The west side garage where a man was found unresponsive in his car

In late August, a man was found unresponsive in his car outside the west side location of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a local overdose prevention and harm reduction group, according to former employee Nikki Carter.

After Carter said she believed a responding employee was taking an uncharacteristically long time to treat the man and return to the office, she said she went out to help and saw other responding workers shaking the car and banging on the window. Carter, a former project manager and drug checking technician at the organization, said it was later discovered that the man had been in the car for more than two hours before anyone noticed him.

“It was very clear it was an overdose,” Carter said. “I said, ‘I have a tool to break a car window in my car, I’m going to go get it.’ And one of the people [former executive director Brandie Wilson] had recently hired of her own volition told me, ‘No, don’t worry about that.'”

Those who were trying to help, Carter said, were moving “extremely slowly” in a situation in which seconds can be the difference between life and death.

Wilson, however, told the Reader in December through an attorney that she was “proud of how everyone on the team handled the situation in the neighborhood,” and said that the window was not broken out of fear the car would later be vandalized.

Responders eventually flagged down a driver who gave them a tool to open the car, and were able to provide multiple doses of naloxone, the overdose reversal drug. But at that point, Carter said, the man wasn’t moving or breathing.

“The man in the car was not just nonresponsive. He wasn’t even bluish or purple. His body was a deep grey, and lifeless,” Wilson said, bluntly. She also described the event as “the most brutal overdose event” she had ever been a part of.

It’s not known whether the man died of an overdose or natural causes or whether efforts by CRA staffers did any good. I reached out to the local police district that responded to the incident but didn’t hear back; Inquiries to the medical examiner’s office weren’t returned by press time. Three people I spoke to said they assume that the man overdosed and died in his car.

Wilson said incidents like this are unfortunately commonplace, noting that she and other CRA staffers had repeatedly reversed overdoses in the community. But she pushed back on the narrative that the response had been bungled. “We were all well trained and handled it professionally, as we had in other situations in the neighborhood where we reversed overdoses,” Wilson said, adding that, “like others involved, I disagree that doing anything differently would have changed the outcome.”

CRA bills itself as the nation’s first and largest naloxone distribution program in the country. The organization also hands out safe snorting and injection materials, and provides harm reduction counseling and overdose training, as well as referrals to drug treatment. The tragic, perhaps avoidable, death signals deeper issues at the organization. Over the course of reporting this story, I heard stories alleging racism, dysfunction, and a general lack of leadership from management. The disorganization and in-fighting at CRA threatens not only the organization but, most importantly, the vulnerable people it serves.

In late September, mostly Black staffers and volunteers at the Chicago Recovery Alliance staged a strike outside the organization’s south side garage, waving handmade signs, raising fists, and shouting to oppose what they said was racism, toxicity, and nepotism by the board of directors. As cars drove by and honked their horns in solidarity, strikers at the Englewood site cheered. Inside the one-story, red brick garage, folding tables were covered in poster board, water bottles, and what felt like hundreds of markers.

The demonstrators also protested the board’s firing of executive director Brandie Wilson. In a brief statement published on September 27, 2020, about the termination, the CRA board wrote: “After receiving several letters of grievance from current and former staff over the course of a few months, coupled with a demonstrated inability to perform the tasks required in her role and a leadership style that fostered tension, harassment, and hostility among staff, it became apparent that Brandie is not a good fit for CRA.”

Inside the garage, Wilson’s medium-length blonde hair was swept to the side, a dark pink streak in her bangs tucked back. She wore a tank top and jeans, her glasses fogging up in front of her mask.

She was hired in the final months of 2019. She said that during her short tenure at CRA, she ruffled some important feathers when she led the removal of a longtime staffer. She said that legacy CRA staffers also “didn’t care” about doing work with Black people using drugs on the south side, in favor of white injection drug users elsewhere in the city.

“There has been a lot of racial division within CRA for a very long time,” Wilson said. “The narrative I was told when I first got here was the south side is dirty and lazy. And that is the opposite of what I’ve seen.”

Deputy director Cheryl Hull was in the garage, on a break from protesting, when she said, her voice breaking and with tears in her eyes, that she felt that Wilson’s biggest mistake was “being friends” to folks on the south side. Hull is the longest serving CRA staff member and started at the organization in 1993. “Brandie has been the most respectful person and shown nothing but love,” Hull said. “I don’t see what she did wrong.”

