Lisa Blair walked from one display to another at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, reading explanations of the 20 projects up for a vote this month, and speaking with backers of each option.

Under Evanston’s experiment with “participatory budgeting” (PB), $3 million in federal ARPA Covid Relief has been set aside by City Council for projects determined by community volunteers, and then voted upon by the public, not by Council.

“The concept appeals to me,” said Blair.

Lisa Blair at PB Expo.

“City Council does not always make such great decisions,” she added.

Under PB, voters can choose up to seven projects out of the 20. But when the $3 million runs out, that’s it. If, say, the top four vote-getters eat up all the money, there’s no more.

The “Expo” was a one-stop-shopping site for learning about the ideas, and then voting (although it is also possible to vote online or at other in-person locations).

Ballots can be cast through Sept. 30.

All 20 projects combined total around $11 million, so there’s a reasonable chance that there will not be seven winners. Programs range from a low of $50,000 (Mental Health First Aid Training) to $2.5 million (Mobile Dental Van), with an average cost of $558,000.

Renee Stone and her twin, 14-year-old daughters, Aleah and Alexa, were on hand to explain the Activities & Education Support for Marginalized Students ($700,000).

Renee Stone and daughters Aleah (L) and Alexa (R).

The goal is to help reduce the achievement gap between white and Black/Brown school children, with financial support for camps and activities. The program would also provide incentives such as bowling parties all the way to a college tour for those who take part.

“Sometimes kids need an extra push” to get involved, said Aleah.

“We want to make sure they’re on top of everything to help their academics.”

Aleah’s twin, Alexa, said “I’m in the age group and have friends who need some extra support. This project fits our generation.”

At another table, Thony Daye was outlining the African/Caribbean Cultural & Resource Center proposal ($628,500)

Thony Daye at PB Expo.

With a large number of immigrants in Evanston from those parts of the world, particularly from Haiti, Daye said, “A lot of people don’t know where resources are” for such things as language translation, getting to medical appointments and finding legal services.

While the long-term goal is to have a physical building, Daye said this funding will help rent space while a longer-term strategy is developed.

Some critics have pointed out that unlike Rogers Park in Chicago, where PB funds only one-time capital projects such as park and street improvements, most of the Evanston PB proposals are for social, cultural and human services.

When the PB funding runs out for the winning Evanston ideas, the need will still exist, as will the demand to then come up with more money from the financially strapped city.

Some of the proposals even call for hiring new public employees to carry out the projects.

Renee Stone acknowledged the financial reality, but said the goal for the Activities & Education Incentives includes monitoring of whether student achievement actually increases among participants.

“If it is working,” Stone said, “it opens the door for Northwestern” or other organizations to then raise money in the future for the program, perhaps through a new nonprofit.

NOTE: Because of space limitations, it was not possible to interview representatives for each of the 20 projects for this story. The interviews here were chosen at random. To find out more about all 20 proposals, as well how to register to vote, how to cast a ballot online or in person, the next Expo, and who is eligible to vote (which has been controversial), go to

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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