Every seat in the City Council Chambers and even seats outside its large glass doors were filled in anticipation of the City Council’s public comment period on Nov. 14. The council was set to continue negotiating its $400 million proposed budget. But many attendees came to speak on an issue that wasn’t on the agenda.
It’s been 15 days since the anonymous City of Evanston Black Employees Action Group released an explosive 39-page letter, report and action plan detailing more than 60 examples of alleged racial discrimination. The group says it has more than 33 members comprising current city employees from 11 departments. Most have worked for the city for 10 years or more, the group says.
The city hasn’t implemented any of the group’s 20 solutions outlined in its Racial Action Change Plan, and it’s been tight-lipped about the disturbing report, aside from a few comments to the RoundTable.
Just two City Council Members, Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, and Devon Reid, 8th Ward, spoke to the RoundTable about the report. Mayor Daniel Biss and City Manager Luke Stowe emailed responses to the RoundTable.
So Monday night, the City of Evanston Black Employees Action Group made the bold move to demand action from the city face-to-face.
The group requested protection under the Illinois Whistleblower Act in its report. Several Black employees have faced retaliation for speaking out against racial discrimination, the report said.
The group selected NAACP Evanston North Shore branch President Rev. Dr. Michael Nabors and Community Alliance for Better Government President Lesley Williams to read prepared statements to the council.
“In support of these employees, the NAACP is demanding that the city of Evanston publicly commits to acknowledging the issues shared and addressing racial inequity within the organization,” Nabors said. “Countless Black employees have watched issues get ignored or swept aside for decades. This cannot happen. Not anymore. This will not go away. We will not go away.”
A crowd of Black city employees made their presence known during both Nabors’ and Williams’ speeches. Black employees from the City Manager’s Office, Evanston Police Department and others stood in solidarity behind the podium as the speakers delivered the group’s pleas for racial equity in every layer of city government.
“Action item number 20 is to listen,” Williams read. “They have told you exactly what is needed. Simply implement that very reasonable action plan that the employees have provided to you – not an action plan that you develop. Black employees are no longer interested in the city of Evanston figuring things out, as history has shown us that that does not work well. You do this by allocating funding in the current budget toward implementing the Racial Action Change Plan.”
Twenty-nine citizens signed up to speak during the council’s public comment period. Sixteen – more than half – used their allotted 1 minute and 45 seconds to demand the city take action against racism within the city government.
Representatives from Evanston-based organizations were among the speakers. Eileen Hogan Heineman, the Manager of Community Outreach at the Equity Institute of YWCA Evanston, said that her organization supports the Black city employees and is ready to help the city accomplish the group’s solutions.
Two representatives from Evanston Fight for Black Lives spoke as well.
Each time an individual spoke about the group’s report, members of the audience would stand in silent solidarity.
Before the public comment period, which is at the beginning of the City Council meetings, City Manager Stowe stated that the city had received the report from the city’s Black employees and is taking the report seriously.
“There’s already been a number of conversations in meetings with City Council, senior staff, HR, outside experts, and a big shout out to the group as well on multiple occasions,” Stowe said. “We plan to issue a roadmap before the end of the month addressing the report and the recommendations. We want to move quickly. But we also want to move thoughtfully and get this right. We look forward to working with the group as we move forward together.”
The city didn’t respond to any of the public comments.
Three years ago on Nov. 15, the City of Evanston established the nation’s first reparations program for Black residents. That same night, Kevin Brown, then the city’s former community services manager, was fired. Brown connects his termination to an incident months earlier when he called out a white supervisor for racial discrimination.
Brown was one of the 16 community members who spoke to the council in support of the Black employees’ report. Brown is suing the city for terminating him, alleging it was in retaliation for speaking out against racial discrimination.
“What we are seeing in this report is an affirmation of all of the things that I had been talking about from 2012 until my termination,” Brown said to the council.
Brown said he met with the Black city employees and recommended they each acquire legal counsel.
“These individuals are courageous,” Brown said. “But because of the things that have happened in the city in the past, they are fearful of retaliation. They have families to take care of. They have their own responsibilities. But you are an elected official that has the power to do the right thing this time.”