Breeana George, then 24, started working as a gardener for the Riverside Park Conservancy in September 2015. Around 18 months later, Lakisha Johnson, then in her early 30s, joined her.
Within two weeks of starting work, George says that her grounds crew supervisor made inappropriate sexual contact, thumping his hand on her breast. George further asserts that other fellow RPC landscapers made constant inappropriate comments involving sex. Within a few months of joining RPC, Johnson advised George that she had also experienced a similar mix of unwanted advances and sexually explicit badgering from their male colleagues.
Breeana, who is white, had moved from Seattle in order to take the job with RPC. Johnson, who is Black, had joined RPC after completing training and certificate programs with the New York Botanical Garden and its Brooklyn counterpart. By the middle of 2019, both women no longer worked for RPC.
The corresponding claims made by George and Johnson have been included in two lawsuits filed against the RPC in the Southern District Court of New York (workplace discrimination lawsuits are frequently handled in federal court). Johnson and the RPC reached a settlement last fall. George’s case is pending.
Together the two cases raise important questions about whether a culture of sexual harassment flourishes at RPC. But various aspects of the proceedings also show how the city’s neoliberal power structures—i.e. private entities that supplant public control, in this instance over parks—stack the deck against workers.
Although it’s legally designated as a “park maintenance organization,” RPC essentially controls what happens in Riverside Park, a 253-acre strip of land which stretches along the Hudson River from 72nd to 158th Streets. It has numerous counterparts throughout the city, ranging from the Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance to the Freshkills Park Alliance in Staten Island.
These nonprofit organizations are privately managed and their landscaping crews labor alongside employees of the Parks Department. Visitors to any of the many parks with conservancies may not notice a difference—but the workers have a divergent set of protections depending on their employer.
Conservancies such as Riverside sign a licensing agreement with the Parks Department, in which they agree to adhere to all applicable anti-discrimination laws (a category which covers sexual harassment). RPC’s agreement has been signed in recent years by its board chair, Micah Lasher.
Lasher is Scott Stringer’s campaign manager. He referred The Indypendent’s questions about the Johnson and George cases to Dan Garodnick, another familiar name in city politics. The former three-term councilman representing the Upper East Side is now the president and CEO of RPC.
Prior to joining the city council, Garodnick worked as a litigator for the white-shoe law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison. The lead lawyer defending RPC in the George case is Andrew Ehrlich, a partner at Paul, Weiss and a frequent contributor to Garodnick’s political campaigns.
Ehrlich and his team from Paul, Weiss are representing RPC in the case on a pro-bono basis. According to Ehrlich, the firm is doing so because RPC is a “small nonprofit” that works with “underserved communities,” meaning those living at the north end of the park from 125th through 158th Street.
RPC took in over $7 million in 2019, which is a fraction of the budget of its Central Park counterpart (which raised almost 10 times more). So by some measures, RPC is indeed small. But it’s still a tall order for a gardener to confront a politically-connected organization with a high-powered legal team.
In the current case, George is represented by Rita Sethi, an attorney with the firm of Stoll, Glickman, and Bellina. Partner Leo Glickman is also a familiar name in political circles, given his election law work for DSA and other insurgent candidates.
Sethi says the lawsuit is about more than just George’s claims. In 2005, the city council passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which Sethi characterizes as a “bold commitment to eradicating discrimination.” The city, she says, “can’t subvert this mandate by licensing organizations like RPC if they can’t or won’t protect employees like Breeana from sex discrimination.”
The fact that RPC is a private actor means that rather than face the city’s lawyers, Sethi is squaring off against a deep-pocketed firm. The actions of the city law department are also public record. That’s in contrast to the Johnson case, in which the terms of the RPC’s settlement remain private.
In addition to the climate of harassment at RPC alleged in the complaints by Johnson and George, both cases claim that the plaintiffs were passed over for promotion because of conflicts they had with Lynda Tower, RPC’s vice president of operations. George contends that she was passed over for promotion three times in the wake of her filing a sexual harassment complaint with the NYC Human Rights Commission, which ultimately issued a “probable cause” finding that allowed her to sue the RPC.
The RPC, in turn, vows to fight the case. “Ms. George’s lawsuit against the Conservancy is entirely without merit and will be disproven in court,” the RPC insisted in a statement to The Indypendent. The organization also stands firmly behind Tower, calling her “a leader in our efforts to create a culture of inclusion at the Conservancy.”
Asked why it employs its own landscaping crew, the RPC pointed to the constraints of the city’s budget: “We employ gardeners to do the horticultural work across miles of parkland that otherwise would not get done.”
Such a position may sound public-spirited, but the reality remains that those same gardeners are at a disadvantage because they are not actually employed by the city. Parks Department workers are represented by DC 37 and thus have clear processes of promotion and protections against wrongful termination. And when accusations of sexual harassment surface, the city’s Department of Investigation can pursue the case.
Whether the next mayor will address the inequalities in the city’s park workforce is not at all clear. Alas, neoliberalism has deep roots in the city’s landscape.
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