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Georgetown students approved a fee for slavery reparations. What happens next?

Georgetown students vote for reparations

When it was announced that Georgetown University students voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a fee to benefit descendants of slaves, senior Kendell Long and others who attended a party to watch results roll in "were screaming for at least five minutes consecutively, just hugging each other."

"Because it really did take a lot of work and it was a very long process to get to this point," said Long, a member of the Students for GU272 advocacy group, which led the campaign for Thursday's referendum.

Nearly 58 percent of the student body took part in the vote. And sixty-six percent of voters backed the $27.20 per student per semester fee to benefit descendants of 272 slaves sold by the school in the 19th century.

But it is unclear if the university will implement the fee following the referendum and months of student advocacy. The measure still needs the school's approval.

"Now the ball is in the university's court," Long said. "What commitments are they willing to make seeing this grand commitment students are willing to make?"

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Kendell Long (far right) alongside other Georgetown students during a final rally Thursday for the GU272 referendum. Courtesy: Allysa Lisbon

The referendum was conceived in the fall 2018 semester by students who thought the university had not made enough tangible efforts to reconcile its past dealings in American slavery. Long joined the advocacy campaign in January, just a month before he presented the referendum to the student senate.

He had four meetings with student senators where he spent hours negotiating the language of the referendum before it was approved for the next campaign ballot. He also worked with the advocacy team to maintain a table where students could come and learn about the GU272 throughout the semester. The team also held formal informationals -- conducted both a social media and door knocking campaign -- as well as held rallies and gave classroom presentations on the referendum.

"From the formation of the advocacy team to the many battles and late nights, sleepless nights and things we had to sacrifice in order to do the work to get the referendum passed. It was a long culminating effort," Long said.

Georgetown University president, John DeGioia, released a statement Friday evening on the vote result and the university's broader "Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation" initiative, which he said began in 2015.

He said, "This moment raises complex issues that we are prepared to grapple with and embrace. Our students are bringing attention to deeply held convictions that we take very seriously."

He also said that "with this strong indication from our students, I will engage key leaders in our Georgetown, Descendant, and Jesuit communities and our faculty, board, and student leadership to chart a path forward."

Students from the advocacy group behind Thursday's vote, however, said the university's response is an example of the institution's ongoing "hollow promises."

"So I think the atmosphere on campus is 'what next,'" said Nitya Biyani, a junior at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Biyani believes a reconciliation fund should be created, although she ultimately voted "no" in the referendum.

"My issue with this is that I felt like the university was sort of tossing the buck on to students," she said." I don't believe that students are the ones that need to be paying."

Biyani said Georgetown, which has a $1.5 billion endowment and raises tuition costs just about every year, should pay the reparations. She believes it's "obvious the university has the capacity to do something about this," but that it is unwilling to.

"And with issues like this, it's like, where do you draw the line? What else is the university going to pass on to the students and make it the students' responsibility?" she said.

Biyani and students from the advocacy group said Georgetown should not only institute a per semester student fee, but also match or go above what students are contributing.

Long emphasized that the referendum is in no way meant to absolve responsibility from the university.

"I don't see it as the university relying on student action, but it's students driving the culture of Georgetown," he said.

Long explained that the referendum is to address the fact that Georgetown students acquire opportunities and privileges from both attending the school and receiving a degree from the school. He argues that if it weren't for the 272 people the university sold as slaves, the students would not have those opportunities, and that's why students should be a part of the tangible reconciliation.

Karla Leyja, a senior who is also a part of the Students for GU272 advocacy group, says the university can start by educating its students about its past with slavery.

"That's something concrete we want the university to invest in," she said.

Other students who were not involved in the advocacy group, like senior Nora Ryan, said the fact that students took matters into their own hands made the campaign for reparations all the more powerful.

"We would be the first major institution in the United States to take major action, and for it to have come from the student body is really empowering," Ryan said. "I think that a vote 'yes' is a vote in support of their mission … It also acknowledges the hard work of the working groups that have put forth time and effort to make this referendum possible."

Ryan interned with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker while he was formulating his own reparations bill that was introduced in the Senate this week, sparking national debate. The topic has also made its way into the campaigns of other 2020 presidential hopefuls.

The GU272 advocacy group has hoped to contribute to the national conversation by galvanizing other universities to reconcile their historic ties to American slavery. And it appears the Georgetown students might be successful in starting that chain reaction. A student group at another major university has reached out to the Students for GU272 advocacy group for help in starting a similar campaign on their campus.

Leyja said she hopes the discussion on reparations never abates.

"This was never supposed to be an end or solution itself, it was just supposed to provide a structure from which to explore ideas surrounding reconciliation," she said about the referendum. "I think it is going to be ongoing work and has been ongoing work."