Direct Democracy Comes to Harlem

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Last October, New York City residents took part in a historic new experiment in direct democracy. Over a six-month period, ordinary citizens young and old were given the unusual power to decide how millions of their city districts’ budgets were spent.

We followed two newcomers to civic engagement — Stefan Poaches, a 27-year-old assistant college basketball coach, and 30-year-old clerical worker Ashante Blue — as they made their way through this novel experience in government participation.

In the end, a total of $6 million in budget discretionary funds were turned over by the four participating city council members to their constituents. In addition to Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito of Manhattan’s District 8, council members Brad Lander and Jumaane D. Williams of Brooklyn and Eric A. Ulrich of Queens participated.

Nearly 9,000 residents among the four districts took part in New York’s first participatory budgeting process, according to the advocacy group Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. Some 250 New Yorkers signed up to be budget delegates, while approximately 6,000 voters cast ballots on which projects to fund. Nearly half of those voters had never been active in community issues before participatory budgeting, according to the group. And in the overall effort, people of color and low-income residents were represented at higher rates than in traditional electoral politics.

Participatory budgeting was originally developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 to increase the participation of marginalized populations in government decisions. But since then it has been attempted in only one other U.S. city – an unlikely one at that.

“Chicago is kinda known for its top-down style of governing and this is really quite the opposite,” said Alderman Joe Moore, who instituted participatory budgeting in his 49th ward over two years ago. “This is actually surrendering some power and giving it back to the people who pay the taxes. It was met with a degree of skepticism but in my 21 years as alderman it was probably the single most popular initiative I’ve undertaken.”

Moore admits he worried that selfish individual concerns or special interest groups would force their way into the process, but found as he neared the end of his third year, that the broad needs of his constituents were always met.

“It’s a lot more difficult when you’re sitting across the table negotiating with your neighbors about what projects should go on the ballot to push your pet project if your neighbor has a project that he or she needs much more,” said Moore. It’s something Congress could emulate, he noted wryly.

But participatory budgeting goes far beyond just civic engagement, explained Pedro Pontual, the director of social participation of the General Secretary of the Presidency of the Republic of Brazil. “It’s a civil right. It’s a human right,” he said.

When neighborhood associations in Porto Alegre first introduced the idea of participatory budgeting, said Pontual, the poor made up one-third of the city’s population and lived in slums while the rich controlled the city’s government. But since the participatory process began, a World Bank study documented direct improvements to city institutions, from better sewer and water facilities, to increased schools and renewable energy projects.

Participatory budgeting continues in Porto Alegre today and has since expanded to 300 or so municipalities and several states in Brazil. Internationally, similar processes have been implemented in over a thousand cities across Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Canada.

And according to Josh Lerner, executive director of the non-profit group Participatory Budgeting Project, the participatory process is expected to grow across the United States as well. Additional officials in New York and Chicago have expressed interest in joining next year; Vallejo, California is about to have a city council vote on whether to adopt participatory budgeting; and cities in North Carolina, Connecticut, California and Massachusetts are discussing opening their budget process to the public.

“It restores people’s faith in democracy,” said Alderman Moore. “If our democratic society is to survive, we have to restore trust in government. We have to lower the level of cynicism and distrust that is existing today. And what better way to do that than to give people a real power to make real decisions.”

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