Equity & Diversity

Meet the High School Student Helping Her City Study Reparations for Black Residents

By Mark Lieberman — June 14, 2023 7 min read
Madison Lyman, 17, stands for a portrait on June 1, 2023, in the 18th and Vine District in Kansas City, Mo.
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In Kansas City, Mo., earlier this month, a 13-person commission to study reparations for Black Americans started its work. Commission members include nonprofit executives, academics, a doctor, a lawyer—and a rising high school senior.

Madison Lyman, 17, attends Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, a 1,000-student public school that opened in 1865, originally for Black students only. Serving on the commission is an honor and a privilege, she said, but she wasn’t sure at first that she should do it.

“Sometimes in this work, you have to work with the system, within certain constraints, which I personally don’t like, and I don’t think is always successful,” Madison said. “I’m kind of getting over that hesitancy, but it’s still a thing that’s there.”

Some adults might be surprised to hear such principled skepticism from the commission’s youngest member. But those who know Madison believe she makes an undeniable case that her generation should be at the center of the conversation around reparations.

K-12 education has been a central focus of reparations work in the state of California and cities including Providence, R.I.. School districts in Berkeley, Calif., and Loudoun County, Va., have also undertaken efforts of their own to study the harms they’ve perpetuated on Black residents.

It’s less common for K-12 students themselves to play a direct role in these discussions.

The city of Boston appointed two high schoolers to its recently formed reparations commission. But commissions in Asheville, N.C.; Evanston, Ill.; and St. Paul, Minn., haven’t included a youth voice.

The advertisement for applicants to a reparations commission in St. Louis did include a request for a member between the ages of 15 and 18. But the members announced in March by Mayor Tishaura O. Jones didn’t appear to include a K-12 student. A spokesperson for the city didn’t answer questions in time for publication.

Madison first heard about her city’s commission from Ryan Sorrell, editor-in-chief of the Kansas City Defender, a nonprofit news outlet run by and written for the city’s Black residents. City leaders asked Sorrell to be a member, and he agreed, but also insisted that a teenager take part as well.

“The people who are going to be most impacted by something like reparations once it comes to fruition are going to be the people who are in high school right now or even younger,” Sorrell said. “They should be able to help share their future.”

Sorrell recommended Madison apply.

When she earned a spot on the commission, Madison’s achievement bowled over her father, Marvin Lyman, an activist and founder of a nonprofit that provides funding for the city’s Black-owned businesses. He had also been considered for a seat on the panel.

“When I saw the list, and I saw my daughter’s name, I was actually overwhelmed with joy,” Marvin said. “I knew our community would be well represented.”

See Also

Pedestrians walk past a sign in Evanston, Ill., on April 30, 2021. The Chicago suburb is preparing to pay reparations in the form of housing grants to Black residents who experienced housing discrimination. The city is being hailed as the first to do so, and is being held up as a model in its approach for other cities looking to do the same.
Pedestrians walk past a sign in Evanston, Ill., on April 30, 2021. The Chicago suburb is preparing to pay reparations in the form of housing grants to Black residents who experienced housing discrimination. The city is being hailed as the first to do so, and is being held up as a model in its approach for other cities looking to do the same.
Shafkat Anowar/AP

Black residents of Kansas City have long felt the effects of generational racism

Kansas City’s current reparations study was born out of the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out there and nationwide in 2020 in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But the urgency of reparations has been an unavoidable topic of discussion in the Lyman household since long before Madison was born.

Marvin’s great-grandmother was enslaved. Her granddaughter, Marvin’s mother, was a Mississippi sharecropper who picked cotton. She was born in 1955, the year Emmett Till was lynched just 15 miles from her hometown.

“There was no land to pass on from my great-grandparents or my grandparents,” Marvin said. “Everything that they were able to achieve was literally by hard work, sweat of their brow, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, literally, with no help from the government or anybody else.”

The legacies of institutional racism remain on stark display in Kansas City. In 2021, the Kansas City Urban League issued a report detailing substantial gaps along racial lines. Median household net worth for Black residents was $24,100, compared with $188,200 for white residents. More than three-quarters of white residents owned homes, while only 43 percent of Black residents could say the same. Average life expectancy for Black residents was four years less than for white residents.

