Community activist Debbie Hillman proposes using a participatory budgeting process to allocate Northwestern University’s annual $1 million Good Neighbor Fund contribution to the city of Evanston.
Halfway through 2017, the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election continue to highlight new opportunities for Americans to focus and invigorate our civic engagement. In the spirit of such renewed interest, this is a recommendation to use a participatory budgeting process to allocate the next installment of the Good Neighbor Fund — $1 million for 2017-18.
Both Evanston and Northwestern University would benefit from a PB process, similar to the one designed and implemented in Chicago’s 49th Ward by Ald. Joe Moore, ward residents, and the Participatory Budgeting Project over the last nine years.
I know of no other modern public process that (a) so easily implements our American ideals of popular sovereignty, (b) so effectively facilitates practical, informed decision-making, and (c) so quickly cuts through public policy stalemates — all at once.
This latter is especially important at this moment in U.S. history as impasses surround us at every level, e.g., Federal (health care, gun violence, climate change); State of Illinois (no budget in two years — and counting); Evanston as a divided city (mayoral election, equity issues vis-a-vis police-citizens, library, affordable housing)
Participatory budgeting (PB) provides a profound personal experience of direct democracy, often to a large number of people all at once. This is because PB is grassroots democracy of the most common sense variety — real people coming together to make real decisions about real resources and real issues in real time with real results.
PB is a proven, flexible method being used by local jurisdictions all over the U.S., after years of success in other countries.
Resources and synergies available to a 2017 Evanston-Northwestern PB project are abundant:
- Ald. Joe Moore is a Board member of the Participatory Budgeting Project
- The Chicago-based PBP staffperson, Maria Hadden, is a senior coordinator of many types of PB projects
- Great Cities Institute (University of Illinois-Chicago) is a formal partner with PBP
- The 2016 documentary film on PB, Count Me In, was made by Chicago filmmaker Ines Sommer, who is well known to Evanston and NU.
- Additional sweat equity by Evanston PB advocates
Additionally, Evanston has tried a limited version of PB, thanks to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz’s long-standing interest in public involvement. Our previous PB experience will be helpful in designing the full-fledged, in-depth process that has been such a game-changer in so many other locales.
An especially synergistic resource for a 2017-18 Evanston-NU PB project is this year’s choice of One Book, One Northwestern: Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by Danielle Allen. PB not only organically defends equality (and equity) but it actually demonstrates the manifestation of equality.
Participatory budget voting in Chicago.
The Good Neighbor Fund itself seems an ideal centerpiece for a complete PB process in Evanston. Created in 2015 by an agreement between the City of Evanston and Northwestern, the Fund stands as a breakthrough moment in the history of Evanston town-gown relations.
The GNF is an annual $1,000,000 donation to the City of Evanston by Northwestern, allocated each year for “capital projects supporting city infrastructure and facilities, specific support for existing city services, and special projects.”
During the first two years of the GNF (2015, 2016), allocations were made based on joint deliberation by Evanston’s mayor and NU’s president — but with no public discussion and little opportunity for direct public input.
The current agreement runs for three more years with the next GNF installment to be made after July 1, 2017. In response to Americans’ re-awakened interest in collective decision-making. this third year is an opportunity for even greater impact. Positive impacts of using a PB process to allocate the 2017 Good Neighbor Fund are potentially many with ramifications far beyond the initial GNF investment.
The first step towards starting a Good Neighbor Fund PB process would be a sit-down neighborly meeting to explore this proposal. I would be happy to help organize such a meeting.
Debbie Hillman, an Evanston resident since 1976, is a long-time community activist on food policy and other issues.