Ramatu Ahmed founded the African Life Center to better support African immigrants in the Bronx. For over a decade, she’s provided support for issues like housing, jobs, healthcare and food access. Last year, she took on a new initiative: spearheading a participatory budgeting process within her community, which meant everything from outreach to often-marginalized community members, developing proposals with them, encouraging people to vote, and helping implement the winning idea.
“It was not an easy task for me,” she says. “But I could do it because of my connection to the African community, to the imams, church members, women leaders and youth.”
The African Life Center was one of 33 community-based organizations to implement a brand-new participatory budgeting process overseen by New York City’s Civic Engagement Commission (CEC). While participatory budgeting is not a new process for the city, this one focused on neighborhoods most impacted by COVID-19 and paid local organizations to lead the entire process. Now the city is distributing $1.3 million to implement 33 community-proposed projects through this June.
“This model had [community-based organizations] lead the process from start to finish, from organizing residents and doing community needs assessment, and getting a feel for priorities for the neighborhood, working alongside residents on proposals and getting them on ballots,” says Daniella Eras, a CEC participatory budgeting advisor. “Being in charge of getting out the vote and having the money to implement whatever the residents selected — that is a first for the city.”
Four New York City Council members launched participatory budgeting back in 2011, allowing residents in their district to allocate part of their capital discretionary funds. Voters simply had to live, work or go to school within the designated zip code and be at least 11 years old, resulting in a much more inclusive reach than traditional voting. In the ensuing years, the number of participating City Council members increased exponentially, but ultimately it was up to City Council members to offer the option to their constituents.
New York voters approved the creation of the Civic Engagement Commission in 2018 with a mandate to formalize and expand participatory budgeting citywide. After delays by COVID-19, the CEC tested participatory budgeting on a smaller scale through the youth-driven project “It’s Our Money.” That $100,000 project funded five $20,000 community-based projects and engaged 2,000 young people citywide.
This latest initiative was the first effort to expand CEC’s process to each of the five boroughs with $1.3 million provided through city tax levy dollars. CEC ran the process in 33 priority neighborhoods identified by the Taskforce On Racial Inclusion And Equity (TRIE), as disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The CEC funded community organizations working in those neighborhoods to kick off participatory budgeting last fall, starting with a neighborhood community needs assessment survey, with voting between December and January.
Ahmed, with African Life Center, found particular traction with a youth soccer group. “The coach posted all the information on social media, and spoke to the players saying you have to participate in the voting — because we were asking, how can we help the African youth, how can we get them civically engaged?” she says. Many of them campaigned for a proposal to fund a youth soccer tournament, which ultimately won. Ahmed also paid youth stipends to help get out the vote.
El Puente led the process in Bushwick, Brooklyn. They, too, worked extensively with youth, who were interested in addressing the mental health impact of the pandemic. “Our young people were interviewing community residents, really hearing their voices, to really shape three projects about what the community was saying,” says deputy director of programs Asenhat Gomez. The winning project, “Building Mental Health Capacity in Bushwick,” will create access to culturally-based mental health workshops, community fairs and mental health toolkits.
Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) built off its deep relationship with public housing residents. “What has come up for us a lot is food security issues, so naturally that’s what came up with participatory budgeting,” explains executive director Damaris Reyes. The community voted on a project to open plant-based community fridges in local schools. “We already have two fridges in schools, so we’ll expand to 10 fridges that will be plant-based, stocked with greens and other vegetables for families at those schools to have access.”
The 33 organizations shared strategies, successes and challenges with one another and the CEC. “The CEC understands our issues, they know our language, and they can absorb us … a lot of city agencies are not used to working with small organizations like us,” Ahmed says of the supportive framework.
(Photo courtesy of the NYC Civic Engagement Commission)
As for the CEC, “Having the [community groups] engaged in the development and execution of this process has been really important,” says Erik Cliette, an executive consultant for Bridge Philanthropic Consulting, which is serving as project manager of the initiative and helping disperse the government funds to the organizations. “They’ve come back to us with ideas on how we might be more efficient or successful in terms of reaching our communities. All those things are important in terms of future implementation.”
The CEC made some real-time adjustments and will also refine the process for next year. After feedback that the digital ballot was complex, the CEC simplified it. (Ballots were offered on paper, too, with all the information translated to 15 different languages.) After feedback that outreach was difficult in the cold weather, the CEC intends to run next year’s voting phase in the spring.
In the final stretch of the voting period, CEC and the neighborhood groups co-hosted 18 Get Out the Vote events across the boroughs to explain the process and the different ways to vote, as well as a citywide virtual relational organizing event. Ultimately 99 ideas were proposed, over 29,000 New Yorkers voted, and the 33 selected projects are currently being implemented. They are expected to be completed by the end of June.
To Ahmed, the youth soccer tournament happening this spring is only one part of a larger engagement planned by the African Live Center. “I want to use this as the engine to educate the youth … I also want to engage parents,” she says. “Each Saturday that they will play, during the break I’m going to have somebody talk about a topic like voting rights, health, nutrition and mental health.”
Dr. Sarah Sayeed, chair and executive director of the Civic Engagement Commission, hopes this can be a blueprint for a wider, truly inclusive participatory budgeting process throughout the city. “For a lot of problems, we know what the solutions are, but they’re not always implemented,” she says. “What this process says is that communities know what they need, they know how to fix the problems in their neighborhoods, they are the authors of these solutions, and we’re going to fund what they say is a solution to their problem.”