Like many Evanstonians this week, I was alarmed at the reports of sexual harassment and assault that were reported by female lifeguards, many of whom are or were minors at the time, at our lakefront. What is going on? Thankfully our City Council has seemed ready to take up the task of accountability, and I wholeheartedly support them in that endeavor. However, like many, I find it troubling that an issue of this magnitude was not communicated to them. Secrecy is no way to ensure accountability.
As a pastor, I’ve dedicated my life to serving institutions that have struggled to hold leaders to account not only for their individual actions, but for allowing cultures of sexual assault and harassment to take root in their organizations. As a part of my work, I have sought out training on some best practices that might be helpful in this situation and that I would urge the City to embrace. I’m no expert, but here are some ideas worth considering:
· The process should be trauma-informed, honoring survivors’ wishes and wellbeing should be the first priority for the accountability process. That includes honoring wishes to be anonymous, but ought to include therapy and resources that are paid for by the City and made accessible to all those affected. Those resources need to be in place from the start of the process.
· The City has committed to hiring an outside firm. In interviewing those firms, the City should make certain that they implement a trauma-informed process that places survivors’ needs first.
· It is important to hold perpetrators to account, but those supervisors who knew of or witnessed such harassment must be held to account as well. This should not end with mandatory training on creating an inclusive work environment, but should extend to a comprehensive review of supervisors, including whether or not they are fit to be in roles that are responsible for protecting young women at the lakefront.
· There needs to be transparency about the process for the entire community, but it is especially important to communicate effectively to those who have been or may have been affected by this behavior.
· There needs to be a clear way to report sexual harassment and sexual assault, including anonymously. Victims need to be assured that they will not face repercussions for their reporting and that their employment and dignity will be protected. This information should be available in staff communications, but should also be posted in bathrooms that staff use, as well as other areas.
· The lifeguard training process should be entirely overhauled. With reports about the “hot seat” and imitations of military-style training, I am deeply concerned about the culture at the lakefront.
Following these guidelines is a good start, but getting experts who understand trauma and can help reform a broken system on board is essential. The next steps that the City takes are important, and I like many Evanstonians will be watching the process unfold and pushing for accountability, transparency and a survivors-first approach. I’ll be praying for justice to be done, and that the victims feel heard. To those who spoke up: your community stands behind you for your courage!
Michael Woolf is the Senior Minister of Lake Street Church of Evanston