In March of 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into law. This sweeping legislation sent an unprecedented amount of money - $350 billion – to state and local governments to rebuild and renew their communities after the damage and trauma of the Covid19 pandemic. Evanston is an economically and racially diverse city of 100,000 which borders Chicago, received $43 million from ARPA. Evanston has a long history of community involvement and progressive policies. As an example, in 2021 it became the first city in the United States to implement a reparations program for Black residents.
When Evanston received $43 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, city professional staff
proposed a spending plan and presented it to the City Council for approval. But two new Evanston
leaders- Mayor Daniel Biss and Evanston Community Foundation (ECF) CEO Sol Anderson- thought a different approach that brought a broad range of Evanston’s stakeholders into the process would be better.
Sol knew Evanston politics and he knew the depth of ideas and a unity of purpose that community
residents have to offer. He asked a simple but powerful question:
“When every dollar is spent, how will Evanston be changed for the better?”
Daniel and Sol, along with the Northwestern University’s Office of Neighborhood and Community
Relations and Evanston Cradle to Career, imagined a map built on community vision that would seek change at the heart of Evanston.
The Evanston Community Foundation contracted with Rakove and Strassberger to facilitate seven
community stakeholder topic-specific roundtables and develop a public report based on community
input. We had two months.
Image: NBC NEWS
One of Evanston’s assets is its network of nonprofits and businesses who work collaboratively. ECF tapped into this network to recruit people with passion and expertise around each of the seven topics. Over 169 people from 62 organizations, exclusive of the City of Evanston staff and ECF, participated. Evanston Latinos and other trusted messengers played critical roles in outreach. Evanston’s new City Clerk actually provided simultaneous translation for a bilingual session and Mayor Biss attended very session.
We had two tasks.
Structure the roundtables
so that discussion brought out shared themes for change and priorities for funding.
This would avoid public listening sessions which produce a litany of personal requests and ideas and grievances but no common vision or direction.
In addition to the roundtables, community input for the report came from three City of Evanston Town Hall meetings, the Youth Roundtable, and a report from the Early Childhood Learning Council. We needed to analyze hours of discussion and synthesize it in a report that gave direction without identifying winners and losers of funding. Done well, it would be a strong
beginning for democratizing budget decision-making.
Impact at 3 Months
From the voices of more than 500 Evanston residents and dozens of organizations came shared
direction in defining:
Cross-sector themes for change
Criteria to use in the funding allocation decision-making process
Recommendations that could be used by Evanston for development of initiatives beyond the
ARPA allocation process.
This report was presented to City Council and both English and Spanish versions were made available not only to elected representatives but broadly to the public. While it is not clear that City Council is prepared to act independently of City professional staff, this is a start to a more transparent process that builds on community priorities.
ECF, City of Evanston Staff, Evanston Cradle to Career, Northwestern University’s Office of Neighborhood and Community Relations, Evanston Early Childhood Council, Girls Play Sports, and Evanston Latinos have formed a partnership to keep the work going forward.