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Northwestern University Professor Matt Easterday begins his presentation on participatory budgeting at Thursday’s town hall. Credit: Alex Harrison

Organizers with Northwestern University-based group PB Evanston held a town hall Thursday evening to kick off the City of Evanston’s participatory budgeting process, where residents will pitch, develop and vote on projects toward which the city will allocate $3 million of funding.

A handful of residents turned out to the Civic Center’s Parasol Room for the event, which was led by Northwestern professor and PB Evanston Director Matt Easterday. He introduced the audience to the process, which was first developed in Brazil in 1989 and is now practiced in an estimated 7,000 municipalities worldwide.

“In short, it’s a democratic process where community members decide how to spend part of a public budget, so it gives people real power over real money,” Easterday said. “The city has given $3 million of ARPA funding, and is letting the residents decide how to spend it.”

The City Council earmarked ARPA funds for participatory budgeting in December 2021. A committee composed of Mayor Daniel Biss and Council Members Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward), Bobby Burns (5th Ward) and Devon Reid (8th Ward) first met in February 2022 to begin planning the process, and on June 27 the City Council approved an agreement with Northwestern to bring the PB Evanston team on to facilitate and provide technical assistance.

Ndona Muboyayi (left) listens to Matt Easterday answer her question. Credit: Alex Harrison

Evanston is currently in the design phase of participatory budgeting, and the city has opened an application for residents to join a steering committee to direct the process and develop a rulebook. Easterday said this rulebook will be a comprehensive roadmap to the city’s process and will include goals and principles, evaluation metrics, voter eligibility, project criteria, voting rules and an overall timeline.

Easterday said the committee will be “11 to 16 members” from across Evanston, including individuals, council members and representatives from local civic organizations. He said that the makeup and level of engagement on the steering committee will be critically important to how much the wider community buys in later in the process.

“It’s really important that we get a really representative group of steering committee members, because they make big decisions about how PB is going to work,” Easterday said. “This is really up to the community, right? We’re gonna show up and do it right, or we’re not. Really, that’s the great and bad thing about this, is that it’s up to us.”

During and after the presentation, Easterday and city grant manager Sarah Flax answered questions from the audience about how the participatory budgeting process works and how it will be designed to suit Evanston’s specific community characteristics. A primary concern was how to make sure that underrepresented communities are both aware of the process and able to access it.

Attendee Joyce Hill asked Easterday how PB Evanston is making the process visible to the community, and as an example, Easterday said their outreach at last week’s 5th Ward block party was the most successful so far, garnering 73 sign-ups. After the town hall ended, Hill told the RoundTable she plans to volunteer with the group throughout the process.

Joyce Hill (center) signs up to volunteer with PB Evanston. Credit: Alex Harrison

“Definitely with the outreach, definitely with reaching the population that is isolated and need a little kick start,” Hill said. “I know some good people who have very good ideas, and I’m looking forward to getting them in the door and dispeling the the idea that they never tell us nothing.”

Attendee Ndona Muboyayi told the RoundTable she didn’t know about participatory budgeting prior to the town hall’s announcement, and said she was encouraged by what she heard. She said she hopes the process can provide a way for underrepresented residents to gain some priority in the budgeting process, especially for the “multitude of needs that have often gone unaddressed” in the Black community.

“I think that this would be a great move for Evanston to move forward to be able to help those that are most in need,” Muboyayi said. “I am going to apply, and I know a number of people that will also be applying, and that are looking to get other people engaged in the process.”

The current PB committee will begin reviewing applications for the steering committee on Aug. 22, and final appointments by City Council are tentatively planned for Sept. 12. More information on the process can be found at pbevanston.org.

Alex Harrison

Alex Harrison joins the RoundTable for the summer in between his undergraduate and graduate studies at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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