Friday, March 26, 2010

Participatory Budgeting in Chicago’s 49th Ward

As some of you know, the residents of Rogers’ Park, in Chicago, kicked off this process in November of last year. Participatory Budgeting is a process of local direct democracy, whereby local residents come up with ideas for spending and then make binding decisions on part of a budget. It originates in Brazil in Workers’ Party-run cities in the 1990s, and it is for many observers an example of creative governance on the part of the left of the period. In the last fifteen years the idea has spread though channels like the World Social Forum, but also through international agencies and NGOs. I’ve been involved with it for a few years since writing my book about Porto Alegre, but mostly in the context of Brazilian experiences. And in 2006 Josh Lerner and I started the “Participatory Budgeting Project” – an organization and website to promote it in the US. There are literally now hundreds of examples of Participatory Budgets throughout the world, but until now, not one in the United States.

Though we had been discussing and planning this with Joe Moore, the Alderman of the 49th Ward, and a local Steering Committee for almost six months at that point, it was not until the first minutes of the first meeting that it sunk in that this was going to happen. For the last few years, whenever someone brought up the possibility of “participatory budgeting in the United States” it was as a kind of joke – kind of like “socialized medicine in the United States.” But momentum has been building over the last couple of years, and the idea has bubbled up in different places: conversations at the US Social Forum, at the Midwest Social Forum, and places like it. Then there has been the endorsement of the idea by the Rights to the City Network and then by the Solidarity Economy Network; there have been successful examples in a few places in Canada; there was also the campaign in Lawrence, Mass, not to mention a number of smaller bubbles, like the that of the student senators at UMASS Amherst a couple of years back who proposed it for use with the budget of the student senate. And certainly, “participation” is in the air with the new administration in Washington DC.

But it was Alderman Joe Moore and the residents of Chicago’s 49th Ward who launched the first US participatory budget, the process through which local people are able to decide, through direct democracy, on city budget spending. The process is scheduled to run for five months, and community members are going to decide how to spend Moore’s $1.3 million discretionary budget. In November there were nine neighborhood assemblies. In addition to learning about the process and about the budget for the Ward, participants in those identified project ideas for the ward and selected community reps for the next stage. For the next four months, the reps are meeting in theme committees (Parks & Environment, Public Safety, Streets, Traffic Safety, Transportation, and Art & Other Projects). During these meetings, they are developing project proposals based on the community priorities, and consulting more with the community. In April, all ward residents will be invited to vote on the project proposals, and their votes will determine what gets built.

In some ways Rogers Park has been the perfect setting to stage this process. Alderman Moore has been a friend to many progressive causes, such as living wage, and a leader on many others, like opposing big box development in Chicago. Josh Lerner and I were connected with him by Karen Dolan, of the Institute for Policy Studies and Cities for Progress, in DC. Rogers Park is a racially and economically diverse community at the Northern edge of Chicago, just south of Evanston and Northwestern University. It is a politically engaged community that has been mobilized around affordable housing and preventing gentrification and counts with a number of progressive organizations that have worked on humanizing economic development.

In spearheading this in the Spring of 2009, Joe immediately connected us with activists from the community, who, though healthily skeptical at first, nonetheless formed a Steering Committee for the PB process in April of 2009 with people from about 30 local organizations and institutions (including schools, religious institutions, community organizations, NGOs, and neighborhood groups). Josh, who had been working with the Participatory Budgeting Process of the Toronto Public Housing, and who has been doing research in Rosario, Argentina, brought a lot of practical experience and popular education techniques to the mix. He was particularly insistent that the community decide on the broad outlines of the process, so we worked over the next several months organizing meetings so that the community could decide on the basic structure and rules. In a very real way, the process was designed by the community. Another key part of the story is that Nicole Summers, a former student at Brown, was hired by Alderman Moore to help coordinate the process from the Alderman’s office. She’d written her thesis on participatory democracy and had done research in Nicaragua on participatory democracy there. But I think it’s fair to say that at one point the Steering Committee took ownership of the process, away from Joe and his staff, and away from us, and made it their own.

Already, the participatory budgeting process has generated creative new spending ideas, greater understanding of budget issues, and new organizing and collaboration between residents, community organizations, and the Alderman’s office. For this first year the idea is to get the process off the ground, to then improve it and expand its reach in the future. On April 10th, a Saturday, the whole of the Ward will be invited to vote on the projects decided on by the community representatives. This pilot project demonstrates that local governments and communities both benefit when local people are invited to democratically decide how to spend their tax dollars.

For more information:
- The Participatory Budgeting Project
- The 49th Ward Participatory Budgeting site

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