While the national and state primaries are still months away, Cambridge is holding city-wide elections in early November. Local politics, often overshadowed by the gleam of presidential races and high-stakes Congressional campaigns, are seldom recognized for their importance in shaping our day-to-day experiences. Not only does city-level government have wide control over important issues like schools and property taxes, it is also the most common site for direct civic engagement. Everyday, city residents deliberate at school board meetings, serve on zoning boards, and attend city council meetings. The both figurative and literal gaps between citizens and their government, so often evoked by the mainstream media and candidates, is narrowed, and through this participation we learn the tools of democracy and develop our identities as citizens.
Though the idea of engaging citizenship through participation in local politics may trigger no point of reference besides Alexis de Toqueville and dense political theory, for many around the globe it has been a real, lived experience. In the past two decades, one of the most widely used tools for inviting civic engagement has been a process known as participatory budgeting (PB). Defined as a project that allows residents to decide directly how to allocate a municipal budget, PB has engaged thousands, if not millions, of people in cities throughout the world.
In 2009, one of Chicago’s fifty aldermen instituted the first PB process in the US and used it to allow residents to allocate his $1.3 million discretionary infrastructure budget, given to all aldermen annually for capital improvements. Beginning with a series of nine neighborhood assemblies held throughout the Ward, the process involves a series of meetings at which residents brainstorm, deliberate, research, and eventually prioritize budget demands. Eventually, participants develop a slate of concrete spending proposals, ranging from street resurfacing to bike lanes to community gardens, and the entire community is invited to vote for the projects they wish to fund. Once an experiment, the process is now a staple of 49th Ward politics.
The people who have engaged most actively in the Chicago PB process – those who have participated in the ways contemplated by deliberative democratic theorists and champions of participation – overwhelming have felt that the experience of engagement was meaningful in its own right, independent of the outcomes. They feel that it’s given them a feeling of empowerment and inspiration to direct the course of their own community. For many, it’s also generated a renewed sense of agency in politics and a uniquely new sense of connection to their local government.
Participation in national politics usually means financially contributing to campaigns, stuffing envelopes, or knocking on doors, even for the most gung-ho among us. Extremely rarely, however, does it give us the chance to engage in the real work of governing. While the Elizabeth Warren campaign and the Republican debates flood the national news sources, let’s not forget to engage with some of the other important debates that surround us.
Follow this blog for info on the issues and campaigns going on in your own backyard, and come out and get involved!