By Oscar Perry Abello.
An audience of at least 70 people packed into the library of P.S. 192 in a far uptown corner of Harlem. It was June 2014, and they were there to attend one of a series of events to kick off the first participatory budgeting cycle in the history of NYC Council District 7.
“Does anybody know why this process is so important?” asked Councilmember Mark Levine. Participatory budgeting allows communities to have a direct say in how resources get deployed in their own neighborhoods. From 2014 to 2015, more than 70,000 residents in 46 jurisdictions across the United States and Canada directly decided how their cities and districts should spend nearly $50 million in public funds through participatory budgeting.
“The neighbors know best,” replied one constituent, seconded by many nodding heads and murmurs of approval. That was supposed to be the easy question.
“Does anybody know what capital budget means?” Levine asked next. It’s an important concept, as NYC’s participatory budgeting only involves capital or “bricks and mortar” funding, not funding to hire people or organizations to run programs. Someone in the audience knew the answer, but that wasn’t the whole point. With something new like participatory budgeting, elected officials in cities are taking the opportunity to use moments like that one in P.S. 192 to begin to re-establish a culture of democracy and citizenship among their constituents, especially with constituents that have historically been disenfranchised from the political process.
According to a new report from Public Agenda, it’s working: In most communities’ participatory budgeting voter demographic surveys, residents from lower-income communities were over-represented or represented on par with census data. In nearly all communities, black voters were over-represented or on par with census data. On gender, 62 percent of surveyed participatory budgeting voters overall were women. Also, while data on citizenship status was not widely collected, all jurisdictions allowed residents and resident business owners to vote in participatory budgeting regardless of citizenship status.