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Update on Grand Rapids Participatory Budgeting Project: Will marginalized voices really be at the table?

August 26, 2021

In early June, the City of Grand Rapids had announced that it would be engaging in a Participatory Budgeting Pilot Project. We wrote about the announcement at that time and expressed some skepticism of what the experiment would result in.

We expressed four reasons for skepticism, such as 1) pre-determined parameters for how the money could be spent, 2) the creation of steering committees for each of the three city wards, 3) a timeline that was too short, and 4) limiting the amount of influence the public can have on determining how the City’s annual budget will be spent.

On Tuesday, during the Committee of the Whole meeting, the city staffer who has been overseeing the Participatory Budgeting Pilot Project, provided an update. One glaring thing that was evident, is that the original timeline was way off target. The initial timeline had the public input and vote to be completed by August 29. As of the Tuesday’s presentation, the steering committees had only been able to complete some goals for the outcome of the project.

As was acknowledged in the original document from June, other cities had allotted 9 – 12 months for the process, but Grand Rapids was still committed to a shorter timeline. Their new timeline projects that there would be public engagement in September and October, which begins in less than a week and there are no planned dates as of yet. There would be a public voting process, but as of right now, there is no timeline set for when that will happen.

Those who have agreed to be on the three steering committees are somewhat representative of the community, but there are people who are too connected to power that are involved. One example is Kristian Grant, who is the President of the Grand Rapids School Board. What many other Participatory Budgeting Projects have found is that it is critical to have people who are normally not at the table, play a much larger role than just attending the public input meetings. In fact, one of the goals that the steering committee members came up with was, “to amplify marginalized voices,” which voices who are not already in positions of influence.

In addition, the steering committees have come up with a vision statement, which reads:

Our work will be guided by the value of equity, with an intentional and transparent process designed to include marginalized voices, people with lived experience, and diverse groups. This process will be structured to remove barriers and build community capacity.

Such a statement sounds good, but it is another thing to make sure that such a vision is implemented. For instance, how will the City engage people to be part of the process? How will people who are marginalized have the time to participate in such a project. To her credit, Commissioner Ysasi did say during the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting that paying people to participate is a good faith demonstration that you want marginalized voices to participate. One could go further by saying that the City would not just pay people to participate, but provide free transportation, child care and food for those who are able to attend. Of course, community engagement should always practice full accessibility, which includes physical accessibility, thinking about the process being multi-lingual, and lots of options for people to attend and participate that provide people with lots of opportunity to be involved.

In contrast, during the Tuesday morning Committee of the Whole meeting, 3rd Ward Commissioner Moody stated that he wanted to have a larger role in the process. Having those with power have a larger role is a fundamental violation of the Participatory Budgeting Process, which leads me to think that some of the Commissioners do not fully understand what Participatory Budgeting really looks like. You can watch the Participatory Budgeting update during the Committee of the Whole meeting, which begins at 2:35:40 into the meeting.

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