The city's Black employees are enduring racial discrimination by city supervisors and white coworkers, and the Human Resources Department has failed to thoroughly investigate the complaints, according to a report from Black city employees.
Editor’s note: Please find the full report embedded into the text at the end of this story.
The city’s Black employees are enduring racial discrimination by city supervisors and white coworkers, and the Human Resources Department has failed to thoroughly investigate the complaints, according to a report from Black city employees.
The City of Evanston Black Employee Action Group Tuesday night released an explosive 39-page letter, report and action plan for the city to address the more than 60 examples of racial discrimination it chronicles dating back to at least 2005.
The report says it represents more than 33 current Black city employees from at least 11 different departments. And 61.8% of the Black employees surveyed for the report have worked for the city for 10 years or more.
It grew out of a meeting of about 30 Black city employees in August of this year who met to share stories of their experiences in the workplace.
”What started as an impromptu safe space for support quickly turned into a much-needed deeper discussion,” the group said. “The stories that were shared in that room were sobering, disheartening, and shocking, to say the least.
“What we identified at this gathering is that our experiences may seem singular, but are actually part of a deeper systemic racial issue rooted in the policies and politics of our workplace.
“Since that August meeting,” the group related in its letter, “more people have come forward from other departments to share their stories, many of whom are terrified about speaking up. Frankly put, the City of Evanston has a problem with presenting an equitable workplace for marginalized employees and we are in agreement that this discrepancy needs to be addressed and corrected.
“Our intention with this letter [and report] is to not only highlight the discrimination, institutional inequities, and barriers faced long term in the COE [City of Evanston] environment but to provide a solution-based framework to improve the workplace for all Employees,” the reports reads.
It’s addressed to department directors, Mayor Daniel Biss and the City Council. The group named 20 solutions, each with a deadline. The first is for a full audit and investigation into Human Resources.
City manager and mayor react
The City Manager’s Office emailed the following statement to the RoundTable following a request for a response:
“We thank the group of employees for bringing forward their concerns. We understand that doing so requires real courage. The issues raised are core to the City’s mission and values, and we have a responsibility to resolve them in order to be the organization our community expects and deserves.
“We take the letter and action plan very seriously and will work expeditiously to review and make appropriate changes. The City Council and City Manager are fully committed to ensuring an inclusive, equitable, and healthy work environment for all of our employees.”
Mayor Biss sent a letter of his own to the group. This is his full response:
“Thank you very much for sending this – for doing the enormous amount of work needed to assemble so much information and data and these recommendations, and for having the courage to do so, which I know is a very significant step given the nature of the problems and concerns you lay out. I am also appreciative of the diligent organizing that this entailed, and of the power and benefit of using your voices collectively.
“The concerns you raise are important and troubling. I have already spoken about this matter with Luke several times since we received your email, and he and I, along with the rest of Council, will be in close contact as he works swiftly to put in place an action plan.
“It is very clear that the City will be much better off for addressing these issues – more equitable, and more faithfully reflective of our stated values. We owe you a significant debt of gratitude for coming forward.
“I also understand that you made a deliberate and considered choice to come forward as a collective without naming names. I respect and appreciate that decision. That said, I want to make sure that you know that I am ALWAYS available should anyone like to speak for any reason, as an individual or individuals, as the whole group, or as representatives of the group. My door is open and I am eager to work with you and be a part of effectuating the changes that our organization needs.
“Thank you again for all you do for Evanston.” It is signed: “Best, Daniel.”
Council members responses
The RoundTable also reached out to several City Council members for comment. Second Ward Member Krissie Harris, Fourth Ward Member Jonathan Nieuwsma and First Ward Member Clare Kelly said they received the report but did not want to comment. Police Chief Schenita Stewart said she had not yet seen the report and therefore could not comment.
Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said he hadn’t read the report fully but plans to bring it up during the City Council’s next executive meeting. Burns said, “I think what was described was unacceptable for any work environment and any environment.”
Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, said when he received the email from the group, he forwarded it to City Manager Luke Stowe. Reid said he plans to hold Stowe accountable for ensuring that the Black employees’ demands are achieved.
“It’s an extreme concern,” Reid said about the report. “As someone who worked for the city as city clerk for years, I’m aware of racism within the city. HR woefully mishandled my case previously.”
Whistleblower anonymity request
The City Of Evanston Black Employee Action Group is also clearly concerned about reprisals for speaking out. It has officially requested protection under Illinois 740 ILCS 174/ Whistleblower Act. It is specifically why the group has chosen to remain anonymous, the report says.
