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.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great Idea! Last year’s GNF was self-serving to NU

    Last year, $500,000 of the big $1 million of the “Good Neighbor Fund” dedicated to Evanston from NU went to…bike paths in front of NU. And, their $1 million donation to the Robert Crown was appreciated, but wasn’t quite a donation…they are paying to use premium ice time for NU players. Being that NU isn’t paying taxes, diminshed two of our incredible beaches (Lighthouse and Clake St) with completely out of scale buildings that they put on the periphery of their campus, so in the heart of our best areas. Was it being a good neighbor when they moved parking, and building tall buildings “on the gateway of campus as to not blight our (NU) park-like atmopshere?”

    I wish they would have been a good neighbor and also have thought of Evanston’s park like atmosphere and serene beaches. Take a look and see that there are no tall dorms, buildings, parking garages anywhere on their core campus. They have added greenspace and moved it all to the edges so it not prevalent for them, but it sure is for Evanston. Should they have had to pay us for dimishing these two beaches–treasured natural resources?? Back a few years ago…what about the price tag for taking away part of Clarke St beach, 40 mature trees to build the biggest, widest rarely used service road and a barely used 7 story parking garage looming over the beach? (I attended a meeting where NU officials laughed that it was not even being used.) Well, the price tag for that was $1 to the City of Evanston. Seriously.

    Sitting on $10 BILLION (or is it $12 billion,) they buy our houses and our buildings, take them off the tax rolls while we have to raise our taxes for schools. developing everything on “the gateways” too high, too big, too much, really doing as they please, I think it is fair that citizens/the city decide where the money goes. I don’t want to seem ungrateful for this money and I am glad for it, but a) I do know that Princeton and many others give a heck of a lot more and 2) let’s don’t have strings attached always. I also think NU could have a lot more good will if they really knocked it out of the park with a huge donation to Crown and Harley Clarke (since they kind of ruined that beach with the said insane development on the south side–go take a look.) 

    Finally, be a good neighbor and DO NOT pursue city zoning change to go higher, bigger, closer on a new dorm on “the Evanston side” at Sheridan Road that will wall off the lake as we drive down Sheridan Road. Build the tall buildings for once on your own campus. How about your lakeside dorms behind the new practice facility? How about the already existing ones on Chicago Ave where you own all the property around?

    1. reply to Guest
      Speaking of the parking garage on the south campus, we paid $8.00 (a flat fee) to park there for one hour. This gouging should be eliminated if the university is really interested in giving back to to the community.

  2. Spend the rest of the NU gift

    Spend the rest of the NU gift-money this year to do Sheridan Road where NU owns most of the property on either side of the street and wants the road changes.

  3. Who(m)ever decided that the

    Who(m)ever decided that the mayor and NU pres could decide for all of Evanston’s residents?  And didn’t the two of them have a separate relationship?  I thought I heard the mayor brag that Morty gave her 50-yard-line tickets for NU football games so she could take her grandchildren.  Hardly transparent or moving toward equity!

    1. To the extent that it’s a gift …

      the donor typically does get a say in how a gift is used.

      Of course, to the extent that it’s extortion, the extortionist tends to demand control over how the money is spent.

      — Bill

  4. Northwestern’s Tax Impact on Evanston Residents/Taxpayers
    I posted the following in February when it was announced that NU was buying 1840 Oak St. and posed the question about what that means to my tax bills and what/how does the current 21st Century tax exemption policies affect the bottom-line for residents/taxpayers… It’s time to review this ancient covenant and implications it has for our community. I think we should ask our leaders to undertake an analysis to the impact of these policies and exemptions and begin to ask the tough questions to the University about equity for the the community it continues to gobble up.

    Respectfully, Brian G. Becharas

    Leaving the tax rolls?

    Submitted by Brian Becharas on February 13, 2017 – 12:21pm

    As a multiple parcel taxpayer in Evanston, I am very concerned about properties that leave our tax rolls for one reason or another.

    Northwestern University was founded in 1851 and has enjoyed tax exemptions for most of their 166 years (Evanston was founded in 1863)… It occurs to me that their ancient covenant with the City of Evanston needs to be revised for the 21st Century.

    Evanston’s total land area is only 7.8 sq/miles. When a property leaves the tax rolls that means my tax bills can only go up! Methinks it would be fair to the taxpayers of our community if henceforth, everything east of Sheridan Rd would be tax exempt. Everything west of Sheridan Rd. not directly related to educational activities should be taxed fairly.

    Furthermore, I don’t know the answer to this question but when a home or residence is donated to the University (like a few of my friend’s family homes were) and are provided as housing to University faculty and staff – are these properties paying property taxes? If they are not and these faculty or staff have children attending public schools in Evanston – who covers the 10’s of thousands of dollars per pupil?

    To be honest, I recognize the University’s founder status here. I have attend school there in mid-70’s and enjoy many of the benefits of the University’s presence in our community. But to ignore the 800 lb gorilla which are our tax problems would be irresponsible… especially when an Institution that has a cache of $9.6 Billion (as of 2016 – one of the top 10 Endowments in the US) in their kitty is part of the problem.

    I feel strongly that it is time to ask the tough questions and move more towards equity for the citizens and other entities who occupy the other part of these 7.8 sq/miles who pay taxes. I trust that the next mayor will address this with our friends and neighbors at the University.

    Respectfully submitted, Brian G. Becharas

    – See more at:

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