Evanston residents speak out in solidarity with lakefront employees alleging sexual misconduct


Daily file photo by Maia Spoto

The Evanston lakefront at sunset. At Monday night’s city council meeting, dozens of Evanston residents spoke out in solidarity with 56 female lakefront employees who alleged workplace sexual misconduct in a petition obtained by WBEZ.

Ilana Arougheti, Senior Staffer

Dozens of Evanston residents spoke in support of the 56 female lifeguards and beach workers who signed a petition alleging sexual misconduct and assault by supervisors and coworkers at Evanston lakefronts during City Council on Monday. 

Speakers overwhelmingly echoed the petitioners’ demand for a full, swift public apology. Often building off of previous speakers’ comments, residents called for accountability among lakefront supervisors at high levels of city government, as well as a thorough investigation into rape culture within all spheres of the city’s social infrastructure.

The allegations come from a petition WBEZ obtained, which was authored by four women and brought to the city last summer. Included in the claims was an allegation that a lifeguard, who was 18 at the time, was raped by an older employee who served as a manager. 

In a statement released one week after the WBEZ investigation was published, Mayor Daniel Biss said he was first made aware of the issue through a June 19 constituent email. Soon after, Biss said he spoke with one of the petition’s organizers, read the petition and called an emergency meeting to address the issue. There was then a two-week gap in city action until the WBEZ story broke on July 16. 

At the meeting, residents praised City Council for taking a strong stance against the “institutional failure” upholding a legacy of sexual misconduct at lakefront jobs but expressed disappointment at how long it took the city to respond.

Resident Dickelle Fonda described the two-week gap in Council action as “arrogant” and “disrespectful,” echoing fellow speakers’ sentiment that city officials with high levels of oversight should be held directly accountable — and even dismissed — for failing to take disciplinary action against employees accused of misconduct.

“We elected all of you to represent us, not the unelected staff who have clearly misused and abused their power,” Fonda said. “I am hopeful that you will find your way forward to make some very deep changes at the very top levels of the city administration.”

Resident Betsy Wilson, a mitigation specialist at Sentencing Advocacy Group of Evanston, even directly called for the dismissal of City Manager Erika Storlie. Similarly, former 3rd Ward aldermanic candidate Nick Korzeniowski called for additional transparency about the timeline when different lakefront and city officials were first alerted to claims of lakefront sexual misconduct.

Some documentation of misconduct within the city has spanned multiple years, according to formal mayoral candidate Sebastian Nalls, who reminded city officials about the lack of investigation surrounding sexual assault allegations made by a city employee against Parks, Recreation and Community Services Director Lawrence Hemingway in 2020.

“This is a deep-seated work culture present in the city of Evanston that allows for this behavior to take place,” Nalls said. “Toxic masculinity is running rampant, with older employees teaching young men that this behavior is acceptable.”

In advocating for the best course of action to bring justice to lakefront workers and survivors, resident Geeta Maker-Clark highlighted the importance of listening to survivors without re-traumatizing them. This can be achieved by focusing on dismantling rape culture throughout Evanston, she said, rather than just on calling for firing lakefront supervisors.

Northwestern sociology department chair and legal studies center Director Laura Beth Nielsen also spoke in favor of focusing on addressing the long-term effects of sexual misconduct within a community. Surviving sexual misconduct has been correlated with drops in academic performance, she said, as well as with post-traumatic stress disorder and high dropout rates. 

This can lead to wage discrimination and other societal disavantages later in life, she continued, which disproportiontely affects young Black and Latina women. She emphasized the importance of large-scale community accountability in combating the isolation and marginalization of survivors.

The sentiment of accountability was echoed by many community members as the night went on, including Evanston Voter Initiative spokesperson Allie Harned. 

“Sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual violence have lifelong effects,” Harned said. “We are paying attention. We want to know that we are paying attention to what staff and elected officials do as well as what you don’t do.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter:  @ilana_arougheti

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