For twenty years, the voices of New York’s normally raucous public haven’t been heard much in the halls of power. Giuliani shouted people down; Bloomberg wasn’t interested. But in the weeks since the election that swept Bill de Blasio and a swarm of progressives into office, something unusual has happened. The rumble of civic chatter that built during the election has continued—most notably in a vast tent in lower Manhattan.
This tent is the centerpiece of Talking Transition, a fifteen-day experiment in participatory policy-making organized by ten foundations. (Think Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation, North Star Fund, etc.) The purpose, said OSF’s Andrea Batista Schlesinger, is to demonstrate the power of public engagement and influence the incoming administration. The foundations have no formal connection to Team de Blasio, but they say they are talking to them. “We think the ideas that are being discussed here…will prove very helpful to an incoming administration,” Schlesinger says.
To help stimulate the conversation, Talking Transition created an environment that hovers between teach-in and tech start-up. The organization drafted an online survey to map New Yorkers’ wishes (filled out by more than 30,000 people in the first week); it sent street teams across boroughs; and, of course, it set up the tent. Here visitors are encouraged to record video messages for de Blasio at a “soap box” and scribble policy wishes on stickers. There is live music and mural painting. And in the center, there is a “Town Hall” where community groups can host forums to hash out policy dreams for the new mayor.
On a recent Saturday, this space was filled with 100 to 200 people who had gathered under the auspices of VOCAL and the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss ending the drug war in New York City. For ninety minutes, they brainstormed an alternate reality where the incarcerate-first agenda is replaced by decriminalization, legalization, more treatment, more affordable treatment and economic development. After years of being ignored, it was clear they were eager to be heard. As the ideas flew, a woman shouted: “De Blasio, are you listening?”
After Bill de Blasio’s mayoral victory, the editors of The Nation indicated five areas in which the mayor-elect can make a progressive change.