People. Power. Perspectives. Participatory Budgeting with Kristania De Leon
8:17PM Jun 30, 2022
Kristania De Leon
Welcome to People.Power.Perspectives, the podcast where we talk to the people that are working to overcome system inequities to achieve just outcomes.
Welcome to this episode of People.Power.Perspectives, I'm Sue Watson.
I'm Marcel Harris.
And we're with CA4Health. We're excited to have Kristania De Leon with us today. Kristania is a co Executive Director of the participatory budgeting project based in Oakland. And we're really looking forward to learning more about you and the work that you do to start, why don't you tell us a little about yourself, and what brought you to work in the equity and the Justice space.
Thank you so much, Sue, and Marcel, for having me really excited, and congrats to your team for launching this podcast series, feel honored to be invited to kick it off with you. So, in addition to kind of my professional background, having worked in Public Health, I have a sort of educational background in International Relations as well as social innovation in sort of our organizing and supporting local community leadership for a long time throughout various channels of my work. I really do come to this work first and foremost, as a Black and Latinx woman, raised by immigrants, storytellers, and really connecting, coming from a family and community that represents most of the community members who are often left out of our policies and decision making, and really told that these spaces are just not for us. So I felt really motivated in my work and in my interest related to be a policy change, organizing advocacy to really center the leadership of disenfranchised community members, and their leadership and those who are most impacted by inequities in my work. So that's been a really big bridge to my current role at the Participatory Budgeting Project.
That sounds so interesting and important to help you frame how you got into this space. And now that you're focused on participatory budgeting, what do you want people to understand about what that is?
Sure, let me walk you through the process, a really quick overview of what participatory budgeting is. And what I'll say is that participatory budgeting is certainly a framework, you have to be mindful of the lens and the perspective you bring to it. And it certainly can be adapted for different communities and their very particular needs. But generally, it is a community led way to decide together how to invest portions of budgets and most commonly our public budgets. And it kicks off after a pot of funds are identified. So once we know what we're investing through a participatory budgeting process, we start by designing that process, we convene community leaders to design the approach and the rules of the process that really align this framework to their specific community. We then surface fundable ideas and priorities from community members through very broad and robust community wide idea collection. We then develop concrete proposals based on those ideas through research and creating highly vetted and very specific projects that can actually be funded. We then conclude sort of our public facing portions with a very broad inclusive community vote, it can last for weeks. And certainly, when designed for equity, there's no reason why anyone in your community is inherently ineligible to vote, no matter their background, or age or any other considerations. This vote is then followed by funding the winning projects and implementing them over a period of time. We then evaluate the process, we want to make sure we're being successful across our intended goals and the design elements, that community put forward things that they wanted to see the process accomplish. And then we improve it, we improve it for that cycle, and we seek to implement it and this shape new cycles, so that it becomes a new way for communities to direct their spending and the funding towards their key priorities. So, it's exciting work. And you can probably see where and how it connects to these interests around equity and justice, public health, civic engagement, policy change, things like that.
Let's dig into that part a little bit more. So, from your perspective, how does participatory budgeting connect to broader movements for social justice, racial equity, and our democracy in general?
Yeah, so participatory budgeting at its core is really about community led decision making. It's allowing community members to make real decisions that results in real financial investments in their communities directly. And so, we've seen this emerge as a tool that people will use across various movement building spaces. So, one example is that this is a really increasingly common tool and facilitating justice centered processes around defunding police. So oftentimes people think that calls for police, disinvestment or divestment are just about taking money away from police or carceral budgets, and then nothing else. But there really is an investment side to these calls where PB or participatory budgeting can be facilitating the investments. So allowing for community members who have been harmed by these systems to direct funds towards the systems of practices that put care first that are restorative, that are rooted in justice, and certainly, and sort of a tool that people will use across a myriad of other demands to really support part of their divest, invest coalition based strategies to make sure that community is directing what comes next what we build, after we dismantle these harmful and carceral spaces. A lot of our work then also connects to broader solidarity, economies, practices, and advancing sort of this bigger space around participatory democracy. And so, we're really deeply rooted in practices that seek to decommodify. Our relationships to labor and expertise that really center community care, and then really allow us to ensure that when we're thinking about democracy, overall, we're really able to mean a democracy where everyone is represented and heard, no matter their age, their background, country of origin, whatever that may mean. One of our dreams, and we talk about this a lot as a team is that when we say democracy, in future, we really do mean this kind of promise of one person, one vote that I don't know, that we've ever actually seen manifests in our country. And so, we're really deeply concerned with justice spaces, what does it mean to put community control at the forefront of change? How do we really think about practices that center humans and care? And as opposed to funding and money and extractive engagement practices? And then also how do we improve our democracy and the process, center community voices at every step of the way, and really change how power is experienced through those systems?
