Power to the People: New Process Gives Providence Residents A Real Voice

Meeting to consider neighborhood needs and expenditures Courtesy of participatorybudgeting.org

It’s probably not a stretch to assume that most people have little idea how their elected officials make decisions about where public funds should go. The process is complex, rife with politics and power dynamics, and usually takes place behind closed doors.

What’s wrong with that? Plenty, especially since cities, including Providence, are facing daunting health and economic needs, racial and social injustices, environmental disasters, and other thorny issues that will require new ideas for their resolution.

It may, therefore, be time to add some seats to the table where decisions are being made. And who better to help than the residents currently grappling with these problems? We will need an engaged and informed public, all of us working together, to resolve these challenging issues.

Auspiciously, Rhode Island is taking steps toward this kind of engagement through participatory budgeting (PB)—a process that gives residents the opportunity to make decisions about where public funding is spent. People brainstorm ideas, develop proposals, deliberate on trade-offs, and then vote to allocate funds. Launched in Brazil in 1989, PB has since been implemented in more than 7,000 locations around the world.

Research indicates that these efforts are more than a “nice thing to do”; they’re having real impact. Studies show that PB has led to higher voting rates among traditionally marginalized communities, produces more equitable outcomes and helps young people gain public skills through what the New York Times  calls “revolutionary civics in action.” More policymakers are using community collaboration because they realize that solving complicated problems won’t happen without public engagement. And, it helps reestablish more trust in government by giving everyday people the chance to see that their voice matters.

Courtesy of participatorybudgeting.org

Although gaining traction in Rhode Island, PB has a long way to go before it’s embedded into the democratic process like it has been in hundreds of cities and countries around the world. That’s something Pam Jennings—who helped create DecideRI, the state’s first tool that’s helping residents co-create their own participatory budgeting efforts—wants to change.

Since 2019, Jennings and other advocates have been providing participatory budgeting technical assistance and resources to PB projects in some of Rhode Island’s most undercapitalized communities, including those slammed by COVID and unemployment: Pawtucket, Central Falls, and, most recently, Providence. “These are the communities where people often feel they don’t have a voice or aren’t able to participate in traditional elections, where elected officials they never see are often the ones making the decisions that impact their lives,”  Jennings notes. “Participatory approaches like PB open up the democratic process so it’s more transparent and inclusionary.”

Like many PB practitioners, Jennings’ commitment to the approach runs deep. After receiving her master’s degree, she landed a job with the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), the leading PB technical assistance and resource provider in the U.S. and Canada. Working with Josh Lerner, PBP’s founder and former executive director (and now the founder/director of People Powered, a global hub for participatory democracy), Jennings saw first-hand the power of PB by helping with projects in Boston, New York City, Vallejo, Cambridge, and Chicago. Several cities, including New York and Phoenix, have incorporated PB courses into their school districts’ curricula.

After returning to Rhode Island in 2015, Jennings was doing nutrition assistance outreach when a co-worker connected her with former Central Falls City Council President Jessica Vega, who’d been wanting to bring PB to Central Falls. The two clicked.

Working with a group of residents and educators, Vega and Jennings helped co-create a new elective class at the high school that gave control of spending $10K (funds came from a private donation matched by the school district). Students brainstormed and collected ideas, developed proposals, and voted using real voting machines set up in the gym. According to Vega in the Boston Globe, “[The class] has triggered a lot. Folks in power in that room came in and saw that. It helped them say, ‘OK, this does work.’ So we were able to expand and start thinking about what a citywide process looks like.”

The proof-of-concept project was so successful it’s become an annual event and standard course elective for high school students. It also led to a second, bigger PB project with the Central Falls school district to distribute $100,000 in COVID relief funds. A unique feature of the project, says Jennings, was that everyone who wanted to participate could do so as long as they were a student or caregiver to a student in the district. “That allowed a lot of people who weren’t able to vote in traditional elections the chance to have a voice in the democratic process.”  Ultimately, voters decided to allocate all the funds to enhancing after-school educational programs.

An evaluation of this effort by Jonathan Collins, a Brown University education professor who studies direct democracy in schools, found that participants—mostly low-income Latino residents—reported double-digit increases in their likelihood to voice concerns to a local official. According to the Boston Globe, the results back up his prior research, which showed that when school districts create meaningful opportunities for parents to make their voices heard, they’re more likely to speak up about issues related to their children’s education.

