Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series exploring a transformative summer for Evanston’s lakefront and the historical context behind the changes that occurred. This first part of the story explores the new Parks and Recreation leadership and the changes made to the lifeguard program. The next installment will examine the history of discriminatory policies restricting beach access in Evanston.
The three had colleagues had never opened beaches for the summer season before, let alone hired and trained dozens of lifeguards responsible for public safety at Evanston’s lakefront.
But Audrey Thompson, Michael Callahan and Tim Carter found themselves tasked with that job in April.
The team took over the department less than two months after an independent law firm released a scathing report detailing a workplace culture of sexism, abuse and harassment among Evanston’s seasonal lakefront employees.
The firm determined that high-ranking city officials failed to properly investigate allegations of sexual harassment and abuse among seasonal lakefront employees. It led to a complete overhaul of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and new training protocols for summer lifeguards.
All of the city staffers who led the recreational programs and the lakefront during the scandalous period were gone.
- Former Human Resources Chief Jennifer Lin signed a separation agreement in September 2021,
- former Parks and Recreation Director Lawrence Hemingway resigned in February and many of their top assistants left, too.
In April, then-Interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski entrusted a department rebuild to Thompson, the community services manager; Callahan, an arborist and forestry supervisor; and Carter, the program coordinator for the Levy Senior Center.
Thompson was appointed the new Parks and Recreation director with Callahan as assistant director, while Carter has the title of lakefront manager. Together, they have 20 years of experience working for the City of Evanston.
This is the story of the summer of 2022: how after an abusive lifeguard culture was final exposed and many dismissed, how a new team was brought in to rebuild the program and the culture, at the eleventh hour before the summer season began.
The summer was also historical for another reasons: It would be the first time Evanston’s beaches were free for all residents since the early 1930s. Back then, people in the white population complained about Black beachgoers sharing the public space.
So, for decades, the city’s beaches were segregated. And to add a financial hurdle, people had to pay to enjoy the lake until 2022.
This team all quickly discovered the challenge they faced. They had to overhaul the department’s hiring and training practices, establish a standard of respect and responsibility, ensure the safety of the teenage staff, including those in the beach office, gate attendants as well as lifeguards and also open the lakefront for summer swimming in less than two months.
In 2020, more than 50 female lifeguards working at Evanston beaches signed a petition alleging underaged girls were being taken advantage of in a rampant boys’ club culture of misogyny, drugs and partying. People’s daughters, sisters, nieces and cousins had been sexually harassed and assaulted.
“It was pressure, to actually sit down with people who you know, and they’re really needing you to understand how important it is for their loved one not to be mistreated in the workplace,” Thompson said.
Carter, who coordinated beach staff hiring and training directly as the lakefront manager, said he and his wife talked about the risks of taking on a high-profile job with the expectation of making change.
If something went wrong, the consequences could have been “career ending,” he said, but he decided he wanted to help make a positive difference.
All three of the new leaders were familiar with the city’s standard practices for hiring and training employees, so the first order of business was to interview each applicant for a lakefront position and ensure the department was following all of Evanston’s new employee expectations on harassment training, communication and preparedness.
The beaches opened Memorial Day weekend, and by then, Carter had interviewed 127 people for seasonal jobs in a two-week period. He asked every returning applicant about past problems and how they wanted to play a role in improving the work environment.
One of the recommendations the law firm made in its report was to ensure more female representation among lakefront leadership. That problem ended up being easier to solve, according to Carter, because a number of longtime women lifeguards voiced an interest in helping lead a lakefront overhaul.
“Most of our returning staff were female, actually,” Carter said. “They worked for us for four, five years, and because they wanted to come back and change things, I had six or seven female leaders who we hired immediately.”
Those six female supervisors worked alongside four male supervisors all summer. It was the most female leaders on the lakefront ever, according to Thompson.
Callahan, Carter and Thompson all agreed that the young women on the lakefront staff responded well to the change mandate and established an environment of respect, professionalism and kindness toward one another.
“They wanted to see the change so bad that they put themselves out there, they took the risk and I’m grateful to them,” Callahan said. “We’re very grateful that they believed in us enough that they would take that risk on us immediately.”
The law firm’s report also outlined a need for more direct collaboration between full-time city officials and lakefront workers so that employees would feel more comfortable bringing up problems to the city to be addressed efficiently and effectively.
All three leaders were at the beaches regularly throughout the summer, Thompson said, as were city human resources officials, who met regularly with beach supervisors.
The department ended the old practice of physical training being used as punishment or discipline, a procedure that was frequently abused by staff, according to the February law firm report.
The new leadership also said seasonal workers collaborated and just had fun together more than in previous years. For instance, the annual end-of-summer banquet had its biggest turnout ever, according to Thompson.
“The supervisors were there, the lifeguards were there, the office folks were there, and it was the largest turnout that they’ve ever had,” Thompson said. “That let us know that this wasn’t the hierarchy that the report talks about. We went to the party, too, and oh my goodness, we had so much fun.”
But still, the season was not without issues.
