Michelle Jackson wants to be clear: she hates the phrase “participatory budgeting.”
But she sure as heck likes the democratic process it represents in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget.
“That’s why we call it ‘the people’s budget,’” explained Jackson, an organizer with Participatory Budgeting Cleveland. “People get it.”
No matter what you call it, participatory budgeting (PB) can now be found in 3,000 cities across the globe and has the potential to be a game-changer in northeast Ohio.
With Cleveland set to receive more than $511 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, organizers are asking the city to set aside $30.8 million of those funds to participatory budgeting.
The PB process chiefly consists of neighbors gathering together to brainstorm, develop proposals, vote on their favorite ideas, and then fund those projects that emerge on top.
“This is real money and real power,” Jackson said. “When people are asked, ‘What needs to happen in your neighborhood and on your block for your life to be better?”’ they will tell you exactly what they need. But most of the time, the people just aren’t asked.”
Broad public support
Given the opportunity for direct involvement that participatory budgeting presents, it is not all that surprising that this community-based process has the support of the people.
A September survey of Ohio voters found that 70 percent of voters support adopting a participatory budgeting method for public spending, by a whopping +52-point margin.
And that support was found across Ohio’s regions, with 76 percent of urban voters and 72 percent of rural voters backing the method.
The roots of participatory budgeting can be traced back more than 30 years to an anti-poverty measure in Brazil, where a community-initiated prioritization in budgeting resulted in a program that reduced child mortality by nearly 20%.
“In some ways, Cleveland is like a Brazil in 1989 in terms of being one of the poorest big cities in America,” Jackson said. “But when people start to pay attention and see that they have been heard, they can make a real and tangible difference.”
Queer voices at the table
It is the people themselves who sit at the heart of the PB process.
Willow Watson saw it all firsthand.
The Cleveland native had never heard of participatory budgeting until she saw an online post last year for a PB info session. Having free time that day, she attended.
“There was a room with different stations, poster board for coloring and food provided,” Watson said. “We were asked what we would build if we had money available and then had to draw what it looked like. At the end of the session, we went around and voted for each thing that people wanted to see in our community.”
Watson drew a housing project for young and adult LGBTQ+ individuals experiencing homelessness. At the session, she met LGBTQ+ youth who wanted to see a mural or a statue with the message of, “You’re always beautiful.”
“These were 11, 12, and 13-year-olds who were conscious of what is missing in the community, what they knew they would love to see and what would aid and bolster their lives,” Watson said.
Now Watson is a veritable champion of participatory budgeting, speaking at city council meetings and doing everything possible to get more people to the table.
Those people most definitely include her fellow LGBTQ+ Clevelanders – and especially queer people of color – who have been marginalized in politics and who often don’t see results from local government that directly improves their lives.
“Participatory budgeting gets rid of some of the barriers,” Watson said. “Through these experiences, I have been able to see that my voice and my agency exist, and they can be funneled powerfully into more direct collective and democratic action.”
A call to action
But to get to those goals of action, organizers say they need the public to join the PB movement. For Jackson, that means individuals challenging the core ways budgeting decisions are made in local government.
“Cleveland is a Black city and some of the leaders are Black, but it’s still that white male think that has become part of the DNA of how we make budgeting decisions,” Jackson said. “It results in us using tax dollars and abatements to refurbish corporate offices at a stadium, catering to the elite while leaders give lip-service to ‘equity.’”
To push for change, organizers are planning a “People’s Budget Action” on January 9. They will be meeting on the steps of Cleveland City Hall on the night the $5.5 million for participatory budgeting legislation officially goes before City Council.
Following a press conference, attendees will walk inside Council chambers together to make public comment and attempt to show the broad support for this inclusive practice.
“People are disaffected today and they don’t know what happens to their tax dollars,” Jackson said. “With participatory budgeting, you actually see what happens with the money and, more importantly, you will actually be a part of creating needed change.” 🔥