Mayor Brandon Johnson vows to hire a new leader to address gender-based violence

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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office is vowing to replace a former top deputy of his predecessor’s administration after advocates dedicated to preventing gender-based violence said they were “deeply concerned” over the departure.

Darci Flynn served as the first director of gender-based violence strategy and policy within the mayor’s office – a position created by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Flynn submitted her resignation Sept. 21, and was terminated four days later, she said.

In a statement, the 13-member Survivor Working Group of the city’s task force on gender-based violence said they are “deeply disturbed” by Flynn’s departure, which came amid budget discussions and the finalization of a second strategic plan for the city to address gender-based violence and human trafficking. Individual members of the working group did not share their names because of privacy concerns.

“Removing this position means that we currently have no one in a leadership role fully-dedicated to working with us in the Mayor’s Office, deeply undermining our efforts to ensure adequate funding for gender-based violence from the city,” the working group’s Monday statement read. “Nor do we have any clarity on if and when the Mayor will hire a new Director of Gender-Based Violence, a critical staff role to meet the urgent needs of survivors across the city.”

In response to WBEZ’s inquiry, Johnson’s Chief of Policy, S. Mayumi “Umi” Grigsby, said in a statement Wednesday the mayor’s office plans to fill Flynn’s role. Grigsby also said mayor’s office staff and the Department of Family and Support Services have stepped in to co-lead the task force and its working groups amid the transition.

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“While we do not comment on personnel matters, we are working to quickly to fill this role and we have already committed to involving our Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Task Force members in the search process” Grigsby said. “We remain committed to supporting survivors of gender-based violence, and to including in that crucial work a coalition of champions both inside and outside of government.”

A representative for the city’s human resources declined to answer questions.

Furthering solutions to prevent gender-based violence was one of Lightfoot’s priorities in office, during which she established a gender-based violence advisory group, which was later codified into city ordinance. During her tenure, the city also released its first strategic plan to address the issue.

Johnson has already signaled some of Lightfoot’s signature policy priorities – such as Invest South/West – will be reenvisioned under his administration, and he has shown other holdovers of Lightfoot’s administration the door as he works to fill out his cabinet.

Flynn initially joined Lightfoot’s administration as a senior fellow and policy advisor on human trafficking in October 2019 and served as the director of gender-based violence strategy and policy since September 2021, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In a recent LinkedIn post announcing her departure, Flynn reflected on some of her accomplishments, which included helping to craft the city’s strategic plan to address gender-based violence and human trafficking, expanding paid parental leave to 12 weeks for city employees and the establishment of an Office of Reproductive Health within the city’s public health department in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

“I am extremely proud of the survivor-centered work that we did together with community partners, survivors, and City leaders, during my time in City Hall,” Flynn said in a statement provided to WBEZ. “I truly hope that work will continue in earnest.”

Kimberly L. McGee, a member of the Survivor Working Group, said members want transparency on the administration’s next steps, with hopes of seeing a new policy director hired before the end of the year and resources dedicated to standing up an office and eventually deputy mayor position dedicated to addressing gender-based violence.

“We’d like to know, what is the plan going forward,” McGee said in an interview Tuesday. “As survivors, we’re experts on systems. And we know when there is no plan. And we see that happening right now. And it’s very concerning to us.”

Karla Altmayer echoed the Survivor Working Group’s concerns. Altmayer, who chairs the task force and is the co-director of the nonprofit Healing to Action, which aims to end gender-based violence, said the lack of clarity regarding Flynn’s departure and a plan to replace her makes Altmayer question the Johnson administration’s commitment to finding and funding solutions to prevent gender-based violence.

Altmayer sent a letter to Johnson in August urging him to meet with the task force following allegations of domestic abuse against his interim police superintendent pick, Fred Waller. Later that month, Johnson met with the task force and several of his deputy mayors and top deputies participated in a retreat focused on gender-based violence.

“We need to see actions behind the words,” Altmayer said Tuesday, later adding: “One thing that we’ve heard from the administration over and over again, has been this idea of co-governance. And I think for us the question has been: well, what does that look like? And I think we really want to see that co-governance includes not just saying, ‘You’re at the table.’ But it also means we’re going to resource this work.”

The task force recently submitted a budget proposal for next year for alderpersons and the city to consider that includes allocating $14.1 million toward priority initiatives that include training survivors of gender-based violence to become peer-health leaders, sustaining funding for the Survivor Working Group and more, according to a copy of the budget proposal.

The Survivor Working Group was formed in February 2023 and is made up of survivors of gender-based violence who were selected by the city’s Gender-Based Violence Taskforce. The 13 working group members receive a stipend for their participation, and funding is set to run out at the end of this year, Altmayer said.

During Wednesday’s City Council meeting, alderpersons passed an ordinance expanding the task force’s maximum membership to 21. Speaking during Wednesday’s meeting on a resolution commemorating Domestic Violence Awareness month, Johnson vowed to continue the foundation that Lightfoot’s administration laid to prevent gender-based violence.

“That work will continue and expand in this administration to realize our vision for a better, stronger and a much safer Chicago,” Johnson said. “I’m committed to using the full force of government to build a safety network that is informed by survivors, driven by data and accessible in all of our communities.”

In its statement, members of the working group said they need action from Johnson’s administration to maintain trust.

“As survivors, we have been harmed by the very institutions that purport to protect us. Our stories have often been used as political chess pieces to achieve other ends. Despite all this, we are showing up to serve the thousands of survivors like us who live in this city and deserve better,” the statement read. “We are acting in good faith, and as people who have experienced systemic harm, we deserve and expect the utmost transparency and communication from public officials who are asking for our time, energy, and vision.”

Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ.

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