Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The role of Northwestern University

So my boss, Dan Bassill, just wrote a piece in his blog (which can be found here: about the role that engaged universities should play in their surrounding communities, so I thought I would opine about how this relates to Northwestern University in particular. As anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Evanston can attest, town-gown relations have been strained for quite some time. This stems from, among other things, the fact that NU, as it predates the founding of the city of Evanston, is exempt from paying property taxes. Its continuing expansion into Evanston's tax base through the recent purchase of office buildings like 1800 Sherman Ave has also exacerbated things. Anyway, there is a clear sentiment among Evanston residents, particularly those living in less affluent areas of South and West Evanston, that Northwestern does not do enough to give back to the local community. This is particularly visible when the many multi-million dolllar construction projects in and immediately around the university are compared with the fact that in central west evanston, the percentage of residents living below the poverty line approaches 20%. A quick search on the tutormentorprogram locator found that there are 8 different tutor/mentor programs serving the youth of this area, however, like nearly all tutor/mentor programs, these tend to lack valuable resources such as, space, funding and volunteers. Imagine what would happen if NU decided to support tutor/mentor programs in Evanston by encouraging its nearly 3000 faculty and 15,000 students to engage with and inspire local youth through preexisting tutor/mentor programs. Or if alumni, instead of donating tens of millions of dollars at a time to strictly fund research and construction projects, they allocated a few $40,000 to $80,000 grants as well to tutor/mentor programs in order to empower the local community, one at-risk youth at a time.

In investing in area youth, Northwestern stands not only to improve town-gown relations, but to benefit in other, tangible ways as well. For instance, research has shown that students who are not positively engaged by adults and other role models such as those they find in a dedicated tutor/mentor program, are more likely to affiliate with gangs and other criminal elements that pose a threat to safety at the university. In fact, last year my roommate Alex was attacked in a gang initiation right outside of the movie theater and Chili's in Evanston, a popular student hangout merely one block from university property. He was knocked unconscious, kicked and beaten in the middle of the street by a group of teenagers until a woman dining at Chili's intervened. He learned in the court proceedings that followed that he was not the first student to be beaten within inches of his life in similar gang-initiations specifically targeting NU students. Therefore, Northwestern has a direct stake in the positive engagement of Evanston youth, not only for their well-being, but for the safety and security of their own student body.

During my tenure here at Cabrini Connections, I will try to form partnerships with student organizations such as the Northwestern Community Development Corps and the African American Student association FMO to get the Northwestern University community more engaged in combating poverty and injustice through active support and engagement with at-risk youth via tutor/mentor programs. I just started a social network called NU tutor/mentor connection which i will be constantly updating to serve as a hub and forum for the Northwestern University community to get involved with tutor/mentor programs both in Evanston and around Chicago. You can find it at Please join us!

hasta la victoria...siempre

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