Mayor Daniel Biss swears in new Council Member Krissie Harris (2nd Ward) on Sept. 12. Credit: Alex Harrison

Evanston’s newest City Council member prefers to introduce herself casually.

“My government name is Kristian Harris,” she said. “But I go by Krissie.”

On Sept. 9, Harris was appointed by Mayor Daniel Biss to fill the Second Ward seat, and she was confirmed unanimously by her new colleagues on Sept. 12. She fills the vacancy left by former Council Member Peter Braithwaite, who retired July 15.

At the end of her first week, the RoundTable interviewed Harris about her life and path to public service – in her career, in community organizations and now on City Council. She said it all comes back to family, both biological and found.

‘You got to bring people with you’

Krissie Harris was born in Evanston in 1969 and grew up in the Fifth Ward on Lyons Avenue. She said “the community was very tight-knit” growing up, and that attending the original King Laboratory School enabled her to meet other kids “from all the different wards.”

Harris’ citywide community was bolstered by her mother, Denise Martin, who served as principal of Evanston Township High School and assistant superintendent of District 202. She said her mom acted as a mother to all ETHS students, and taught her from a young age to work for her community’s success as much as her own.

“My mom has always instilled in us that you have to give back, that it isn’t about you just moving forward,” Harris said. “You got to bring people with you to be successful, whatever that success is.”

Council Member Krissie Harris (2nd Ward) poses with Mayor Daniel Biss and her family members after her appointment to City Council was confirmed. Credit: Alex Harrison

Now working for Evanston students herself as a council member, Harris thinks a primary focus should be on “incorporating the youth” into their neighborhoods and the city as a whole. She said since parents and schools often focus solely on education, students can become disengaged from the larger community.

As an example, she suggested partnering ETHS with the city’s Snow Shoveling Program and have upperclass students shovel sidewalks and driveways for seniors and disabled residents for service hours. She said this could foster an adoptive family mindset for both students and the people they help.

“You’re creating a bond, where now you have the pseudo-grandchild-grandparent relationship,” Harris said. “And I’m going to make sure nobody else takes advantage or hurts my adoptive grandchild or my adoptive grandparents.”

‘What else would I be doing?

Harris left Evanston to attend Illinois State University in 1987, where she studied construction management. She said by the time she finished undergrad, she’d realized her real calling was in continuing her mother’s work beyond high school.

“I finished the degree but I was like, ‘OK, not really,’ and stayed and got a master’s in higher education administration,” Harris said. “I felt like, ‘OK, my mom will get them this far, and I’ll carry them over this finish line.’”

After working for a few years in Wisconsin postgraduation, Harris returned to Evanston in 1998 after her stepfather, Joe ”Butch” Martin, suffered a heart attack. She moved into a family-owned two-flat with her kids, right across the street from her grandmother’s house.

Harris has worked at Oakton Community College since returning, and today serves as the college’s manager of student life and campus inclusion.

Council member Krissie Harris (2nd Ward) speaks to City Council and the public from the dais for the first time at the Sept 12 meeting. Credit: Alex Harrison

“I am the co-curricular side of the educational process, so that’s student government, that’s clubs and organizations, that’s diversity training, equity training, inclusion, helping students navigate who they are, what they want to be, how they want to be it,” Harris said. “It goes hand in hand with the curricular side. You can’t just do one or a person is really off balance, in my opinion.”

Outside of her career, Harris spends much of her time serving local organizations: she is a trustee of the Second Baptist Church, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and a former board member of YWCA Evanston/North Shore, the Dajae Coleman Foundation and the Family Focus Auxiliary Board.

When asked how she balances these commitments, she responds, “What else would I be doing?” She said working with local organizations and causes is a way she can bring her success back to her community, as she was taught.

“My mom probably could have used those services as a teenage mom, but we had enough family support,” Harris said. “But those are Black and brown families that need support, that need programming, that need help. That’s what I do.”

‘We do something about things

Harris said shortly after Braithwaite announced his resignation from the City Council, her daughter was the victim of an attempted carjacking in Chicago and suffered a gunshot wound that shattered her left femur. As she and her family went through this traumatic period, Harris said she felt compelled to spring into action and do something.

She said she soon found a serendipitous sign of what that something would be from her late stepfather.

“I looked at Peter’s opening, I looked at the mayor putting out the application, and it sounds kind of out there, but the day of the appointment was my stepfather’s birthday,” Harris said. “I look for signs for things, I really do. And I was like, what more sign could I get than my dad saying, ‘There’s a correlation here, Krissie, and this is what we do. We do something about things.’”

Harris said during the application window, Braithwaite made himself available to any and all applicants who wanted to talk with him. She said she’s taking his advice, as well as the example of his tenure on the council, to heart.

“He was very forthright with me that if people ask, it’s my duty to help them understand,” Harris said. “So following his, I won’t say footsteps, but paying attention to what was important, because I do believe he tried to serve the community’s needs and wants.”

What are those needs? Harris named safety and affordability as the ward’s biggest issues, adding that these extend to the entire country as well.

She also wants to work on a way to prioritize requests for help based on urgency, and communicate this to residents.

“One of the things I want to figure out is, how do I let everybody see what those competing priorities are?” Harris said. “There are some limitations to it, but to be as transparent as we can be is important.”

Harris will serve on the City Council until a special election in spring 2023, in which she and other Second Ward residents will be able to run for the final two years of Braithwaite’s term.

Alex Harrison reports on local government, public safety, developments, town-gown relations and more for the RoundTable. He graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in June...