City Council member Peter Braithwaite (2nd) announced last month he was leaving the job after 12 years in office and officially stepped down last week.
On his last day in office, Friday, July 15, Braithwaite sat down with the RoundTable for an informal exit interview. He sat through more than an hour of discussion with reporters Debbie-Marie Brown and Duncan Agnew and editor Susy Schultz. The RoundTable discovered he “detests” being called a politician and thinks he and his fellow city council members would better be described as public servants. Below is an edited transcript of the highlights of the discussion.
But first, a few highlights from his biography:
- Braithwaite grew up in the Second Ward as the youngest of five children and the son of Jamaican immigrants.
- He attended Dewey, Nichols and Evanston Township High School.
- He graduated from the University of Kansas with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology with a focus in African-American Studies and Human Development.
- He served as a Case Manager at Association House of Chicago, Project Coordinator for the Evanston, “I Have a Dream Project” and interim Director of Project SOAR at the McGaw YMCA.
- He is married with four children and one grandson.
- He joined the City Council in 2011.
And now, the conversation:
RoundTable question: What motivated you to get involved in the community, in general, but then take that next step and get on the city council?
Braithwaite answer: I think the motivation started after college. At Kansas, I was involved with our Black Student Union as well as our local government. And during that time, I had to work and the easiest place to find a job was working with kids. So I think that was the first opportunity – job and fulfillment coming together. After graduating school, my first job was in social services, working for a small agency contracted by [Illinois Department of Children and Family Services], Association House.
From there I came back to work in Evanston for a program that was my dream, an educational program sponsored by two churches in north Evanston, St. Matthew’s Episcopal and Northminster Presbyterian Church. I worked with a population of junior high students and tracked them all the way through high school, and the sponsors of the program provided last dollar scholarship money. So it was through working with youth I found fulfillment and it’s just the way it all started. And then from there, meanwhile, I have a family.
Q: How did you and your wife meet?
A: Through daycare. I think it was my sophomore or junior year, and her daughter was in my class. So that’s how we met. When I met my wife, we couldn’t afford to live in Evanston. We ended up renting in Glencoe. And then there was an opportunity to buy a home through an affordable housing program and we moved back [to Evanston.]
And then from there, eventually – long story short – I ended up buying my parents’ house. Then we bought a couple of rental units and ended up moving into the Second Ward. It was during that time I met Lionel Jean-Baptiste. And prior to that, the house that I grew up in, was very close to [former City Council member] Dennis Drummer’s shop.
It was just fate. So I’ve long had access to the two men who would become my mentors.
So if I was to fast forward, as I look at, you know, future candidates for my position since today is officially my last day, and the application starts for the new council member. I think the criteria should be someone who has a public record that can be examined. I think on the council, we have a nice blend of people who ran on an activist platform and others who had history in Evanston previous to the council. And I just want to be mindful that whoever replaces me has a collaborative spirit and understands how important it is to meet people halfway in order to move things forward.
Q: It takes like a lot of grit and patience with all of these city processes and, also at times vitriol from the community, which can sometimes be misplaced and the process in government is perhaps not as as quick as people would like. Yet you’ve been here for so long. Did you know what you were getting yourself into? And then once you realized what it was really like, what has kept you there so long?
A: First, I just want to correct everyone just in terms of the story. I personally despise the word politician for the simple fact that we don’t get paid to be politicians. No one in the city local government is funded by any power packed or large corporations. In the city of Evanston, as in most municipalities, this is part-time work. I personally use the term public servant. The only thing that separates us from the District 65 School Board, or from 202, is the fact that we receive health insurance and are paid a small stipend. But this is really a glamorized volunteer position – that’s my personal opinion.
In terms of understanding the process, first, while I was at the University of Kansas, as I mentioned, my work there helped me to understand legislation and how you lead. How, as a student, you have to lobby with the various members of the senate in order to move things along. So I think coming into it with that understanding helped.
