Monday, August 10th, 2015
First, I have to confess the 8th grader at issue happens to be my son. Yes, I’m super proud, but the reason I’m writing about it is because it is a powerful example of how Participatory Budgeting engages youth and communities in civic processes.
Participatory Budgeting is a process in which community members decide directly how to spend taxpayer dollars. It began in Brazil a few decades ago and has been practiced by some of New York City’s council districts for the past four years. This year was the largest initiative, with people from 24 (of 51) districts deciding how to spend $32 million.
Read on for the full story!
It’s March. Cedar, Max, and I are pumped. My daughter’s feet are coated in blue paint, my son has pasted on the final image he has photoshopped to perfection, and I’m knuckle bumping Jeff, our design angel who adopted our proposal as his own and helped shape our ideas into beautiful, presentational form. Cedar is darting through the crowd for cookies, glitter paper, and glue. I’m reviewing action words we’ve brainstormed, and Max is giving an interview. We’re working on one of 13 community-generated projects, crowded into a nonprofit media production studio, bent over trifolds, creating visual representations of dreams for Brooklyn’s District 39 in a tight, exciting, hilarious two hours. This is the Mardi Gras moment of Participatory Budgeting.
How did I get here? I didn’t choose this path. Max did. In 2011, I was asked to facilitate a Participatory Budgeting brainstorming session for Brad Lander’s district. Sure! Sounds like fun. I brought along my kids. Cedar happily played with a few other children in the school gym. Max joined me at our table, caught the facilitation bug, and began what I can now see with 20-20 hindsight a journey that brought him, his sister, and me to this glitter strewn table.
That first evening three years ago, Max very ably co-facilitated with me. He took on the role of scribe, writing everyone’s ideas down and later spoke before the full assembly of perhaps 75 participants about our group’s favorite ideas. He was a hit, and he wanted more. A few years passed, and Max and I co-facilitated another brainstorming session in the fall of 2014. This time, the bug bit him hard. “I want to join a delegate committee,” he told me. “Yeah, really?” “Yup.”
OK. This was some serious leveling up. Being a delegate meant going to lots of meetings, sifting through dozens or possibly hundreds of ideas, putting the best ones in proposal form, and basically seeing the project to the end. I was intrigued by Max’s interest, though, and I told him I would join a committee with him and follow his lead. He chose Education.
It turned out that a few ideas had been generated for Cedar’s school and needed follow-up and research. One was to renovate an old room in a basement into a movement studio to serve the overcrowded school of 1,400 kids, in Pre-K through grade 12. We happily took her school’s ideas on, meeting with the principals of Brooklyn New School and its sister middle/high school Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies. We crafted a proposal, tweaked it so it could be approved by the municipal authorities, and then delighted in witnessing it become among the three proposals (from about 10) that our committee chose to put on the public ballot. A few weeks after the Mardi Gras poster-making session, Max spoke persuasively about the project with person after person at the Expo showcasing our proposals.
Wow!… This could actually HAPPEN! I began to allow myself the fantasy of our proposal turning into reality. Max’s and my efforts might bring nearly a quarter million dollars to a worthy project for Cedar’s school. Amazing! Not that Max or I could even vote for the project we worked on. He’s 13 years old, one year shy of the lowered age requirement for this process. And we don’t live in District 39, so I couldn’t vote either. A number of students from Cedar’s sister school went on a field trip to Brad Lander’s office and exercised their rights, however. A rare privilege for youth normally excluded from making civic decisions based on their age.
Voting happened in mid-April, and Max and I waited a very long week to be among the first to learn of the results. As we gathered with delegates and many other volunteers, we watched as Brad Lander dramatically unveiled the results. The largest number of votes went to a different school initiative, and the second largest number of votes went to…. our project!!!! Wow, wow, wow, wow!!! We did it! Max and I high-fived and whooped and jumped up and down in joy. People came up to Max and told him that his persuasive speaking helped them decide to vote for the project. We were pumped!
After the initial excitement, Max took it all in stride, not even mentioning it to friends, teachers, and relatives. I, however, keep telling the story to everyone I come across. I am in awe of what can happen when you combine the energy and curiosity of youth with a participatory process with teeth. Great things can happen.