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First woman to serve as Chicago’s fire commissioner vows to diversify white bastion

Annette Nance-Holt used her confirmation hearing to outline her plan to put her own stamp on a department she described as in “strong” shape, but in need of “some modernization.”

Then-Acting Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt speaks during a badge ceremony for paramedic Robert Truevillian at the Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy in the South Loop, Tuesday morning, May 18, 2021. Truevillian, 55, was the third active member of CFD to die of complications from COVID-19 in December 2020.
Acting Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt has a four-point plan to put her own stamp on a department she described as in “strong” shape, but in need of “some modernization.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The first woman ever to serve as Chicago’s fire commissioner vowed Friday to diversify a Chicago Fire Department with a long and documented history of discrimination and racial hijinks, in part by holding entrance and promotional exams on a regular basis.

Annette Nance-Holt used her confirmation hearing before the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety to outline her four-point plan to put her own stamp on a department she described as in “strong” shape, but in need of “some modernization.”

Nance-Holt said her “strategic plan to accomplish this” has four primary components: diversifying the Chicago Fire Department; “re-thinking and re-emphasizing” emergency medical services; “enhancing internal and external outreach” to neighborhoods and confronting the “mental health challenges that plague first-responders” in Chicago and across the country.

As the first woman to serve as Chicago’s fire commissioner and one of only a handful of Black commissioners, Nance-Holt said her “highest priority” is “increasing diversity across all divisions and ranks.”

She plans to do that through “vigorous recruitment in communities of color,” outreach to high school students in “under-represented communities” and by scheduling Chicago’s first firefighters entrance exam since 2014 by the end of this year or the first quarter of next year.

That will be followed by periodic entrance and promotional exams to maintain a steady pipeline of minority candidates to diversify all ranks, she said.

“Trying to encourage young people to take this exam. To dream. To do something that some of ‘em are really afraid to do….We have already started working toward going into communities, talking to young people. Trying to get ‘em energized for this next exam,” Nance-Holt told aldermen.

“The only way to increase diversity starts at the beginning. If we don’t bring ‘em in the door, we can’t bring ‘em up through the ranks. The thing is to get ‘em in there right away and get as many in as we can to change this dynamic. However, it is a challenge. It depends on who all shows up to take the exam.”

Nance-Holt said the leadership team she has assembled will be “so diverse,” it’ll be “something that you have never seen.”

“You probably have heard word of it. I’m not gonna tell you what it is. But you’re gonna be truly surprised by what you’re gonna see. And that’s just the first wave of what I’m going to do. And then, we’re gonna try to do more and more things to really show that we’re serious about increasing diversity and inclusion on this job,” she said.

“It’s been over 160 years. I am the first one to look like this to sit before you to run a department that is male-dominated. And so, my commitment is definitely there.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said it is “truly a historic day to to see an African American female rise to the top” of the Chicago Fire Department.

“It does our community proud. It does our members proud. We stand with you in helping to diversify the department, reaching out to young men and women in our communities encouraging them to take the” exam, he said.

“If I had it to do all over again. I would have looked at a fire exam over a police exam. I had a cousin who was a member of the department and he told me it was the best job and the best decision he ever made in life.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th), chairman of the Progressive Caucus, applauded Nance-Holt for having “overcome race and gender hurdles” to rise to the top of the CFD.

“I hope that you will use what you have learned to bring others along with you,” King said.

Nance-Holt is the mother of Blair Holt, the 16-year-old Julian High School honor student who was killed in 2007 trying to shield a friend after a gang member opened fire at a rival gang member on a crowded CTA bus after school.

She has her work cut out for her when it comes to diversifying CFD, considering the history of a department that is now 58.8% white, 16% Hispanic and 14% Black overall and there is less diversity among its exempt ranks.

In 1973, a federal class-action lawsuit accused the Chicago Fire Department of discriminatory hiring and promotional practices. At the time, only 4% of Chicago’s 5,000 firefighters were Black.

The lawsuit resulted in a four-year freeze on hiring and promotions and a federal consent decree mandating minority hiring. Between 1977 and 1979, the number of Black firefighters increased from 150 to roughly 400.

Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago resolved a bitter legal battle the mayor inherited from former Mayor Richard M. Daley, stemming from the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters entrance exam.

The city agreed to hire 111 bypassed African American firefighters and borrow the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African Americans who never got that chance.