So really manifesting people power is at the heart of what you're doing. And you know, in our public health work CA4Health has always been lifting up the various determinants that impact health, and how do you see the connections between your work to traditional public health efforts and better health outcomes for communities?
Yeah, I think first and foremost, like in traditional health practices, this work is really looking to get to the root causes of inequities and disparities that we are experiencing very actively in communities. So, one of the most direct ways is that we have the ability to invest in the things that affect the social determinants of health. And we'll see a lot of participatory budgeting processes really center, topical focus, or a lot of interests and movement around core root causes of both health disparities, but broader inequities systemically as well. And I'll say that as we do more participatory budgeting and see so many of these throughlines, I do really wish that more public health institutions did sort of interrogate how they could use practices like this or interrogate their community engagement practices more generally, or institutional barriers for impacted community members to really inform their public health approaches, because we really do want to get to root causes, and who knows better than people who are really impacted by those inequities and by those systems, so if he's considering doing like participatory budgeting great, but I think that there's a, there's a really nice symbiosis between our work and the work of traditional public health, because we're really seeking to ensure that community members are directing how we prioritize our public health work. And so, I think that it's a really nice counterbalance to sometimes the pressures of really considering if the state or philanthropic priorities or other directives or dieting what our health institutions are doing. And it's a space to really think about, could we scale a practice where there are traditional health spaces that consider ways to move us beyond really traditional ways of engaging and center community expertise and both naming needs, as well as creating solutions that are going to help make our public health work even stronger, more transparent, more accountable, more effective at directing funds, sure where they're needed most and where they can be most effectively utilized. But certainly, directing energy priority and other kinds of investments. I think there's a lot of intersection and overlay in a lot of spaces our public health partners are huge, huge proponents so of participatory budgeting, participatory democratic processes, and are some of the spaces where see so much engagement and learning. They're really critical connections to be made.
I love it. You know, let's get Marcel in here, because I know he's got some questions.
Awesome. Thank you Sue and thank you for Kristania. So now that folks have that grounding in that context, let's get into some of the approaches. So, if you could share with us some of the barriers and challenges within participatory budgeting, and how you collaborate with communities to address those.
Yeah. So, I will say, there are both challenges in running participatory budgeting. And there are certainly challenges that participatory budgeting seeks to address more broadly, take at the root of them is understanding that participatory budgeting is community driven, is deeply collaborative, we bring all of the myriad identities that we hold, and the perspectives, the frustrations, the tensions that we're really experiencing, to our spaces together throughout the process. And so it's, it takes a lot of time. I mean, it's not the most, you know, you just check it off a list, you did it, you move forward. It's very intensive, and it needs to be very deliberative. And I think when we consider how participatory budgeting interacts with other kinds of challenges communities face, there are a couple of things that really stand out. And I think that right now, we are still reckoning with the uprisings around racial justice in 2020. We're still in a COVID era, we are experiencing a mass resignation in particularly exploitive industries that but certainly more broadly than that, and we're also healing from the loss of millions of loved ones and community members all around the world, and many more who are facing exacerbated like food and housing, income, security, insecurity, it's really challenging right now to build trust and to build hope. And to really feel like, we are able to do the things to build the things that we know we need. So, I'll say within the broader context of participatory budgeting right now, we think about our work as having to really center community-led decision making that is equitable, accessible, and significant, because those elements tend to be missing from the ways in which community is able to direct, like the decisions that most impact them, how we spend funds, how we create policies. And so, when we think about each of those areas, we really kind of consider and really push ourselves and our partners to recognize ways in which we can make our work as equitable as possible. And I think within that, we're seeing large influxes of funds and policy packages are being proposed or interventions that are being led right now that are not necessarily addressing root causes of inequities. And I think this is where community leadership would be incredibly valuable to direct our investments of time and energy to areas where we're not just continuously treating the symptom, we're really need to get down into the weeds into those roots and really name How is white supremacy showing up? What are we willing to risks to put that out there, and to build differently, interrogate our hiring practices, and like really build an equity at every phase, and they feel one of the challenges that equity is kind of feeling like it's become a bit of a buzzword. It's a way to say I'm a good one, as opposed to say, I will work myself out of a job, if it means that this community thrives. And I think that equity at its core, and really getting to those root causes naming what needs to be named and working actively to dismantle them, no matter the cost is something is a challenge that we take on, you know, headfirst for sure, but certainly, I think is a challenge that we experienced and bump up against time and time again. I mentioned accessibility as well, I think we need to build decision making spaces that are inclusive and accessible to community leadership, and what is accessible is going to differ based on folks different identities and the lived experiences. So we have to design these spaces with community leadership. And I think there are a lot of challenges when too often assumptions are made about what people need to engage without them. And we have to build with community leadership to create and convene spaces that are going to actually facilitate equitable public health interventions, equitable budgetary decisions, stronger communities overall, right.
