How communities are using direct democracy to shape city budgets

Youth collect ideas for participatory budgeting in Seattle. (Facebook/PBP)

Youth collect ideas for participatory budgeting in Seattle. (Facebook/PBP)

A recent poll conducted by Gallup found that the percentage of Americans who trust the public in handling issues is at an all-time low. Reasons for this vary, with eroded faith in institutions playing a role. Yet, in more than 40 neighborhoods across the United States, a new tool called participatory budgeting is boosting confidence among citizens in working with neighbors to solve problems together.

Participatory budgeting first began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. There, the Workers’ Party created a process allowing residents to submit ideas that would be eventually voted on. The most popular projects would receive funding from an allocated budget. This became popular among residents and is still in existence today.

Because of its success, it was adopted by activists and officials across the world, in places such as Argentina, India and Spain.

In the United States, cities such as Boston, New York and Los Angeles have embraced the concept. While they all have different rules, the concept is still the same — offering people a chance to partake in direct democracy.

“It’s very much what residents want,” said Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research at Public Agenda, a non-profit research organization. “When residents get participatory budgeting, one of the first things they do is figure out what capital funds do and mean.”

Public Agenda released a report earlier this year following the growth of the process in the United States. Officials and activists have come to embrace the idea, which attracts marginalized communities.

“A lot of people are looking for new ways to engage with the public. When they hear about participatory budgeting, they become intrigued and learn more about it,” Hagelskamp said.

Starting in Chicago

Participatory budgeting in the United States first began in Chicago.

David Beasley is the communications director for the Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit group organizing for participatory budgeting in the United States and Canada. He explained that the project’s co-founders, Josh Lerner and Gianpaolo Baiocchi, attended a social forum in Brazil about participatory budgeting in 2005. Excited by its potential, they scheduled workshops and meetings with activists and officials to bring it to North America.

Eventually, Joe Moore, an alderman representing the Chicago’s 49th Ward, expressed interest in the process and, in 2009, allocated $1 million for the process.

An example of a participatory budgeting ballot from 2010 used in Chicago's 49th Ward. The area was the first in the U.S. to adopt the process. (Participatory Budgeting Project)

An example of a participatory budgeting ballot from 2010 used in Chicago’s 49th Ward. The area was the first in the U.S. to adopt the process. (Participatory Budgeting Project)

“It worked really well. People were really excited,” Beasley said.

Maria Hadden, who is PBP’s project manager for the Midwest and the South and a Black Youth Project 100 member, lived in the ward and participated in the process as a resident.

Before it began, for three years, she lived through a “housing nightmare” in her condominium. A developer of the building reconstructed it with approval of city regulators. Yet the person later left the country after failing to sell more units, forcing Hadden and her neighbors to pay out-of-pocket for repairs. She spoke with her representatives and city agencies, only for them to offer no solutions.

“This is my personal story, but thousands of people had the same thing happen to them. I experienced what I consider a total system failure for government,” she said.

After she attended a participatory budgeting assembly in the 49th Ward, she was excited by the idea of residents taking control of their lives. Hadden felt she wouldn’t have been in her housing situation “if this was the way things were done.”

“When I went to my first assembly of participatory budgeting, it was the first time in a while, probably ever in my adult life, that I was like ‘this is democracy. This just feels like democracy, and this is the way decisions should be made in the city,'” Hadden explained.

However, the biggest challenge for the process is how to expand it. Hadden cited lack of adequate funding for aldermen and lack of support from the mayor’s office in implementing participatory budgeting city-wide.

Still, she is committed to seeing it grow.

“Participatory budgeting is a great process for bringing more voices to the table and providing a more equitable space for those voices to be heard,” Hadden said.

Challenges in New Orleans

In New Orleans, specifically the Lower Ninth Ward, residents are preparing for their first process. Kelsey Foster is a campaign manager for the Committee for a Better New Orleans, a non-profit improving civic engagement and helping solve issues. Her role in the process is working with local groups, such as Puentes New Orleans, a Latino-oriented community organization, and VALYA-NO, a Vietnamese group organizing against environmental racism, to engage residents on the process’ potential.

Foster noted how the idea first began in 2013 by the now-inactive New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance. It organized a conference to learn what residents wanted to change about their government.

One idea was a transparent budget in a city with “a long history of corruption [and] mismanagement.” Because of this, residents feel isolated from government.

“We thought participatory budgeting would be a great complement to that because it kind of builds a bridge between city and residents,” she said. “You have to work together to spend this money, you have to work together to understand how much projects costs. But also, you get to see real direct results, you vote and something is built.”

Organizers approached Mitch Landrieu, the city’s mayor with the ultimate authority on the budget, with the idea. They were rejected.

“Unfortunately, the mayor appears to have a very low opinion of the capacities of residents and has no real trust in the people here,” Keith Twitchell, president of CBNO, said. “It’s not just budgeting, it’s many other efforts CBNO and other organizations have taken to create opportunities for meaningful community input into city government decisions. He is universally and vehemently opposed to pretty much all of them.”

