Who has the Power?
This past week I was charged with facilitating a media workshop for Boston’s change agents, a group of youth who are engaged in the first ever youth participatory budgeting (PB) process in Boston. Our task was to develop videos about the projects on which they would invite fellow youth to vote in late June. Focused on conveying as much useful content as possible in half of the time I originally thought I would have, I wasn’t expecting what ended up being, perhaps, the most interesting part of the workshop: a debate that erupted around power, democracy, and constraints.
We’d just concluded talking about the key elements of the stories the change agents would be crafting in video form. Their next task was to start developing the storyboards for the 30 to 60 second videos they’d be making about the projects that had made it to the final ballot. Split up into sector-specific groups, the change agents began chatting with their group facilitators about which projects they should focus on developing storyboards for. They were hoping to get a sense of which of the projects, that they had conducted due diligence on, passed muster from the city and would be making it onto the ballot. When one particular group was told that a number of the projects they proposed would likely not make it, due to rules around what can and can’t be funded through the PB process they were livid and began venting their frustration. At the height of one change agents’ tirade she yelled, “They bamboozled us. They told us we have the power but we don’t. People are right when they say youth can’t make change.”
Introduction to the Process
When Boston’s City Council set aside $1 million of the FY14 budget for the city’s youth to allocate and spend through the PB process, one of the ground rules was that only capital projects could be funded. This was basically defined as physical infrastructure that can benefit the public, costs at least $25,000 and has a lifespan of at least 5 years. Projects around providing particular programming or hiring staff were deemed ineligible. On the one hand, the logic behind this is understandable; capital projects are highly visible and won’t have the same set of lifelong costs that bringing on new personnel or developing a new after school program would have. On the other hand, the change agents have felt extremely constrained and frustrated by this requirement. Residing in the neighborhoods where the projects are being proposed, many of the change agents are reminded everyday of the challenges in their communities and are keenly aware of the limitations of capital projects in addressing these issues. While frustrated with this limitation, over the course of their involvement, the youth had devoted a significant amount of time trying to understand and navigate the requirements around what constitutes a capital project. On the day of our training it seemed that their anger came from a feeling that the “rules” were being used to unduly muddy the PB process.
Dealing with Constraints
Unsure of how to encourage their critiques while trying to stay focused on making sure they produced the videos about the projects that were still on the table, I listened to the youth vent and wondered whether this was an example of democracy in action. After all, the constraints and limitations in the PB process parallel those that are faced by legislators when they make decisions about how budgets will be appropriated.
The group facilitators acknowledged the validity of the change agents’ critiques, while trying to get them to see that this PB process was still valuable because of the possibilities that would emerge from it. One facilitator recalled the history of how participatory budgeting has taken up increasingly larger shares of the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil’s budget since it was adopted there more than 20 years ago. Judging from their continued tirades, I don’t think that in the moment the change agents were fully satisfied with this reflection. But the mention of the Porto Alegre case got me thinking about how incremental change happens, especially when those changes are central to how we practice democracy.
Because incremental change, by definition, happens over time and can be severely constrained, getting angry and disillusioned with the process seems unavoidable. But eventually, ideally, something draws people back, causing them to stay engaged or reengage in the deliberative messy process of democracy.
By the time we’d reached the designated end of the workshop, many of the change agents were still angry. I think I only saw one out of three groups complete storyboards. I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps the media workshop was a failure. I can be okay with that if the conversation that ensued was in fact messy, robust, deliberative democracy at work. Navigating sticky rules and constraints seems inherent to democracy. Yet at the same time, I wonder if there is a way that this navigation can happen without the youth distrusting the city? Can democracy function well on disillusionment?
A part of next year’s budget has already been set aside again for youth to allocate through another PB process. After this year’s vote, there will be structured time for the change agents and their group facilitators to share their critiques and their learnings about this year’s process; these thoughts will inform next year’s attempt. Perhaps it is in those spaces that some of the messiness of this democratic process will get sorted out.