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How do you give Chicagoans a say in the city’s budget?

A Q&A with the designer of the People’s Budget bus tour

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People’s Budget Chicago in Bronzeville with GoodKids MadCity - CUE CHICAGO
  • CUE Chicago
  • People’s Budget Chicago in Bronzeville with GoodKids MadCity

This story was originally published by City Bureau on November 9, 2020.

Spurred by the disastrous impacts of COVID-19 on Chicago's south and west side communities and summer uprisings calling to defund the police, Chicago United for Equity set its sights on a goal: to inform Chicago's communities on the city's budget process and how they can have a say in it.

Derived from the 2019 Vote Equity Project, CUE developed the People's Budget Chicago, which traveled around the city in a bus tour. At each stop, community members got to create their own budgets by allocating a hypothetical $100 among six categories: health, education, housing, infrastructure, community resources, and the carceral system (police). Afterward, Chicagoans compared their personal budget to the city's 2020 budget. (Disclosure: City Bureau Documenters attended and took notes at these events.)

This year, the city saw a large increase in responses to the annual budget survey, receiving a total of 38,336 responses, five times more than the year prior. While every ZIP code was represented in the survey responses, 45 percent of respondents resided on the north side.

One of the people behind the People's Budget is Paola Aguirre Serrano, the founder of Borderless, an urban research and design studio, and a 2019 cohort fellow at CUE. This year, she designed the People's Budget bus tour with a focus on community engagement.

Tell me about CUE's community engagement process. How do they differ from the city's methods?

We're talking to people, we're with people. It's not the same as the city's engagement around the budget. You're doing these exercises with numbers that mean nothing to people outside the city's finance office. It's about finding a different way to speak about resources in a way that is accessible. If you're talking about $7 billion with normal residents, we're not [comfortable] talking billions of dollars. A hundred dollars? I understand what that is.

People’s Budget Chicago in Roseland with Roses in Roseland - CUE CHICAGO
  • CUE Chicago
  • People’s Budget Chicago in Roseland with Roses in Roseland

The People's Budget bus traveled to at least nine south and west side communities. Why did you decide to go to those neighborhoods?

We wanted to select the neighborhoods that we knew were not going to be represented in the survey. We decided to make a list of all the communities [that experience the most disinvestment] in Chicago and we used the Childhood Opportunity Index as a tool to define those on the far south side, west side. So it was no wonder that we were at Austin, Roseland, or South Lawndale, in all these places that we knew that were not going to be meaningfully included.

Thinking of your budget bus tours, what are community members most interested in funding in the budget?

There's a lot of inclination for community resources. Stability comes as a very strong desire. If you have stable housing, if you have resources, everything else feels secondary. People need to have a place to live and have access to the things that make our daily life stable like childcare, arts and culture, wellness and mental health. When we're speaking with parents, education comes through, [but] on the top I would say it's community resources, health and housing.

CUE held activities and small group discussions during the bus tour. What have you learned so far from your participants?

What we've been learning is that in order for our communities to thrive, we need to be stable first. What are the most basic things community members need to be stable? Access to food, access to housing, and everything else kind of built around that. But stability is something that I've noticed over and over, table after table, as a very genuine part of the conversation.

People’s Budget Chicago in Uptown with Americans Advancing Justice and Jewish Council on Urban Affairs - CUE CHICAGO
  • CUE Chicago
  • People’s Budget Chicago in Uptown with Americans Advancing Justice and Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

In 2020's budget, the city spent $36 out of every $100 on policing. How did participants respond to this?

People have an intuition about how much money goes into policing, especially this year with the uprisings. There's a lot of frustration. After people do the [budget bus] table, set their priorities, we have this reveal moment: This is what the group wants. Do you want to know what the city of Chicago actually spends? Over a third of the money goes to police, and most of the allocation is for policing or carceral systems. Most allocations for policing in these exercises is around $8 to $10 out of 100, and when they see 36 their hearts drop. They know it but when they see it, it's a different feel. Like really, you're telling me it's just $4 [out of $100] for health?

There is a realization of how the priorities of investment are not in things that will help them to be stable and it's a little heartbreaking. But then we go to the part where we ask, for now, what can you do? [We think] about the impacts of advocacy and organizing. Many residents say they only see their alderman or woman when it's election time, and that's just very frustrating to hear.

What do you hope that CUE's budget bus tour attendees took away from this experience?

Shifting power has to do with access to knowledge and access to tools. This means communities feel confident and strong about having conversations on resources that they believe in. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of having that platform to convey that message. What we are trying to do is leverage voices and be a platform for people to advocate for things that they feel strongly about.

What are your biggest takeaways regarding the budget process and the greater Chicago community's knowledge of it?

We need to invest more. It's not enough that community organizations are doing this on their own. Participatory budgeting is such a powerful tool, yet we've done very little to engage our communities to understand and participate in a productive way around the budget.  v

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.

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