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In 22nd Ward, Residents Get Say in ‘Menu’ Money

Every ward in Chicago gets “menu money” for local improvements, but traditionally the only person able to choose off that menu has been the local alderman. The process, perhaps unsurprisingly, has left many Chicagoans feeling powerless to advocate for neighborhood improvements they consider most essential. 

Simone Alexander, of Enlace Chicago, is engaged in the participatory budgeting process in the 22nd Ward. Here she leads a meeting of the Parks and Gardens committee (one of six committees devoted to the process) at Shedd Park.

Photos by Gordon Walek

Now that’s changing, in the 22nd Ward and elsewhere, thanks to an innovation called “participatory budgeting.” 

Residents in 22nd Ward neighborhoods will vote this spring on just how to spend some of the $1.3 million that’s allocated toward infrastructure projects, choosing from a list developed and vetted by more than 500 local residents. Potential menu items include community gardens, bike lanes, street re-pavement and new murals on area viaducts.

Participatory budgeting was pioneered in Chicago in 2009 by 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore; this year it is taking place in the 49th Ward, the 45th Ward of Alderman John Arena, and Alderman Ricardo Muñoz’ 22nd Ward. 

In its first year, the 22nd Ward effort has served as a lesson in civic engagement and a catalyst for community building among diverse demographic groups. 

“People from different parts of the ward that would never have sat at the same table are working together,” said Simone Alexander, community development director at LISC partner agency Enlace Chicago. “I think there’s a lot of potential.” 

Diverse opportunities

The 22nd Ward is home to numerous cultural assets, ranging from murals of the Mexican immigrant experience to historic Black churches. But the area also faces serious economic challenges and deteriorating infrastructure. Last summer, a consideration of these challenges led Muñoz, his staffers and leaders at Enlace Chicago to bring participatory budgeting to the community. 

Since its debut in 2009, several Chicago wards have experimented with the concept. While some have seen great success, others found that a lack of planning and effective outreach led to participants losing interest as the months wore on and the meetings continued. 

Residents throughout the 22nd Ward, including Alice Stallworth from the "Triangle" section of North Lawndale, are involved in working out the details of participatory budgeting.

Residents of the 22nd Ward said their neighborhoods’ longstanding traditions of collective political action bode well for their effort. “The 22nd Ward has a natural organizing history,” said Amanda Cortés, assistant to Ald. Muñoz. “I feel a lot of our neighbors were really equipped to engage people in this process.” 

In keeping with the approach recommended by the Participatory Budgeting Project — a New York-based nonprofit that works to proliferate the process around the world — organizers in the 22nd Ward hosted five community meetings during the fall of 2013 to explain the limitations of menu funds and begin brainstorming potential projects. 

Outreach covered not only the heavily Mexican community of Little Village, but distinct neighborhoods such as Sleepy Hollow, LeClaire Hearst, Vittum Park and the "Triangle" section of North Lawndale. In all, more than 500 people came to those gatherings to learn more about the initiative. 

Public expo, then voting

Initial enthusiasm was generated by tapping networks created by previous community projects, such as Enlace’s 2013 convenings to update Little Village’s comprehensive quality-of-life plan. 

“We felt like we had a very healthy foundation from the beginning, and that made a lot of our work from then on a lot easier,” said 22nd Ward Aldermanic Assistant Abdul-Aziz Hassan. “Without the community partners, a lot of that initial organizing would have been difficult.” 

From there, organizers divided interested residents into six committees to focus on specific areas that might be addressed with menu funds. Those include streets, parks, schools, transit, public art and safety. The committees are currently finalizing project ideas. 

Their proposals will be presented at a public expo toward the end of April. Voting will take place from May 1 to May 7 at several locations throughout the ward. All ward residents ages 14 and older are invited to cast a ballot.

Work on the winning projects could begin as soon as this Spring. 

Ismael Enriquez, also a member of the Parks and Gardens committee, weighs in on how and why participatory budgeting can benefit the 22nd Ward.

Longtime 22nd Ward resident Joann Williams said that while there is likely to be some disappointment among participants whose projects are not selected, the process itself is worthwhile because it engages residents and establishes priorities for the months and years to come. 

“If we get people involved in doing something about their community, that’s always a positive thing,” she said. “Especially the older people, who I feel have a responsibility to train the younger folks in what community processes are about. That’s a very positive experience that needs to be shared with the younger generation.” 

More information about participatory budgeting is available at PBChicago.org, from the 22nd Ward office at 773-762-1771, and from Simone Alexander at Enlace Chicago, 773-823-1062.

Posted in Little Village

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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