Kevin Brown, the city’s former community services manager whose termination on Nov. 15, 2019, sparked a community protest, filed a complaint in federal court on Sept. 13 against the City of Evanston alleging that he was terminated on the basis of race and in retaliation for having months before called out a white supervisor for racial discrimination.
In the complaint, Brown, whose Youth and Young Adult program received praise for its work with at-risk youth and families, offered a narrative for his termination that was different from the one circulated at the time.
In documents made available at the time, city officials maintained that Brown was fired for failing “to get his outreach workers to stop using parking spots a the city’s short-term parking lot at the Civic Center and for using his city credit card to pay parking tickets issued to the outreach workers.”
The City of Evanston provided the following statement: “In January 2021, the Illinois Department of Human Rights dismissed charges filed by Mr. Brown against the City, finding no substantial evidence of discrimination. As a policy, the City does not comment on pending litigation, and will not be commenting on the lawsuit filed by Mr. Brown this week.”
In the lawsuit, Brown traces his falling-out with the city to an interaction with Melissa Parker, a city employee who is white. Parker could not be reached for comment through a call to city offices on Thursday, Sept. 15. Another employee reported that Parker had recently left the city and said she would take the reporter’s information and see if Parker could be contacted.
The lawsuit lays out the narrative like this:
- In March 2019, Brown attended a city meeting with Parker, and during that meeting, Brown raised the issue of Parker’s “white privilege” with her in response to a change she had made in a city policy.
- Brown said he believed the policy change had a disproportionately negative impact on the young people of color involved in his program.
- As a result of Brown’s comment to Parker, she filed a Healthy Work Environment claim against Brown, and Brown also filed a complaint against her.
- The investigations were conducted by Jennifer Lin, the human resources division manager at the time, but Brown claims he was punished more harshly than Parker.
- On March 22, 2019, and March 23, 2019, Brown sent emails to several senior city employees, including Lin, raising issues of structural racism in the application of Evanston’s “healthy work environment” policies. It points to a connection between those emails and the more recent report investigating sexual abuse in the Evanston lifeguard program which harshly criticizes both Lin and the “healthy work environment” policy.
- Lin had previously clashed with Brown over legislation proposed by former Evanston City Council member Cicely Fleming, Fleming wanted to change the policy regarding hiring people who had past criminal records, a change that was intended to allow Evanston to hire more people of color, which Lin opposed.
- When Lin left the city, she reached a settlement agreement after the outside investigation into her role on the complaints of sexual abuse in the Evanston lifeguard program. Contacted Thursday via email, Lin said she did not know anything about Brown’s lawsuit and had nothing to add.
- Brown saw Lin, Parker and Karen Hawk, his direct supervisor, socializing together.
- In October, 2019, the city said it was suspending Brown for violating the city’s policy by using a city credit card to pay for the parking tickets incurred by outreach workers for parking in the city’s lot. Evanston created a policy that city workers were not allowed to park in the two-hour parking spots and would be ticketed if they did so.
There suit goes into great detail about the parking and what was considered normal by Brown, what was alleged and how the payments were permitted. It alleges city supervisors signed off on parking ticket payments, specifically Brown’s supervisors, Hawk and Lawrence Hemingway, the city’s director of Parks and Recreation and Community Services at the time, and specifically instructed him to pay for these parking tickets using his city credit card to be reimbursed by the city.
Hawk resigned from Evanston in October 2021 in the midst of an investigation into her department’s handling of sexual harassment complaints by female lifeguards, the complaint alleges. Now director of Parks and Recreation for the village of Lincolnwood, Hawk did not respond to a phone message Sept. 15 seeking comment.
The complaint alleges that on Nov. 15, 2019, Brown was told by then-interim City Manager Erika Storlie that his employment with the city was terminated. This followed pre-disciplinary hearing where it was charged that Brown ignored instructions from superiors, the complaint alleges.
Following the decision, community members packed three City Council meetings, urging then-Mayor Stephen Hagerty and the council to overturn Brown’s termination.
At one of the meetings, former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl spoke of the work of Brown’s group, defusing violence. “Kevin has done a remarkable job,” Tisdahl was quoted as saying at the time. “One of the things that I did as mayor, I believe, was to encourage Kevin and to support him, and I’m here ask you to do the same.”
An editorial published in the Nov. 17, 2019, RoundTable observed that “the outreach team members work with youth who have suffered trauma from such things as poverty, lack of care for physical and mental problems, stress and homelessness. The team members become mentors and, at times, mediators and violence-interrupters in order to keep the community safe and entice the youth from life on the street.”
Council members, however, took no action to overturn officials’ decision. Hagerty said he could not disclose any details of Brown’s termination, maintaining it was a personnel matter governed by personnel policies and applicable laws.
‘Hung out to dry’
The lawsuit seeks damages for racial discrimination and retaliation in multiple counts, including compensation for lost wages and other compensation, such as retirement benefits.
Brown, currently senior director for external affairs at the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to reduce recidivism in Illinois, maintained in a phone interview that officials used the parking tickets as an excuse for his termination, “but really they were unhappy with me talking about racial discrimination in the workplace.”
He said the parking tickets went through at least three layers of approval – Hawk, Hemingway, as well as the then-City Council, which ultimately approves city bills.
“If anyone in that group was concerned about the transactions, they could have called for an investigation into the approval process,” he said.
“Instead of owning up to it and saying, ‘Hey, he’s not being treated fairly,’ everyone sort of went along with it,” Brown said, “and sort of hung me out to dry.”
Brown also said he reached out to new City Manager Luke Stowe following Stowe’s recent appointment. “I told him he had gotten the right to sue letter and I mentioned I was willing to come back to the city,” he disclosed. “But he didn’t give me any indication he wanted me back.”
The statement from the city said that the conversation was a part of Stowe’s efforts to get in touch with community leaders. “During his first month as city manager, City Manager Stowe proactively reached out to many members of the Evanston community, including Mr. Brown, to discuss a wide variety of issues and challenges facing the City,” the statement said. “The purpose of these meetings was to listen, support collaboration, and build positive relationships.”