And then the second piece of understanding is to realize: No one’s pushed into their opinion. If nothing else, what I understand about human behavior is if you want to get something from someone, it’s important to meet them halfway. I’ve tried to teach, particularly to the new council members, that no one gets bullied into a position. There are nine folks besides yourself that have a vote. And nothing good happens in town unless you’ve gotten five of them to agree. I figured that out early on.
I tend not to make noise for the sake of making noise or waste time on things early on and I inherited the same platform [as Drummer and Jean-Baptiste]. So I work on those.
Q: What were your top three priorities and how do you think you did?
A: I would say the top priorities: The first is always keeping our neighborhoods safe. You may recall I started in 2011 and at that time we had a lot of youth activity and violence. And I remember prior to joining city council, there was a shooting one block away from my house and the fear and concern about one shooting. So that’s number one.
The second is making sure that we take care of our most vulnerable families. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that I used to be a social worker in the city of Chicago.
And then the next is economic development. I started in this job during a recession, which was the largest recession since the Great Depression. In our ward, we had shopping centers, industrial and also part of downtown. A lot of businesses were closing and that became one of my priorities based on the number of vacancies. The basic understanding is that our businesses provide three things: they contribute to our commercial tax base, employ residents as well as generate sales tax.
And the last thing, of course, is affordable housing. A lot of families and people that I grew up with left, because they couldn’t afford to live here. Affordable housing is a big issue. We live in a very wealthy suburb, the property taxes in Evanston, even in a bad economy, don’t change much because overall, property values do not drop.
Then we’re in close proximity to the city of Chicago. I think if everything continues along the same trend, the Chicago real estate market is gonna look very close to New York, which is just ridiculous. The nice thing is we have a number of financial institutions that still make Chicago an OK place to build. And there’s still opportunities, which help. But it’s a very expensive economy that we live in.
I do think with our affordable housing ordinance that requires builders to provide affordable housing units – that helps. But there is just not enough resources to say we have everything right. We’re moving in the right direction. And in Evanston the vast majority of our homes are single family – part of it is about finding the space and the willingness to increase our housing density. Can we convince residents to accept that? People don’t want that massive apartment building next door in their neighborhood.
Q: You don’t talk like a politician. You have very measured, long answers, which I think we will have to edit here for readers. Is that why you don’t like the term?
A: The methodology I use in making decisions on the city council is trying to see both sides of an argument, and then being collaborative. My approach, whether it’s my personal or my professional life, is the understanding that it’s hard to push someone into doing what they don’t want to do. Because if everyone comes to council with a different background, experience, education, etc., then, their approach is different and we represent more people, right? So when I speak and represent and listen at the meetings, there’s a broad variety of responses. I tried to find the middle ground.
Q: And what has made you stay on the council so long?
A: It was the satisfaction of helping people. And if someone asked, like, what do I do, I’m like, 80% of the work is public facing. I’m like a concierge. We don’t do the work. The staff does the work. My understanding of government is we are there to make sure there are the resources and we assist and direct people (or staff) to them. It’s that simple. And I think other council members get really into the weeds. I often use the analogy to some of my peers is: Look, if you’re if you’re going to be on the school board, you’re not going into the classroom and telling a teacher how to teach a class. You’re just making sure that she or he has all the resources they need in order to be effective. It’s the exact same thing that we do in our roles. So my “why” is helping people. I get into that as part of my Christian outreach. It’s just the way I’m wired. I get personal satisfaction of knowing that I was able to pursue God and help someone move forward in any position and that’s something that’s very personal to me.
Q: Please, tell us why it’s time for you to leave?
A: When people ask me my why I’m leaving I just say, look, it’s real simple. I became a grandfather in December. I started a new job in February. My mother passed in May. So, pick any one of those in terms of giving you the chance to take a look at life. Thanks goes to my mother, because in watching her, it helped me to think downstream in terms of what I need to do for my kids.
