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Grants To Minority Communities From Illinois Marijuana Tax Are Hit And Miss

Illinois is dedicating 25% of all state tax revenue from recreational marijuana to grants to address longstanding issues in underserved communities. Some applicants feel the program isn't living up to it's promises.
Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois is dedicating 25% of all state tax revenue from recreational marijuana to grants to address longstanding issues in underserved communities. Some applicants feel the program isn't living up to its promises.

A major part of Illinois’ landmark cannabis legalization seeks to partially rectify decades of drug criminalization that severely harmed communities of color throughout the state.

But a marijuana tax-funded grant program to help underserved areas is receiving mixed reviews.

Lawmakers promised 25% of the new tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales would go directly to those communities in the form of grants to address long-standing issues.

The provision was key to the success of the legislation, which established the Restore, Reinvest and Renew program, known as R3, to distribute money for projects that focus on civil legal aid, economic development, re-entry from prison, violence prevention and youth development.

The grants are meant to be flexible, centering on the individual solutions proposed by organizations in different areas of the state, said Quinn Rallins, state director of justice, equity and opportunity initiatives.

“Our communities have the best understanding of their own need,” he said.

The state announced the first wave of $31.5 million in grants to 80 nonprofit organizations and government bodies, including three projects in Metro East communities, in January.

Investment in communities

The three R3 projects funded in the Metro East total a little more than $1.75 million, with the majority going directly to about a dozen organizations or local governments in zones that Illinois deems “high risk.”

Catholic Urban Programs, based in East St. Louis, is receiving $168,850 of an $829,240 award to the United Way of Greater St. Louis to enhance out-of-school programming. The grant also provides funding to four other local community organizations and East St. Louis School District 189.

“The children in this community need this,” said Toni Muhammad, Catholic Urban Programs executive director.

For all the organizations involved, the grants go to expanding existing services they provide for the community.

Catholic Urban Programs focuses on providing for K-8 students with its partner organization, the Griffin Center After School Program.

“With this funding, we can hire the additional staff and get the equipment — computers, et cetera— that we need,” said Henrietta Young, the center’s director.

The money also may allow the center to open another location that is closer to public housing developments, something it has explored in the past, she said.

The R3 grant also gives it more flexibility to hire additional staff like a counselor for the centers or a worker to strengthen their connection with the school district, Young added.

“We haven’t had advocates in the school setting like we would have liked,” she said. “Now we’re looking for an educational advocate who will go into the schools, speak with the teachers and see why our kids are not doing well in certain subject areas.”

The other recipients in the city are also expanding their services, Muhammad said.

“All of us are invested in the children,” Muhammad said. “Especially in East St. Louis, it’s better to work as the collective than individual organizations to make the greatest impact for the children.”

Some question the application process

R3 grants are administered by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, and organizations were encouraged to collaboratively apply for the money.

This sets R3 grants apart from other funding opportunities in Illinois, but collective applications can also be more complicated, said Evan Krauss, director of East Side Aligned, which has financial backing from United Way.

There’s typically more opportunity for organizations that apply singularly in most contexts, but it depends on the grant, he said.

“By and large there are some barriers for smaller organizations to access public dollars because of the requirements of managing those grants,” Krauss said.

DeWanda Crochrell, executive director of the Joe Roberts Youth Club in Venice, ran into this when she first considered applying for an R3 grant, even though she didn’t want to pass the opportunity up.

Dewanda Crochrell speaks with a voter in Madison on March 20. Crochrell is running for a spot on Venice Township's Board of Trustees.
File Photo / Eric Schmid / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Dewanda Crochrell speaks with a resident in Madison in March 20. Crochrell helped the City of Madison secure a $92,291 R3 grant to perform a risk assessment of the community.

“We had determined it was just too complex for a small organization, such as ours, to manage,” she said.

Crochrell did eventually write an R3 application, but only after the City of Madison approached her to apply collectively along with the Quad City Community Development Center. The scope of the application, which had a 20-page limit, was daunting, she said.

