Stratton and Sawhney: Does Northwestern adequately give back to the Evanston community?

Asha Sawhney and Abigail Stratton

It is well-known in the Evanston community and on campus that Northwestern has a historically strained “town and gown” relationship with the city of Evanston, most notably due to the Charter of the State of Illinois in 1851 that granted the University tax-exempt status. Residents of Evanston pay some of the highest property taxes of any municipality in Cook County due to this charter, and in the early 2000s, tensions over the charter led to citizens forming the Fair Share Action Committee that lobbied the University to pay $15 million to the city annually. A separate group called the Independent Senior Citizens of Evanston went as far as to come up with a plan to de-annex the University from the city of Evanston completely.

In the past few years, however, the University has appeared to fare better in its relationship with Evanston. There have been various economic and social efforts to connect the two communities, such as this year’s $5 million commitment from NU to the city over five years and the opening of a partnership office at Evanston Township High School in 2012. We aim to explore these economic and social efforts and whether or not they have succeeded in changing the culture of town-and-gown relations.

Abigail Stratton: NU has a positive economic impact on Evanston

NU has made strides toward bettering its relationship with the city of Evanston. Many of these efforts have been monetary, though others involve student relationships with Evanston residents as well as with the city itself.

On the NU website, there is a section devoted to neighborhood and community relations, which promotes awareness of programming, events, local business opportunities and opportunities for community outreach. Also on this page is a study that the University commissioned detailing NU’s positive economic impact on Evanston. This study claims that in the 2004 fiscal year, NU directly and indirectly contributed between $145 and $175 million to the Evanston economy through payments to the city, University purchases from Evanston businesses, spending in Evanston stores, rent paid by students, faculty and staff, as well as local spending by visitors to NU.

However, these figures are questionable. Every university or college town will improve its community’s economy through purchases from businesses, rent and student/visitor shopping. The study also cites a lot of figures that “indirectly generated” revenues for Evanston in 2004. In reality, NU and its contractors directly paid $4.9 million to Evanston in 2004.

This is still a significant sum of money and is one of the ways NU contributes to the Evanston community. Dance Marathon has also been a donor to the Evanston Community Foundation since 1997. Last year, DM donated 10 percent of its profits, totalling more than $90,000, to help funding for local grants. Because DM is such a large and well-known campus event, it speaks well for NU’s relationship with Evanston because a large sum of students’ fundraising goes toward the Evanston community.

Beyond NU’s monetary contributions to Evanston, the University has also made efforts to encourage a positive relationship with the city, its residents and students who live off campus. For example, the Off-Campus Life section of the Division of Student Affairs sends out emails with warnings and helpful hints to keep students safe and aware. These emails include Evanston codes for housing and guidelines for handling neighbors, landlords, etc., showing not only a concerted effort to ameliorate the University’s official relationship with Evanston, but also the relationship between Evanston and the NU student body. In addition, NU recently hired a new executive director of neighborhood and community relations, Alan Anderson, showing NU’s interest in engaging in the Evanston community.

Although NU can surely do more to maintain and improve its relationship with the city, it has already made positive strides. Economically, NU seems to benefit Evanston and vice versa. However, the relationship between a town and a college is not just made genuine or legitimate by money. While the economic relationship between Evanston and NU has improved significantly, there is still something to be desired in terms of the cultural or social connectedness of the two entities.

Asha Sawhney: NU must improve its cultural and social relationship with Evanston

Like many of our other peer institutions, the University of Pennsylvania focuses on civic engagement in its surrounding neighborhood, West Philadelphia. The Civic House is UPenn’s center of community service and social advocacy work and provides educational resources for underserved youth from the area.

When looking at similar programs enacted by NU, it is difficult to find any targeted toward Evanston youth. Jumpstart, a popular program where students can teach underserved preschoolers only features Chicago locations, and Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools, a program that helps CPS students prepare for college and that University President Morton Schapiro announced last April, focuses on only Chicago as well.

Why is it that charitable efforts by the University are all aimed toward Chicago? Contrary to popular belief, it is not because there is no need for such programs in Evanston. At the local high school, 39 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch because of low family income. It is no secret in the Evanston community that we are a racially diverse yet deeply segregated town or that many children and teenagers struggle to get the resources they need to be safe, healthy and academically successful. But this reality is practically unknown by the NU student body.

As an Evanston Township Wildkit turned Wildcat, I’ve noticed a lack of transparency on NU’s behalf regarding happenings in the surrounding community. For example, during Wildcat Welcome, ETHS had a lockdown after a shooting occurred nearby. There was no publicized reaction from NU about this event despite happening less than a mile from campus, which is a worthy reason to send out at least an email. The harsh truth, though, is that as long as NU students remain unaware of the gun violence and segregation that make black and latino youth in Evanston susceptible to danger, the administration is not going to turn people’s attention in that direction. Instead, the focus of civic engagement will remain on Chicago — maybe because the struggles there are already widely known.

Another example that highlights the erasure of local violence at NU is the school’s lack of commemoration of the death of Ricky Byrdsong, a former assistant basketball coach for NU and a black father of three who was shot by a white supremacist in 1999. Each year the YWCA hosts a hugely popular 5K entitled “Race Against Hate” in his memorial, but NU remains silent.

This week, the Evanston community was struck yet again by senseless violence when ETHS graduate Kaylyn Pryor was shot while visiting her grandmother in Englewood. Pryor touched the lives of all who knew her, and as much as my heart wants the NU community to understand this loss, NU is not immersed in the Evanston community enough for this to happen. The safe, cozy environment away from the violence of Chicago is frankly only felt by the middle- and upper-class white residents of this town who have the privilege of safety and the ability to isolate themselves in “suburbia.” As long as NU perpetuates the myth that this is the experience of all Evanstonians, this lack of awareness will stand in the way of a genuine relationship with Evanston.

A previous version of this article misrepresented Evanston’s property tax rate relative to the rest of Cook County. Evanston does not have the highest property tax rate in Cook County. The Daily regrets the error.

Abigail Stratton is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.