And then she passed and she was the adhesive sort who held the whole family together. It forced me to look further. And so it’s hard to do this, you know, but I wanted more of my family. So, that’s the answer at end of the day.
[Braithwaite shows the RoundTable a picture of his new grandson.]
So, you get to see he’s so cute. Yeah, he brought a lot of joy into the house. It’s a balance of life and death.
Q: When you look back on the last 10 years, what would you say your proudest moments were?
A: Here are the things I am proud of:
Number one, having a strong relationship with my residents. Really, everyday those phone calls, garbage, streets and the things that matter to people are important to me. And so I feel good about that because it’s helping people to understand that the government works for you. Right? Within our local Black community, there’s always this sense that things are not working. And I want to make sure that everyone has equal access to resources.
The second thing is economic development. So service to building the community’s economic development, meeting folks in the industrial area, our shopping centers, and then think somewhere along the line we created another business group. That was big, because again, an empty lot [has the potential to] generate good taxes.
And then, there was a North Carolina study of the number of traffic stops and the various flags used when it came to who was arrested. And I remember hearing and read the report. And the numbers were just ridiculous. And I think I was just asking myself the question out of all those stops, how many turn into racial profiling. And at the same time, there was a kid named who was stopped by the Evanston Police Department for riding on the back of a bike. So all these things are happening and I’m just like, we need to look at how many of these stops turned into arrests and what’s after the arrest. You know, what was their outcome in court, because now this is impacting someone’s ability to earn a meaningful wage. So we started this community committee of alternatives to arrest. And that is something I’m proud of as well.
Plus, our spending for the city, any municipal spend up to 50K or above, was that going to Evanston businesses if it could and were we including minority-owned businesses?
And then the last thing is reparations. It’s now starting to really look like something. It’s being duplicated across the country. I feel I was a supporter of [former Council member] Robin [Rue Simmons] and I am proud to have been heading that committee.
So we’re the first municipality nationally to do it, right? So whatever the negative criticisms are, I take personal pride that as we meet with other municipalities, I know they’re watching us very closely. And I think we’re in the first stages of doing this and we have to get it right.
Q: One more quick question, what about the tone of the council? Has it collectively changed much over the past 10 years as people come and go? And if so, what have some of those changes been?
A: I can give a reflection on that question. There has been a huge turnover in the last election. So you’re got a bunch of new ideas. People working together, they’re not used to doing this and so yes, there was a huge change. But, you know, slowly, I see this group and this council starting to work better together. The learning curves are understanding what each other’s priorities are, working collaboratively to get to where you want.
And I like strategy, don’t wait until the last minute. If there’s something important to do, you got to be willing to listen to compromise to get what you want. I think that’s just like generally what I see happening now that people are slowly starting to listen. And it’s pretty clear. When someone bring ideas we haven’t had an opportunity to talk about, it just burns out really quick.
Q: Finally, what kind of tools does the city manager in Evanston specifically need to succeed and get our government back up and running at full capacity?
A: It isn’t the city manager’s responsibility at all it has to be in partnership with the council. But in terms of what we need is someone who has the credentials and experience of running a town of this size, with the special close proximity to a major city, a college town with water assets, snow removal. You know, you just want to make sure that that person has that type of background. I’m looking through the various searches, you know, I’m looking for someone who possibly has served in a college town. That’s an important relationship between the Northwestern University. And also all of our nonprofits which help us shoulder so much of our city services. We rely on our nonprofit agencies and if you don’t understand the relationship between the services that they provide and providing that support. So you got to have somebody who understands like all those moving pieces and the importance of those relationships. I think it’s almost the button down, get it done, person.
Q: OK, now truly the last question: Any final words of advice?
A: Remember, when you’re looking at new initiatives, it helps to have those discussions in public with the rest of us and the stakeholders involved, to make sure that these are informed initiatives where you’re bringing people along. Also, please value the time that it takes for our staff put the information together.