Since its creation by the Workers’ Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, participatory budgeting has gradually become an increasingly popular form of direct democracy allowing communities greater control in managing budgets and inspiring change.
Student Organization for Democratic Alternatives is pressing to bring the process to the City University of New York, one of the nation’s largest public universities featuring 24 campuses serving more than 270,000 students.
J.A. Strub, a student at Hunter College and co-founder of SODA, is working at the Roosevelt Institute to make this goal a reality. He wrote about the potential of student participatory budgeting, which the institute listed as one of its Top 10 Ideas for Economic Development.
Strub cited empowerment through direct democracy as the main reason he became interested in the process. When people participate, they gradually change their attitudes and realize they have power over their lives. “Going around the neighborhood and saying we built that is pretty cool.”
CUNY is no stranger to participatory budgeting. In 2012, Brooklyn College became the first US college to try it with students receiving a budget of $20,000. Yet, as Strub explained, a change in student government the following year led to its abandonment as the funding came entirely from student funds.
Jennifer Li, a student at Brooklyn, worked with other students to bring it back earlier this year. She first heard about participatory budgeting in a class taught by Michael Menser, a co-founder of the Participatory Budgeting Project. After she and other students met with the college’s student government officials, the process returned with a budget of $17,000.
Meanwhile, at Queens College, Alexander Kolokotronis, a co-founder of SODA, and other students worked on a grassroots campaign for participatory budgeting early last year. After speaking with nearly 1,000 students, SODA met with interested student-government officials to start the process. With a budget of $5,000, they began working on the logistics of implementation for the following year.
In both cases, organizers highlighted how students could change the structures around them. Chandni Tarek, a Queens College student involved with SODA, said participatory budgeting “makes the democratic process more personal, the way it should be.”
Li also emphasized the power associated with the process. “The prospect of sitting in a room where students just like you are helping to promote a political process that will give you the direct power to design projects that will be funded is very powerful.”