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All of you have heard about, or perhaps participated in, the Occupy Wall Street movement which calls for a change in our government and seeks to ignite a peoples’ movement. Perhaps what you have not heard about is another sort of peoples’ movement: Participatory Budgeting (or PB).

Logo courtesy of pbnyc.org

PB, which began twenty years ago in Brazil, is a process where community members receive the power to decide how government money is spent in their communities and 2011 marks the process’ first year in New York! (Chicago was the first and only other U.S. city to try PB in 2009).  This year, four council member districts (one in Harlem/the Bronx, two in Brooklyn, and one in Manhattan) received support from their council member to decide how $1 million in capital funds should be spent in their districts.

Over a roughly 8 month period, community members came up with ideas to better their community (this year the funds were only for capital projects which include building and fixing things), chose committees to refine and push the ideas, and came together to vote on the projects. After the vote, the winning project(s) are sent to the council member for final approval and then the community reaps the fruits of their labor. (This is a very brief explanation so visit pbnyc.org if you want more specifics).

My work at the Community Development Project took me to three of the four districts as I conducted research on the process. Each district varied in demographics, style of presentations, and project ideas but all contained one common theme: people were excited to make a difference in their communities.

(Voting week just ended yesterday in NYC and I am now up to my neck in data entry and analysis which tedious but exciting! As I write this I can see the stacks of unentered voter surveys out of the corner of my eye).

Our system of democracy is one where people supposedly have a voice in how their government is run but whose voice is really being heard? Yes, we are given the opportunity to vote in everything from local elections to the presidential election (with less and less power as we move away from the local level) but is that truly enough, especially when the voting process historically and currently leaves out many important voices?

I believe people want more than a check mark on a ballot; people want a chance to speak up for the changes they want to see in their communities. Through PB, I’ve seen people who previously could not access traditional participation venues, I’ve seen people who felt excluded from the traditional voting process, I’ve seen people who never thought they could influence power, and now I’ve seen those very same people feel that they are finally given a chance and, most of all, a voice.

Yes, right now this is a relatively small step in the whole scheme of things but my hope is that other council members in NYC and across the United States will see the benefits of Participatory Budgeting and try it for their own constituents. Which brings me to the age old question: to PB or not to PB? I believe you already know my answer.

Check out this NYTimes article on PB which mentions the work of the Community Development Project.