Opinion: Let's build a better future with participatory budgeting
Portland's reputation as a leader in civic engagement emerged from progressive 1970's community organizing and there is much of Portland's past to be proud of. However, we must acknowledge the shortcomings that have failed to engage our most vulnerable residents. It is time to ensure Portland launches a progressive future for an inclusive, engaged community that works in partnership with our government.
Residents of Portland have spent the last year marching in the streets, testifying, forming coalitions, and starting grassroot campaigns and want to be involved in the city's decision making. We want more than listening sessions and invitations to join powerless advisory committees. We want real democracy and real power to shape the city we love.
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process whereby community members define, design and vote on projects that are funded by a portion of the public budget. The community drives the project from ideation, inception, engagement, and creation. It goes beyond conventional public involvement by inviting community members to work closely with government staff to ensure that projects are realistic,and costs are accurately assessed. It is transparent and allows for a wide variety of participation, from sharing ideas, to researching and designing tangible solutions. The projects that win the most votes through the democratic process become a reality. Community members see their ideas implemented and feel a sense of belonging and trust in their elected officials and government processes. They trust that decision-making power has been redistributed to the people.
One glaring opportunity for participatory budgeting is in our schools, where the needs of BIPOC students would be centered while creating a more equitable, accessible, and restorative education system. This is an opportunity to invest in youth leadership skills to ensure our education system is accountable to the students it serves. Projects designed by students in other cities using participatory budgeting include shelters for houseless neighbors, school heating systems, city-wide tree plantings, campus safety, afterschool programs and safe meeting places. Youth are passionate, engaged and deserve to have their voices shape our future as
the next generation of leaders.
Participatory budgeting applied to the $2.3 million investment the city provides the neighborhood coalition system supporting 95 neighborhood associations is another opportunity. As president of a neighborhood association, I can confirm that neighborhood associations do not receive a single dollar to advance our neighbors' interests and very little support from Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. or SWNI, that previously received nearly $300,000 annually for over 40 years to support Southwest neighborhoods. The
current coalition model, funded by taxpayers, is antiquated, and supports bloated management and a personnel structure that does little to encourage civic engagement.
As a former board member at SWNI, I saw it is a broken system that engages the few, that listens to fewer, does not center equity, does not draw in a diverse community and is relegated to outdated methodologies. As president, I have used
every tool available to engage my neighbors to join in the neighborhood system model for civic
engagement and like most other neighborhoods, attendance remains low and return on the $2.3 million city-wide investment of taxpayer dollars is negligible. Most neighborhood meetings have fewer than 15 people in attendance and very little is advanced for the community beyond a neighborhood cleanup, land use response or traffic safety demands. Here's what I've heard from neighbors - they want to:
1. Invest in community-building activities - not just respond to land use and transportation
2. See investments made in what they care about through the neighborhood association model;
3. Support projects that interest them versus a long-term commitment to meetings that generate
I have been listening, so when I learned about participatory budgeting, a lightbulb went off. A process led by the people, with the people, working in tandem with government and funded for civicm engagement to achieve real results? That I can get behind and so can my neighbors!
I am excited to have Participatory Budgeting Oregon present to our neighborhood board in June with outreach to all neighborhoods soon.
The Portland City Council has an upcoming work session to discuss the coalition model structure and I urge them to consider those left out and left behind to imagine a better Portland through leadership and investment in expanding neighborhood association and community engagement for a more inclusive future.
Participatory budgeting has 30 years of research proven with metrics to support its effective process for a brave new world that leads to broader participation and equitable investments. While investments in this budgeting process have happened all around the world, it is not yet mainstream. Portland has an opportunity to
maintain its reputation as a progressive leader, a model city, one to be studied yet again, and for this to be a legacy by which Portland City Council's leadership is defined. We can bring new transparency and accountability to the use of public funds and will bring new voices to the table in determining how public funds should benefit our community.
The city of Portland should allocate a portion of the funds they receive through the American Rescue Plan Act to contribute to a youth-led participatory budgeting process launched in East Portland and also allocate funding to engage the many and not the few and ensure monies are in service to building a stronger civically engaged community to impact Portland now and into the future.
Shannon Hiller-Webb lives in Southwest Portland.
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