With the final idea collection assembly Wednesday, Feb. 1, the stage is set for the next phase of the participatory budget process to decide how the city spends $3 million available through the American Rescue Plan Act, which allocated money for pandemic and economic recovery.
After several meetings to gather public input, budget delegates will polish ideas into 14 proposals over the next few months before a community vote scheduled in the fall, with at least four proposals making it to the city council early 2024.
Participatory budgeting, first introduced in Brazil in 1989, is a way for citizens to voice their priorities for civic improvement and engage in dialogue with municipalities on budget allocations.
“Participatory budget is direct democracy. It represents an opportunity for community members to directly allocate funds as well as learn about what it takes to allocate public funds,” said Matt Ouren, participatory budgeting manager.
As part of the initial process, PB Evanston, a Northwestern University group working with the city, hosted 11 “idea collection assemblies,” with a number of community-specific discussions, with the latest meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 1, focused on the Asian community at Koi restaurant in downtown Evanston.
Some of the ideas presented by the nearly 36 people present at the Wednesday discussion dealt with affordable housing, mental health facilities and an Asian cultural center. Prior conversations have centered on Black and Caribbean people, youth and young adults, Hispanic and Latino communities and families.
“Part of it is the specific ask, because if you get an invitation that’s like ‘come if you want,’ that’s different than being asked ‘we want you to come. We want to hear from you,’” Ouren said, stressing that the group made a concerted effort to gather input from a broad cross-section of the community.
On Monday, Jan. 30, the group’s penultimate community session was co-hosted with the local NAACP chapter at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center.
“I think this participatory budgeting is an opportunity for [people] to share what their needs are, how they feel about the divestment in Evanston and how best to use that money to fill some of those gaps,” said Willie Shaw, the organization’s political action chair.
She said the city has seen significant divestment from the African American community, particularly in the Fifth and Eighth Wards, citing the Foster school among services and institutions the community has lost.
“It doesn’t anywhere near level the playing field, but it’s a step,” she said.
Council Members Devon Reid (8th Ward) and Krissie Harris (2nd Ward) were there Monday. “When you turn over a pot of money that impacts a disproportionately-impacted community, those members get involved at high levels,” said Reid, who chairs the participatory budgeting committee.
While the next stage of the participatory budgeting process is not public-facing, community members are encouraged to sign on as budget delegates to shape ideas into proposals, Ouren said.
“Evanston is approximately 78,000 people and we want everyone to know. We’re trying to continue to grow and reach as many people as we can,” he said.