The people who are going to be most impacted by something like reparations once it comes to fruition are going to be the people who are in high school right now or even younger.

Marvin has striven for Madison and her younger sister to grasp the connections between their current circumstances and those of their ancestors: the horrors they endured, and the opportunities they never had. He passed along texts like Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro and Claude Anderson’s PowerNomics.

“He would always talk to me and my sibling about those things, just making sure we understand how the world works, especially as Black women growing up in society,” Madison said. She’s incorporated those lessons into her own activism, including her leadership of a walkout last year among Lincoln Prep students protesting administrators’ handling of incidents involving sexual assault and racism on campus.

Marvin is proud his daughter is picking up the baton from him. He recalls being one of 100 Black students advocating for fair treatment on a campus of 16,000 during his undergraduate studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. The advice he gives her is what he learned from that experience.

“It gets lonely. You will get criticized quite a bit,” Marvin said. “Know that you’re pleasing the ancestors and, more important, you’re pleasing God.”

Madison hopes to effect lasting change in her role

Madison didn’t learn much about reparations at school. Her history classes covered the federal government’s unfulfilled promise of “40 acres and a mule” to emancipated slaves, and the federal money offered in the 1980s to prisoners of Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.

But the finer points of reparations and racial justice come up often in Madison’s conversations with friends, as they debate, for instance, the merits of affirmative action, which some of her peers oppose on the grounds that it discriminates against white and Asian students. Affirmative action in college admissions is currently under the microscope as the majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on a case that could strike down the policy nationwide.

Madison Lyman, 17, stands for a portrait on June 1, 2023 in the 18th and Vine District in Kansas City, Mo.

“I always bring up the fact that affirmative action attempts to repair something that has been lost especially against Black and brown students,” Madison said. “There’s been obstacles along the way that have impeded them from being able to see higher education as a goal, especially at a prestigious college. In a way it’s a form of reparations, trying to repair what has been lost.”

Madison has grown increasingly passionate in her assertion that reparations are about more than just doling out cash payments. She wants the city to not just repair past harms, but prevent ongoing ones.

The school she attends, Lincoln Prep, accepts student applicants from across the city. She likes many things about it, particularly the rigorous coursework and racially diverse student body.

But ceilings leak, toilets malfunction, pipes burst. Arts activities often face budget cuts.

“This school is given more resources and more funding, but it’s still an upward fight of trying to get more,” she said. “If it’s hard for us, it’s even more for the neighborhood schools.”

The Kansas City school district has for decades served as a poster child for the failures of K-12 systems to successfully desegregate in the decades following the Brown v. Board decision. The city’s schools desegregated quickly after the momentous court decision, but many white residents left the city for its suburbs in the ensuing decades. Today, the 14,000-student district is 54 percent Black. More recently, charter schools have proliferated primarily in white-dominated neighborhoods rather than in poor, Black neighborhoods where better schools are needed.

From her perch on the commission, Madison plans to push for more funding for schools in poor communities; expanded community activities and safe public spaces where children can spend leisure time; and a revamped approach to criminal justice that includes allowing the city to regain control of its police force, which has been under state control since the Civil War.

So far, the commission has heard a presentation from the Kansas City Reparations Council, the community organization that prompted the commission; and formed subcommittees to tackle critical areas like criminal justice, housing, health, education, and economic development. Over the next 18 months, commission members will conduct research and develop recommendations they’ll eventually present before the City Council.

In Madison’s ideal world, she wouldn’t be the only high schooler offering her perspective on the city’s reparations efforts.

“More students should have a bigger voice and a bigger say in these kinds of things,” she said. “I know what I see as reparations, what I really want for my people specifically, won’t necessarily be achieved in this avenue, but this avenue is a start.”

See Also

Photo of dictionary definition for reparation.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
Equity & Diversity Reparations for Black Americans: How K-12 Schools Fit In
Mark Lieberman, April 13, 2023
5 min read

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