The city’s participatory budgeting program wants Evanston’s undocumented and underserved communities to participate in local government.

Anyone 14 or older who has a connection to Evanston can have a say in how the city chooses to spend $3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“The City of Evanston is looking for ways to have underserved communities participate,” said Ndona Muboyayi, participatory budgeting field manager.

“A lot of these people have never had the opportunity to speak about what they want to see in their own city.” 

Ndona Muboyayi, from left, Joyce Hill and Renne Stone at Saturday’s participatory budget brainstorming session. Credit: Gina Castro

Undocumented people and youth under 18 can’t vote and often feel powerless against issues they see in their communities, Muboyayi explained.

But the participatory budgeting process allows a wider variety of people to participate. No identification is required for people to participate in participatory budgeting. 

The city is collecting ideas now

The participatory budgeting is in the idea-collection phase until February. Anyone can join in on the conversation. Leaders of the participatory budgeting program, such as Jackson Paller, briefly explain the budgeting process at the start of each brainstorming session and then the audience splits into smaller groups to discuss what issues they have seen in the community and solutions to solve those problems. 

“That’s what you all are here to do: address community needs,” Paller said. “Anytime you’re doing democracy, you’re training new civic leaders as well. And that’s something I’m really excited about for this process.”

Participatory Budget idea meeting on Nov. 22. Credit: Manan Bhavnani

The city began hosting participatory budgeting brainstorming sessions in November. Its website lists several upcoming brainstorming events, including meetings in Spanish to reach the Spanish speaking community, Muboyayi said.

The NAACP will host a meeting, and there will be another catering toward the African, Caribbean, immigrant and refugee communities, she said.

People can also take things a step further by volunteering to be a budget delegate, which is someone who will work with city staff to draft a maximum of 14 proposals. The city staff will help the delegates figure out the total cost of each of the issues in each proposal. 

Then in summer 2023 the community will vote on which of the proposals it wants to see implemented. No identification is required to vote. Those who choose to vote are only required to sign a document indicating that they have a connection to the city. 

Participatory Budget idea meeting on Nov. 22. Credit: Manan Bhavnani

The RoundTable spoke with participants after Saturday’s participatory budgeting brainstorming session. 

Michelle Long shared some concerns about safety in James Park, which is in the Eighth Ward. Others in her group recommended she reached out directly to Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, to share her concerns.

“I have very limited conversations about social issues around Evanston, so this gives a great forum to do that with a very diverse population,” Long said.

Renne Stone, another participant during Saturday’s brainstorming session, said she was skeptical of the participatory budgeting process. But after attending two sessions, she felt empowered by the experience and decided to voice a concern that has impacted her and her family.

Prof. Matt Easterday begins his presentation on participatory budgeting at an August 4 town hall. Credit: Alex Harrison

“It seems very democratic,” Stone said. “It seems like they will take into consideration what other people have to say, and the ideas that are presented. I like that it’s kind of independent from the city in a sense.”

Stone recommended adding more lighting to James Park so that residents can feel safe staying in the park until it closes, which is at 11 pm.

“It’s a no brainer,” said Hank Neyberger, who was in Stone’s group during the meeting. “A simple fix.”

Saturday’s meeting inspired Stone and Long to sign up to be budget delegates. A total of six people volunteered to be budget delegates after Saturday’s meeting.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. I can’t imagine anything more elitist and undemocratic than this.

    Working people with actual jobs and family obligations don’t have the time to spend at a “brainstorming session.” Furthermore, this privileges small numbers of people who are able to martial their allies and like-minded people to “flood the zone” with proposals.

    The city also paid about $100k for a consultant to run the process which means that there is $100k less that can be spent on things like lights in the park (to use one person’s concern).

    We have a city manager and professionals in charge of various departments to come up with a budget for the city. The budget is publicly available and has to be approved by elected council members. There are ample opportunities to make citizen feelings known at normal budget hearings and (ultimately) at the ballot box for the election of council members.

    This “participatory democracy” experiment is nothing more than an elitist effort in democracy theater.