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story.lead_photo.caption Rachelle Zola, right, comforts her friend Mazell Sykes while Sykes discusses her childhood in Mississippi on Monday, June 14, 2021, outside Cosmopolitan United Church in Melrose Park. Zola began a 40-day all-liquid hunger strike to support H.R. 40, a House bill that would set up a commission to study reparations. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — After 40 days without solid food, Rachelle Zola ended her hunger strike for slavery reparations with a few small bites of yogurt last Saturday.

Zola, 73, of Chicago, said she lost 23 pounds and felt weak during her last two days of drinking only water, Pedialyte and bone broth.

But she pronounced the experience an unqualified success, citing dozens of productive conversations with ordinary people, as well as TV, radio and print newspaper coverage of her fast for H.R. 40, a U.S. House bill that would establish a federal commission to hold hearings on slavery and discrimination and recommend remedies.

“My voice is only getting stronger,” Zola said.

Zola, who is white, came to Chicago from Tucson in 2019 to meet Black and brown people and hear their stories, and embarked on the fast as a result of multiple conversations, meetings and workshops.

She hoped to attract the attention of other white people, and spur the adoption of H.R. 40, a version of a reparations bill that was first introduced in Congress more than 30 years ago.

She said the best part of her hunger strike was talking to strangers on the street. She set up a table outside Cosmopolitan United Church in Melrose Park, and sat there for hours a day. With hand-lettered signs, she waved to people who honked and chatted with anyone who pulled into the church parking lot to hear more.

She said she talked to about 60 people.

“Most of them were like, ‘OK, I can contact my representative,’” she said. “I really didn’t get much pushback.”

Some white people did want to talk about what they thought was going wrong in Black communities, she said.

But when she listened and followed up with, “Are you willing to have a conversation (about reparations)?” The answer was yes.

One day, a man who was lost asked for help finding his way back to a halfway house. She gave him water and granola bars, spent more than an hour talking with him, and he was able to find out where he was supposed to be. There was also a teen interested in social justice who stopped by at his mom’s suggestion.

Citing Monday’s U.N. report calling for reparations for anti-Black discrimination worldwide, Zola said her hunger strike was well-timed. Her next step will be to reach out to leaders of local churches and other houses of worship to try to build support for reparations.

She hopes to eventually get invitations to speak at fundamentalist churches in the South.

Zola said she’s tired after her hunger strike, but all her vital signs are good and she’s starting to exercise again.

As for H.R. 40, which has yet to reach the House floor, she said she believes the chances for passage by the end of 2022 are good.

“Am I optimistic? Yeah, I have to come from that place. I do have to trust that,” she said.

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