EXPERIMENTS IN DEMOCRACY: A community resource center. Park lighting. Security cameras. Computers and a smartboard for an after-school program. At the end of March, residents of New York City’s District 45, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, voted in favor of these projects. In fact, they didn’t just vote for them—they came up with the ideas.
They did so through a process called participatory budgeting, which gives members of a community a direct role in deciding how to spend public money. Last spring, after a presentation by the Participatory Budgeting Project, a New York nonprofit that works with communities and elected officials across the country, City Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito of the Bronx and Manhattan, Eric Ulrich of Queens, and Brooklyn’s Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams decided to test the process. Participatory budgeting is barely known in the United States but is used in 3,000 cities around the world. In New York it meant that district residents would help decide how to spend about $1 million per district in capital discretionary funds for long-term physical improvements to their neighborhoods.
The process began in October. Residents at local assemblies voiced their opinions on the community’s needs. Some also volunteered to be budget delegates, researching hundreds of ideas, vetting them with city agencies, producing final proposals and becoming more informed citizens in the process. “I relished the opportunity…to actually get to decide how money is spent,” says Hazel Martinez, a Flatbush delegate.
Participatory budgeting has its challenges. Being a delegate is “a serious commitment in terms of time,” says Martinez, and indeed, in a sense they are doing the government’s work for free. Still, participatory budgeting has the potential to restructure how people engage with government, and vice versa, says Brooklyn College professor Celina Su, who helped oversee the New York City project.
“American democracy has been the global model for so long,” she points out, but it can be “a lonely process.” Participatory budgeting is a way to “start a larger conversation about what we want the relationship between citizen and government to look like.” ELIZABETH WHITMAN
AN ANTI–PLANNED PARENTHOOD STING? After a series of odd visits by patients asking questions about sex-selective abortions, Planned Parenthood has determined that its centers are likely the target of an undercover video sting. In a post on RH Reality Check, vice president of education Leslie Kantor and senior medical adviser Dr. Carolyn Westhoff wrote that they anticipate that a group—presumably Live Action, run by James O’Keefe protégée Lila Rose—“likely in coordination with a broad range of anti-choice leaders, will soon launch a propaganda campaign with the goal of discrediting Planned Parenthood.”
According to the Huffington Post, clinics in at least eleven states over the past few weeks have been the target of “patients” asking about the gender of their fetus and indicating that they want to terminate the pregnancy if it’s a girl. Planned Parenthood’s policy—rightly—is that a woman’s reason for getting an abortion (outside coercion) is really none of its business. Given that Live Action has used heavily edited videos to accuse Planned Parenthood of supporting sex trafficking, any new round will likely try to show that Planned Parenthood doesn’t care about sex-selective abortions. The truth: it cares about its patients. JESSICA VALENTI
THE NYPL BATTLE CONTINUES: The New York Public Library’s proposed Central Library Plan (CLP)—under which up to $350 million would be spent on a colossal renovation of the Forty-second Street facility—is becoming increasingly controversial. In a recent Inside Higher Ed column headlined Stop Cultural Vandalism, Scott McLemee called it “long-term planning at its most shortsighted,” and warned that the CLP will have a harmful “impact on some fields of study in which the library has especially important collections, such as Russian literature.”
Opposition to the CLP has been spearheaded by Joan Wallach Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study. In a protest letter to NYPL president Anthony Marx, Scott noted the downsizing of the NYPL’s Slavic and Baltic Division, the deterioration of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and the weakening of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Scott also took aim at the argument that democratization of the Forty-second Street library is a necessary goal: “The NYPL,” she wrote, “is already among the most democratic institutions of its kind.” The letter has garnered more than 500 signatures, including those of Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Concern about the NYPL’s future has also come from Princeton historian (and library expert) Anthony Grafton, who wrote in the Daily Princetonian: “My stomach hurts when I think about NYPL, the first great library I ever worked in, turned into a vast internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks.”
In response to the criticism, the NYPL has initiated a media outreach campaign that has included essays by Anthony Marx in the Huffington Post and Inside Higher Ed; Marx also answered online questions from readers of the New York Times, some of whom demanded transparency of the CLP. “A town hall meeting,” Nadav Samin wrote, “would be useful for articulating NYPL’s vision for the future of its flagship branches, and would allow concerned citizens to have a voice in the reshaping of this prized public institution.” SCOTT SHERMAN
DEATH PENALTY ON TRIAL: On April 20, North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which allows death row prisoners to appeal their sentences based on proof of racial bias, led to a landmark commutation for Marcus Reymond Robinson after a Superior Court judge concluded that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor” in his jury selection. A few days later, California announced that its death penalty will be put to a vote in a ballot measure in November. Supported by some of the same actors who decades ago pushed to expand executions, the vote will be a major test for the state with the country’s largest death row.