In August, the Black employees received “angry accusatory emails, or rude comments” from white city supervisors when word spread that 30 Black employees met outside of work hours, according to the group’s report.
When one Black city employee brought up racial discrimination to management, they were accused of smoking cannabis in a city vehicle, drug tested and suspended for 10 days despite no evidence of smoking, according to the report.
“Speaking up against management will result in employees being targeted,” the report states.
The report methodically breaks down examples of racial discrimination current Black employees endured into the following 10 categories: Racist tropes, hiring and training practices, discipline, lack of transparency, lack of upward mobility/opportunity, lack of cultural awareness among peers, microaggressions, pay disparities, inequitable workload and lack of support.
Many of the examples highlighted in the report show white employees are granted more training opportunities, pay raises, promotions and are less likely to be disciplined compared with Black city employees.
White city employees were paid roughly $15,000 more than Black city employees in 2018, according to an October 2019 Daily Northwestern article cited in the report. The city’s 2020 records show that white employees represent 58.4% of the city staff.
The incidents outlined are wide ranging in terms of departments and issues. In one incident, an employee was told by a supervisor to stop providing unionization information to other employees as it constituted intimidation tactics. While it might be hard to prove it was race-based, it did seem likely it could be in conflict with federal National Labor Relation Board Act regulations.
HR fails to investigate
The report also says that the city knows its HR department is failing to conduct proper investigations into complaints.
The report also recommends and cites in several sections that the specific recommendations given by the law firm Salvatore, Prescott, Porter & Porter in its report about the sexual misconduct and harassment scandal in the lakefront lifeguard program be implemented immediately as they would also serve as remedies for racial discrimination.
The 2022 report of the city’s misconduct within the Parks and Recreation Department identified several failures within the HR department which “undermined the credibility of the City’s Human Resources operation” including inconsistency in response to complaints, not handling complaints according to policy and inadequate documentation.
Many of the Black city employees’ cries for help have been batted away by HR, yet allegations from white city employees are immediately addressed, the City of Evanston Black Employee Action Group’s report says.
A director hired her own son to a position instead of promoting a qualified Black employee, and when the employee reported the issue to HR, it agreed the director wasn’t allowed to hire her own son but didn’t do anything to stop it, according to the report.
In another incident reported to HR, a crew of employees shared what they would do if a stranger hurt one of their family members. A white supervisor joined the conversation, directly addressed the Black employee as if they were the stranger, and said he’d “stab and bash my brains,” the report says.
When the employee told HR about the incident as well as other incidents where the supervisor targeted them, HR said “this incident did not have to come to HR,” the report says.
However, when a Black employee posted about white privilege on their personal social media, seven white coworkers filed a complaint to HR. HR investigated the complaint and told the Black employee they were “causing a racial divide in the department,” the report says.
Racism in the police department
The report revealed that the last time the city hired a consultant to review the Evanston Police Department’s efforts for diversity and inclusion, the city requested the consultant share only a redacted version of the review with the public and city council.
The city chose to redact the 2016 review to hide the consultant’s findings of structural racism and racist culture within the police department so as not to damage the reputation of the department, an anonymous source closely involved with the 2016 review confirmed for the RoundTable.
Former Council Member Peter Braithwaite was on the City Council when the 2016 review was shared with the council. He said he’d heard rumors about the review being redacted but hadn’t seen proof.
“I’ve heard concerns from Black employees about how the city treats them,” Braithwaite said. “I’m thankful the employees are standing up for themselves.”
The report mentions roughly 10 examples of racism within the Police Department. Many of these allegations of discrimination stated that Black officers are overscrutinized, disciplined at a higher rate and humiliated in an effort to push them out of the department.
An example in the report: A white supervisor fired shots at a person suspected of burglary when the individual was running away and posed no threat to the surrounding officers. The supervisor faced only “minimal discipline under the previous Chief” but Black officers have faced harsher consequences for non-life threatening mistakes, according to the report.
The RoundTable asked the current Police Chief Stewart, who is the first African American woman to be permanent chief and who began the job in October of this year, if she had read the City of Evanston Black Employee Action Group’s report. Chief Stewart said she wasn’t aware of the report. But she added that in her short time within the department, she has not witnessed or heard of Black officers being discriminated against. She also said she planned to read and consider the report carefully.
Bob Seidenberg also contributed to this story. You can view the full report submitted to the city by The City of Evanston Black Employee Action Group in the PDF below.