‘More representation, more visibility’: Evanston’s Asian American community claims its voice in participatory budgeting


Illustration by Ziye Wang

When Melissa Raman Molitor heard about Evanston’s new participatory budgeting pilot program, she wanted Evanston’s ASPA community to have a voice in the process.

Casey He, Assistant City Editor

When Melissa Raman Molitor, a first-generation Filipino-Indian-American, moved to Evanston in 2011, she saw little recognition for the city’s Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander American community. 

“There have been no spaces or organizations that specifically support or offer resources for the ASPA community in Evanston,” Molitor said.

So when she heard about Evanston’s new participatory budgeting pilot program that lets residents give input on how to spend $3 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funding, Molitor wanted Evanston’s ASPA community to have a voice in the process.

After she expressed interest, Molitor said an organizer for participatory budgeting reached out to her and offered her a seat on the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee.

“We really need to, as a community, make sure that we are involved in as many spaces in the city as possible,” Molitor said.

Starting in October 2022, the committee and volunteers from Participatory Budgeting Evanston — a community organization that helps with canvassing, outreach and event facilitation — have organized a series of ten idea collection events for residents to discuss and submit their ideas for the budget.

On Wednesday, Molitor led one of the idea collection events at downtown Evanston restaurant Koi Fine Asian Cuisine & Lounge with more than 40 Evanston residents, community organizers and volunteers from PB Evanston.

Between plates of spring rolls, dumplings and lo mein, residents and volunteers brainstormed and developed ideas for the budget. Chatter and laughter coincided with the clinking of chopsticks and forks hitting bowls and plates.

Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) gave a brief remark at the opening of the event.

“We want you all to know that all voices are going to be heard,” Harris said. “Use your voices so that we as a city can hear you and respect what you’re doing and bring light to some of those voices.”

SESP Ph.D. student in Learning Sciences Kristine Lu moderated a group discussion at the event.

As an organizer for PB Evanston and a technical assistant for the city, Lu said her responsibilities include facilitating the participatory budgeting process, planning events like this and providing training to volunteers.  

“PB happened to be a great opportunity … in which we thought, hey, this is a great way we can apply our expertise as researchers and as designers to supporting a real-world opportunity,” Lu said.

Karen Lu, Kristine Lu’s mother, said the number of residents in attendance impressed her.

“I think it’s very important for the people in the society to be involved,” Karen Lu said. “They know how the money is spent and where they want the money to be spent.”

During the discussion, Karen Lu said she wants the city to continue to provide at-home COVID-19 test kits and masks in public buildings and on public transportation.

Evanston resident Maggie Peng said she wants to see the city repurpose underutilized public spaces, like schools and churches, to provide youth programming. 

“Residents and people in Evanston need to have more of a voice in what happens with the ARPA fund,” Peng said. “So far, a lot of the funding has been spoken for. And there’s also a lot of initiatives in the city of Evanston where there’s not enough gathering of community voices.”

After several rounds of discussion and voting within groups, five groups of residents presented their three top ideas to applause. Some of the proposals included a city-funded K-12 curriculum on Asian American history in local schools, an Asian American culture center, city-wide Wi-Fi coverage and a mental health counseling program.

Matthew Ouren, the city’s participatory budgeting manager, said the event at Koi marks the end of the idea collection phase of participatory budgeting. 

Next, the city will work with budget delegates — a role residents can sign up for — to develop the raw ideas into up to 14 proposals, Ouren said. These proposals will appear on ballots in August.

Anyone 14 or older who lives, works or studies in Evanston is eligible to vote. City Council will then fund the proposals with the most votes and continue down the list until reaching the $3 million allocated.

Molitor said she hopes Evanston’s ASPA community will continue being politically active even after the participatory budgeting process concludes.

“My ultimate goal is to get the community involved civically in general so that we have more voices, more representation, more visibility,” Molitor said. “This felt like a good way to do that.”

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Twitter: @caseeey_he

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