Black staffers said they were also protesting the board’s plans to demote Cliff Sanchez, who had recently been named the director of human resources. The organization had no human resources department before Sanchez was promoted.

According to screenshots of Slack messages provided to the Reader, when Wilson announced Sanchez’s promotion in a public channel, one CRA staff member replied, “You didn’t ask my opinion. I disagree and if you’re interested I will tell you why.” Carter and Ellie Navidson, a former overdose prevention manager at CRA, said this was one in a series of hiring decisions that Wilson made at her own whim without any formal interview process.

But Sanchez, who began volunteering with CRA in 1997, said he’s more than qualified for the job given his military experience and his decades with CRA. He said he also felt targeted by the board because he is Black. “I consider this a stab in the back,” Sanchez said. “These are folks I’ve worked with for 18 years. And they think I don’t deserve this promotion, like I can’t do this job. We’re talking about 11 people in this organization.”

Wilson said she filed a grievance to the CRA board a little over a week before she was fired. But the grievance itself, which she provided to the Reader, is a confusing and hard-to-follow screed. “I’m quite tired of being found guilty by the board before given my legal right to a voice, process or even a meeting,” Wilson wrote at the end of the grievance. “If needed I will acquire an employment attorney if that is the only way I am allowed rights in this organization.”

Wilson, through her attorney, told me that she is “working to exhaust all possible options for resolution before filing a lawsuit.” At the Englewood garage, Wilson also said CRA Board President Erica Ernst, who also volunteers with the organization on an unpaid basis in addition to her board seat, accused Wilson of turning CRA “into a shithole.”

Staffers and volunteers protested what they said was racism, toxicity, and nepotism by the board of directors.Credit: Adam M. Rhodes

Ernst, in a Zoom interview with the Reader, denied making those comments and accused Wilson of weaponizing Black staffers for her own benefit, alluding to the fact that it was wrong to protest her termination the day after a grand jury decision to indict only one of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor.

“I’m all for a peaceful protest,” Ernst said. “I’m not contrary to strikes, like do what you think you need to do. If you feel unified, do it. But when the west side staff were like, ‘Let us do your sites for you,’ they were told, ‘Oh no, they’re covered,’ and none were done that day. And that’s where I take issue.”

Carter says she resigned the day after the strike.

As for her ousting, Wilson said it was the product of a coordinated, surreptitious effort by the board. Ernst, however, said she received four formal grievances against Wilson over the course of her short tenure at CRA, as well as two informal grievances from people fearing reprisal for their complaints. Ernst did not elaborate on what those grievances were, but added that many of the people reporting grievances were people of color or LGBTQ+ people.

But Wilson, through her attorney, strongly pushed back on the criticism against her, alluding to deeper issues within CRA. “I’m a scapegoat because I tried to address things I saw happening I knew were illegal and wrong, including by making space for employees of color to speak up and try[ing] to address how they’d been mistreated for a long time,” Wilson said. “Blaming me, retaliating against me and trying to destroy me professionally is easier than the introspection and house-cleaning that’s necessary for the organization to continue to grow successfully.”

Ernst said that while she has been helping to manage the organization since Wilson’s termination, there is no interim director currently.

The turmoil inside CRA also comes at a particularly crucial time for its work. Opioid-related deaths in Chicago have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to ProPublica Illinois. The analysis states that there were more than twice as many confirmed or suspected opioid overdose deaths in Cook County in the first five months of 2020 (924) than there were in that same period last year (461). And the opioid epidemic in Chicago has also disproportionately impacted Black people on the south and west sides—a population that CRA purports to serve.

Tax filings from 2018 detail that CRA had more than $1.4 million in total expenses, and more than $300,000 in net income at the end of the year. The vast majority of CRA’s funding, 78 percent, comes from government grants, and its website lists Cook County Health, Howard Brown Health, and Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago among its partners. CRA reports that it distributed more than 4.15 million new syringes in 2018, and additionally reversed nearly 2,000 overdoses.

As if 2020 was not a drastic enough landscape for their work, a significant spike in opioid overdoses among their participants obviously makes their work that much more important—though dysfunction and disorder seems to threaten the organization itself.   v

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.