“That alone was scary for an application,” Crochrell said. “Some of the details they were looking for, an average not-for-profit with primarily volunteers would not have been able to complete it.”

Other groups also noticed how complicated the applications were.

“If you aren’t an agency that’s established, if you didn’t already have grant writers, you were going to be very challenged,” said Dana Williams, executive director of the Community Wellness Project in East St. Louis, which applied for $200,991 to enhance sexual health services in the city but didn’t receive funding.

Williams said she felt comfortable applying but only because she regularly writes grants, as they’re her main source of funding.

Crochrell echoes Williams sentiment, attributing the City of Madison’s successful $92,291 award to the grant-writing training sessions she has attended from United Way. The grant pays for a risk assessment of the community.

A spokesperson for the state authority said the agency sought to make the R3 application accessible to smaller community organizations with little grant experience by providing training, community engagement and doubling the timeframe that organizations had to submit their proposals.

It will also continually review the process to ensure future funding goes to project proposals from organizations embedded in historically underserved communities, the spokesperson added.

Crochrell now faces other challenges regarding R3 — she is just beginning to implement the program the funding pays for because the state scrutinized every part of the application’s budget, she said. The original timeframe for the grant was from October 2020 to June 2021, but the state updated it to run from February 2021 to January 2022.

 Dana Williams, the executive of the Community Wellness Project in East St. Louis, poses for a portrait. Her organization applied for a $200,991 R3 grant but wasn't awarded funding.
Eric Schmid / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Dana Williams, executive director of the Community Wellness Project in East St. Louis, poses for a portrait. Her organization applied for a $200,991 R3 grant but wasn't awarded funding.

“We have not begun any steps toward this, due to continuous requirements on minor things, questions from their legal team,” Crochrell said.

One example she points to is the close examination of a $1,402 line item for “promotional items to encourage residents to complete surveys,” which only represents 1.5% of the total grant award.

“We’re in a poor minority community trying to address violence from a group of citizens, many just have high school educations,” Crochrell said. “You got to motivate them to be involved and honest.”

The authority’s general counsel reviews grantee budgets to ensure they comply with state laws for grant funding, an agency spokesperson said.

The total $92,291 award, which her organization would only see a third of, isn’t worth the amount of work from the state, Crocrhell said.

“By making it so stringent, a lot of smaller organizations, such as ours, are considering pulling out of the process completely,” she said. “It’s just tedious.”

Other barriers for minority-led organizations

There are other ways R3 grants may be less accessible to groups in communities where Illinois wants to focus funding. One of them is how the grant funding is administered on a reimbursement basis.

Most grants from Illinois agencies are administered this way and can leave organizations waiting on reimbursement for months, Williams said.

“Unfortunately, particularly for minority-led agencies who may have limited resources, to carry the deliverables of a grant in that way is going to keep them out of applying because they’re not going to be able to sustain the program,” she said.

This reality is one of the main reasons why the collaborative in East St. Louis wanted United Way to serve as its lead applicant, Krauss said.

“The organizations didn’t want to create any barrier to the other partners in terms of what they wanted to bankroll up front financially,” he said.

United Way serves as the fiscal sponsor for the grant, managing overall expenses and compliance across the six organizations receiving funds with East Side Aligned providing “back office” support, Krauss said.

The administrators of R3 recognized reimbursement-based programs can be a structural barrier for some grantees and allowed them to get a cash advance. The upfront amount a grantee can request varies by program type and budget, a spokesperson for the program said.

Another aspect to R3 that worries Williams is that her individual application was beat out by lead applicants that are larger organizations with more resources.

“I felt like we made a very strong application,” she said. “With the amount of money we were requesting, it was less than a drop in the bucket. It would have really provided some hands-on community work that is so needed in the area.”

There will be more R3 opportunities in the future as Illinois’ recreational marijuana industry expands. The state will distribute up to $125 million in grants each year depending on the growth of the state’s cannabis market, according to the program’s website.

Williams plans to apply for funding as long as it’s available.

“I just don’t want to continue to waste time for something that doesn’t feel like it was written for us,” she said.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.