But organizers are committed to seeing it happen. They are seeking private funding from foundations for its budget.

In addition, they hope to spend the next year persuading residents to join the effort by organizing assemblies to gather ideas, having meetings among chosen representatives, and creating a community vote on a list of proposals.

CBNO president Keith Twitchell addresses the Diana Lewis Citizen Participation Luncheon in 2013. (Facebook/CBNO)

CBNO president Keith Twitchell addresses the Diana Lewis Citizen Participation Luncheon in 2013. (Facebook/CBNO)

“We’re going to be as creative and expansive as possible in ways we enable people to vote,” Twitchell said.

Twitchell explained that, despite interest from City Council, local officials do not have the authority to allocate funds. However, organizers intend to hold a vote on different projects at the height of City Council elections next year to show that “New Orleans is quite capable of doing participatory budgeting” and prove the mayor wrong. It may even play a role in the 2018 mayoral election.

Foster also noted that they’ll mostly depend on door-to-door knocking to inform residents since most residents do not have internet at home.

Residents are already suggesting ideas. One plan is to make signs for local stores, which often have their business names written on cardboard. Another is to hire a real estate legal clinic to assist in resolving property claims, an issue that still exists a decade after Hurricane Katrina.

“I can say the one thing we hear over and over again when we’re talking to folks is that they can’t believe that we’re asking them what they want and need,” Foster said. “I think so often, especially after a major disaster, people with the best intentions, non-profits [and] governments come in and just do. They do to people. They don’t do for people or with people.”

Progress in Greensboro

In Greensboro, North Carolina, Alyzza May has spent five years organizing for participatory budgeting with other activists in an organization called Greensboro-PB.

The group’s actions included speaking at City Council hearings in favor of the process, bringing Moore in from Chicago to talk with Greensboro officials, and sending the mayor postcards that residents signed showing support for participatory budgeting.

After overcoming initial resistance from the city, the organization succeeded in getting officials on board and requested $4.5 million for the process.

“The reason we chose $4.5 million specifically is because that is one percent of the city budget. At the very least, we wanted to say it’s only one percent,” May said.

However, they were given $500,000. Since the city includes five City Council districts, $100,000 was given to each.

Greensboro residents participate in a pop up participatory budgeting idea collection in January 2016. (Twitter/Greensboro-PB)

Greensboro residents participate in a pop up participatory budgeting idea collection in January 2016. (Twitter/Greensboro-PB)

The process started late last year with assemblies, rules and more. To simplify the vote, five committees were set up to narrow the list of ideas. Budget delegates, all local residents, organized the ideas into committees such as Parks and Recreation.

May worked as a budget delegate in the Arts and Culture department and developed projects, such as game paintings on a sidewalk, for a vote.

Voting was successful and projects, including murals by artists in downtown Greensboro and in a community center to honor alumni from Dudley High School, were funded through the process. Another was an app for residents that displays bus routes in real time.

“[This process] completely transformed how residents of Greensboro engage with the city money and budget,” May said.

Interestingly, May noted a contrast between the process and traditional elections in “the age of voter suppression.” After the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina implemented strict voter ID laws that affected turnout. But none of this affected voting in participatory budgeting, which allowed even undocumented immigrants to vote.

However, May expressed some frustrations and concerns about the overall process. During the outreach period of the vote, organizers from the Participatory Budgeting Project — who were less connected with people pushing for the process from the beginning — took over to focus on technical assistance.

“It hasn’t been easy to organize in Greensboro, but it’s definitely been well-worth it,” May said. “It needs to continue, and it needs to get stronger and there needs to be more funding. We need more council support.”

Growing nationwide

Many other cities include their own stories of success and struggles, yet they all share the common goal of direct democracy. Already 360 projects have been funded across the United States and Canada since 2009, and more are expected to come in the future.

The cities that already use it, such as New York City and Vallejo, California, are bolstering their systems with more funding and more outreach.

In New York, students at the City University of New York — one of the nation’s largest university systems with more than 250,000 students — are working to create a process solely for college students. Two of 24 CUNY colleges, Brooklyn and Queens, have already adopted it and others are looking into their own versions using money from student government.

A Durham Beyond Policing action with buckets for voting for TK on March 14, 2016. (Medium)

A Durham Beyond Policing action with buckets so that protesters could vote for the community’s priorities on March 14, 2016. (Medium)

Hadden recalled an exciting moment when attending the first national committee for Black Youth Project 100 in Durham, North Carolina earlier this year. At the time, activists objected to a city council proposal to construct a new police headquarters. An action, called Durham Beyond Policing, called for funds to go into the community instead.

Hadden and a colleague, Rossanna Mercedes, spoke to local activists about participatory budgeting, who said they were already familiar with it and organizing for it.

Hadden attended a rally in support of Durham Beyond Policing that called for participatory budgeting. Activists even handed fake money to protesters to put into buckets that represented different priorities for the community.

“It was activists saying, ‘we heard about this participatory budgeting thing and we think we can totally use it for this.’ I’m excited to see where people take it,” Hadden said.

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