“Count Me In”

I attended yesterday’s advance screening of “Count Me In,” a one-hour documentary about participatory budgeting (PB) that focuses on the PB experience in four Chicago wards; the 5th, 22nd, 27th, and 49th. Three years in the making, we see groups of neighbors learn to work together to identify structural problems or omissions and vote to direct taxpayer monies toward partially or totally resolving them. The learning process–and the costs of funding improvements–become clear as he process unfolds.

The segment on the 29th Ward is especially interesting because Ald. Burnett, who initially refused to consider PB for his ward, finally used the process to involve his community in spending TIF funds–the only instance in which PB has been utilized in this way. Another part of the film details the experience at Sullivan High School, whose principal allowed the students to use the PB process to determine funding for school improvements.

The film showcases both the successes and failures of the process, which is informed and improved by the experiences of PB participants. Two examples stand out. In the first, a single, gerrymandered ward (the 22nd) with small communities of African-Americans and whites and a large Latino community experiences problems with its first PB voting. Not surprisingly, Latino projects were funded for the simple reason that there were more voters in that section of the ward choosing projects.  All three communities had to come together to determine ways to ensure that projects were funded more fairly in the future.

On the south side, we witness the disappointment of one resident whose proposal for a community garden was accepted by voters but who learned to his dismay that the funding agency refused to grant financing because there was an unsuccessful community garden three blocks from his proposed site. Securing PB funding meant going through yet another process of proving the need for his site, or, as he saw it, making him responsible for the failed garden. Citizens working together came up with a solution.

The film’s producer/director, Ines Sommer, who lives in Rogers Park, was on hand for a panel discussion afterwards, along with the 49th Ward’s PB liaison Cecelia Sanchez, Sarah Lisy, former head of the 49th Ward Leadership Team, Chad Addams, Sullivan’s principal, and Ald. Joe Moore.

The film will be broadcast on PBS this Thursday, November 3, at 8:00 p.m. on WTTW Channel 11.

Learn more about the film itself at its Web site.

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