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.”