In 2022 Mayor Rivera, the City Council, and Centreville Bank provided $50K for a PB process focused on engaging seniors and people with disabilities. Outreach included Bingo nights and ice cream socials to engage folks in the process, which led to new high-capacity trash bins to address cleanliness around Central Falls. “Fifty thousand dollars may not sound like a lot,” Jennings notes, “but for a community with only 20,000 residents, it can go a long way.”

The momentum has now reached Providence. In 2022, the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) and the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) announced that it was launching a new PB pilot project as part of its efforts to advance health equity and address the social determinants of health. The project would be undertaken in two Health Equity Zones (HEZ)—geographic areas where community-based and -driven collaboratives identify health inequities and co-create action plans to address them. Central Providence (02908 and 02909 zip codes) and Pawtucket/Central Falls were selected as the HEZs for this initiative.

Pawtucket/Central Falls received $385K to distribute, and central Providence secured $1M; of the latter, $450K came from Medicaid and $550K came from matching funds provided by Blue Meridian Partners, a social impact investment firm. The process, which runs from July 2022 till June 2024, began with residents submitting more than 900 ideas through DecideRI’s website, public events, flea markets, fairs, and other public venues that allowed for a more organic and open process.

These ideas were then turned over to delegates—volunteer resident committees that met regularly to sort and narrow the list down to projects that were not only focused on priority health issues but would also be feasible in terms of their costs, administrative capacity/needs, ability to address regulatory issues that often arise in city/urban initiatives, etc. Several partner organizations—including One Neighborhood Builders and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which served as the backbone organizations for the Health Equity Zones—were on hand to help as well.

In June 2023, residents of Central Providence and Central Falls/Pawtucket cast ballots online and in voting booths provided by Secretary of State Gregg Amore. Ballots and information were provided in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. In Pawtucket/Central Falls any resident over the age of 14 could vote for up to five projects using an approval voting process. In Providence any resident over the age of 13 could vote for up to seven projects.

Several neighborhood improvement projects were funded. In Providence, nearly $370K is being allocated to install new composting toilets at Merino Park, improve bathroom access at Donigian and Davis Parks, and plant shrubs around the parks to provide green space. An additional $330K will provide NSF-certified water filter dispensers to residents with lead-contaminated pipes. Other funding includes $50K to create a peer mental health training program for high school students; $132K to improve bus stops; and several smaller projects ($30K each) for a bike distribution/repair shop for low-income residents, youth soccer program expansion, planting food-bearing trees to address food insecurity, and a life skills class for young people. For the full list of funded projects, visit these links  in Pawtucket/Central Falls and in Providence.)

Statue of César Chavez at Donigian Park where improvements will be made, thanks to the Participatory Budgeting voting. Photo by Gabrielle Purchon

Aleida Benitez, an educator and Elmhurst resident who served as a delegate in the Providence process, said she got involved to “connect to people in her neighborhood about issues we all cared about.” The experience, she says, was invaluable: “I met and worked with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, people with different perspectives than mine. I especially enjoyed working with young people from Mount Pleasant High School who were excited about the process.”

Courtesy of participatorybudgeting.org

So, is PB going to become a requisite part of Providence’s future budget decisions? It’s unclear, says Jennings who points out that it’s a “radically transparent process, which isn’t the norm for government officials. It’s also an intricate process that takes a lot of time. It’s an investment.”

The payoff is worth the investment, says Lerner. “Research consistently shows that the more money that governments allocate through PB, the more people participate and the more they trust their elected officials.” Jennings agrees, saying that DecideRI will be doing a roadshow with local elected officials because “it’s now on their radar, and there are some leaders who are really interested in this. We need to go beyond one-offs and make PB a standard. Our communities deserve nothing less.”

Cynthia Gibson, Ph.D., is principal of Cynthesis Consulting, which provides strategic planning, program development, evaluation, and communications assistance to hundreds of US and international philanthropic institutions and nonprofits. She is also a writer whose many publications on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, civic engagement, democracy, education, and other issues have influenced public discourse and policy change.