State Representative Bud L. Williams (D-Hampden) is calling on the state to invest $1 billion of federal funds in Black and Brown communities.

This came Wednesday at a virtual roundtable discussion, as state lawmakers are currently working to determine how to distribute some $5.3 billion in federal COVID-19 recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

“The governor has a plan to spend ‘X’ number of dollars. The House and Senate are going to have their plan. But we need, as a Black community…we have to get together, we have to have a plan and we have submit it,” said Rep. Williams, who chairs the Joint Committee on Racial Equity, Civil Rights, and Inclusion.

The federal relief dollars, he said, provide a historic opportunity for communities of color, who have disproportionately born the brunt of the COVID crisis.

“The time to act is now," said Williams. “I don't believe in our lifetime you'll ever see this kind of money coming from the federal government.”

The roundtable included community and business leaders, as well as public officials, like Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy, who laid out the Baker administration’s priorities for distributing the funds.

“The spirit of the ARPA proposal is to look at where there are urgent needs and look at where we have proven programs and put a lot more capital behind those,” he said.

Participants identified transportation, education and access to affordable broadband as areas in need of greater investment, as well as direct aid to Black-owned businesses, student loan forgiveness and access to jobs.

But much of the discussion centered on a critical need for more affordable housing throughout the state.

Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson said, while creating more affordable housing is important, it is just as critical to ensure that people of color are included in the planning and execution of any housing plans put in place.

“We make the plans with the same people all the time,” said Wilkerson. “If we spent $200 million on affordable housing and we had the housing built by all of the housing developers, it’s not going to change the economic status of one Black person.”

“We gotta get to work, because we’ll never have this opportunity again,” she added. “And I actually do think this is real. I think there is some real receptivity to thinking out of the box.”

President of the Greater Springfield NAACP president Bishop Talbert W. Swan II said that, for any investment to bear fruit, the underlying issues that have historically impeded wealth creation for Black and Brown people must also be addressed.

“If we just spend a bunch of money, but we don’t institute policies that are going to change what has created this situation, when that money dries up, then we're right back in the same situation,” he said.

The legislature is now holding public hearings as they debate how to allocate the federal relief money. A spending bill is expected some time in the fall.