Carter said he likes to talk about his fall to-do list, which has well over 150 items. While the beach season officially ended after Labor Day, he and the other Parks and Recreation staff said they are just getting started thinking about new ways to recruit a more diverse workforce next summer and continue improving the workplace culture.
One of the major issues the department encountered this summer was understaffing. Nationwide, beaches and pools faced a shortage of lifeguards, and dozens of public pools in Chicago were closed this summer because they did not have enough lifeguards to stay open. The city closed Greenwood Street Beach in June for the entire summer season because staffing was too low.
The city had 74 summer lifeguards on the payroll, compared to 90 the previous year.And as of Aug. 15, Evanston’s Lighthouse and South Boulevard beaches closed early, leaving only Clark and Lee beaches open for swimmers
“We had some passionate conversations about closing, but at the end of the day, we had to listen to them,” Thompson said. “I’m not a lifeguard, and I don’t know what that means. So, if they were saying we feel too stretched, and we’ve got to close a beach, then we close the beach.”
Moving forward, the team is looking into changing the required certification for Evanston beach lifeguards from the United States Lifesaving Association, which Carter called the “gold standard” of ocean rescue training, to a beefed up version of the American Red Cross lifeguard certification program. That move will hopefully break down some barriers to entry for young people interested in working at the beaches, Carter said.
In an effort to attract more summer lifeguards and keep all beaches open during future summers, the city is also moving the lifeguard program under the jurisdiction of the Evanston Fire Department, which the RoundTable first reported after reviewing budget documents. Thompson and her team said they ultimately concluded that lifeguards fit naturally under the lifesaving umbrella of the Fire Department, which already has a water unit, as well.
Meanwhile, that move will hopefully free up Parks and Recreation to focus on lakefront programming and community engagement, while still working closely with the Fire Department and summer lifeguards, according to Thompson and Carter.
And, as Thompson pointed out, the crowds and staff at Evanston’s beaches are still almost all white. As a result, one of the department’s high priorities for the coming year is to recruit staff and do outreach in Black and Brown communities that may not see the lakefront as something for them. Tapping into more networks and communities in Evanston that have historically not been involved at the lake or in the lifeguard staff can both diversify the groups of people coming to the beach and expand candidates for summer jobs, Thompson said.
The RoundTable also reported over the summer that the lake is still not accessible for those using wheelchairs or other devices that support mobility for people with disabilities. Mayor Daniel Biss identified that problem as a major area of concern for the future.
“There’s clearly still work to be done, for instance on beach access for people with disabilities,” Biss said in an email. “Additionally, given the magnitude of the changes that needed to be made this past summer, there’s plenty left to be done vis-a-vis refinement and further establishing a different culture. But we’re moving in the right direction and that’s very encouraging.”
Unfortunately, though, since the target staff members for summer jobs at the lakefront will always be high school students, maintaining staffing at beaches after Evanston Township High School starts the school year in August will always be a challenge. Still, Thompson and her team are hoping to recruit more high schoolers who are able and willing to work after school and on weekends through Labor Day.
“There are still people who can swim who don’t sign up to be lifeguards, so [we want to] put it in their minds that this is open to anyone that feels that they can train and that this is something that they can start now,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to diversify as it pertains to Black and Brown employees on the lakefront.”
Where are they now?
Lin signed a separation agreement with the city in early September 2021 that did not specifically identify her handling of the sexual harassment allegations as the cause of her resignation. She received a severance package that included more than 20 weeks of compensation.
Former City Manager Erika Storlie had sole discretion over that agreement because City Council members only have the power to vote on a separation agreement with the city manager, but no other individual employees.
But, while Lin was still on administrative leave from the city in August 2021, she had started conducting contractual consulting work for Illinois state Rep. Denyse Wang Stoneback, whose husband, Dave Stoneback, is a longtime City of Evanston staffer and the recently appointed deputy city manager.
Lin’s contract with Wang Stoneback’s office lasted from Aug. 9, 2021 to Oct. 11, 2021, and she worked 35 hours per week at a rate of $38.50 per hour “to provide legislative and constituent services,” according to state records obtained by the RoundTable. In total, she made $13,459.34 during her time working for Wang Stoneback.
In February 2022, the law firm released its final report on the allegations of harassment and how the city handled them, ultimately concluding that “we attribute the incorrect decision not to conduct an investigation primarily to Lin,” referring to Lin’s choice not to launch a full human resources review of the allegations brought forward.
“Rep. Stoneback has spent her time in office advocating for survivors of abuse,” her office told the RoundTable in an email. “When the city’s findings were made public, Ms. Lin was no longer employed by Rep. Stoneback’s office.”
Among other employees then involved in conversations with the lifeguards who brought their petition forward in 2020, according to emails obtained by the RoundTable, were Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation Karen Hawk, Recreation Managers Ray Doerner and Adam Abajian and Human Resources Specialist Casey Solomon.
Hawk is now the director of parks and recreation for the village of Lincolnwood, while Doerner is the superintendent of recreation for the Prospect Heights park district. Abajian passed away in April 2022 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.