting that the fund will only reach about 100 people each year through 2031.
A 2022 study by WalletHub found that Minnesota has the third-largest racial wealth gap in the country behind Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. In 2018, White Minnesotans’ median household income was $73,027 while the median Black household income was less than half that figure at $36,849.
“We don’t want people to think, ‘Oh well, the Black folks in Minnesota, North and South Dakota are good now.’ We aren’t,” Mkali said.
Earlier this year, the St. Paul City Council took a step toward addressing racial disparities in the city when it established the Saint Paul Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission to serve as an advisory body to the city council and mayor on repairing damage caused by systemic racism in the city that led to racial disparities in generational wealth, homeownership, health care, education, employment and fairness within the criminal justice system among Black descendants of enslaved Africans.
Recipients of the $50,000 Open Road Fund grants can use the money for a variety of wealth-building projects, including buying a home, paying off debt, estate planning, investing in life insurance, covering tuition costs or starting a business. People can apply for the grants as individuals or as a part of a group on the Nexus Community Partners website (https://www.nexuscp.org/open-road-fund/).
Applicants’ goals must be aligned with one of five categories of wealth-building including housing and housing stability, education, financial well-being, health and healing and ownership and economic justice.
The application for the Open Road Fund opened on June 19 (Juneteenth) and will close on July 28. To be eligible, applicants must be aged 14 or older, a resident of Minnesota, South Dakota, or North Dakota, and a descendant of an African person enslaved during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There are no income caps or minimums. A separate $50 million trust aims to support Native and Indigenous people in the region.
In a two-part process, applicants will first complete initial registration that confirms eligibility for the grant and then discuss how they hope to use the money to achieve their wealth-building goals. A diverse panel composed of individuals who also meet the eligibility requirements for applicants will review applications.
After passing the initial application phase, 100 applicants will be selected at random to receive the awards. “If you’ve completed the application fully, and you’ve said what your wealth-building project will be, you will be put into the randomization tool,” Mkali said. “We’re not saying one wealth-building project has more merit than another wealth-building project.”
Single parents, people with disabilities, formerly incarcerated individuals, senior citizens, and members of the LGBT community are especially encouraged to apply. Recipients will be required to attend orientation and training workshops and complete an evaluation survey one year after receiving the funds. They’ll also have access to educational wealth-building webinars.
Nexus Community Partners hopes the Open Road Fund will encourage more funders to release dollars directly into the Black community.
“The stipulation from the beginning from the Bush Foundation was that the dollars needed to go directly into individual’s hands and not be granted to nonprofit organizations. The purpose of the fund would be to directly impact people’s individual wealth-building,” Mkali said.