The last one I mentioned was sort of is the work we're doing significant to people are people really willing to invest significant energy and money resources into processes like participatory budgeting or other kinds of democratic decision making? And I think too often decision making, you know, is still very concentrated in the hands of people who do benefit from inequitable power dynamics. So, we have to involve sort of a broad cross section of our communities, not just in the ways that kind of like, again, take us to that checklist and say I gauged community a bit today. I've done my duty. But really are seeking to disrupt power and disrupt power imbalances and commit to earning the trust that it takes to do this, to put power in the hands of community members, especially community members who you have never ever, ever trusted to lead and deciding for themselves what they need. And so I think though some of the challenges really arise when like those key things are missing, either in where we partner or just kind of like the water we swim in. And our work is really trying to address these challenges because it is rooted in seeking to disrupt power and equities and community leadership.
But I will say after that whole list of challenges, and it's certainly not exhaustive, but I will acknowledge that the silver lining, the really exciting part about this work is that the expertise you need the answers you need, the solutions you're looking for, already exists, right, they're already out there in the hands, if and then the minds and the spirit, the bodies of our community members, all we have to do, which is invest in building together and diverting resources where they're most needed. And we can certainly kind of tap into the hope and the expertise is all around us. And I feel like it's just a matter of being willing to step back and really honor that, that there are some silver linings despite the challenges.
Like a perfect segue, I really appreciate the intentionality in addressing some of those systemic causes, and how that feeds into the process, both internal and external. And so I really appreciate you acknowledging that and bring that up. And you sort of alluded to this next part. In regard to some of the greatest successes in working toward community led decision making, I wonder if you could share really quickly what you've seen so far and future opportunities as well.
Totally, yeah, I, I will say I think our greatest successes overall are when we're successful at disrupting business as usual, or maybe when business as usual becomes more aligned with the values and principles that like underpin our vision for participatory democracy, or whatever that might be. And I will say that, you know, really, none of our wins that we experienced, or that we get to champion aren't necessarily just ours alone at the participatory budgeting project, they are really winds that are led by our local partners, who we have the privilege of supporting in the ways that we can, and the ways that we're able, but some of the really big successes that come to mind and things to watch things are really exciting for us. You know, we're seeing a lot more interest in taking on practices like participatory budgeting, or participatory policymaking, or even just interrogating community engagement in a way that has actual stakes and power behind it.
So when I think about our work that we're just really excited about, I think about our partners in Cleveland, there's a coalition called PB CLI, and they're advancing a campaign to invest $30 million of American rescue plan Act funds into a pot for PB that advocacy is ongoing, and it's really inspirational, you can check them out. Students in Central Falls, Rhode Island are actually already using participatory budgeting to allocate American Rescue Plan Act funds within their schools, the City of Boston just won and office of participatory budgeting, in addition to their long standing youth led process across the city, we have students across Phoenix Union High School District that are have been running PB for quite some time, but they're now doing a district wide process with funds that are disinvested from their school resource officers from their police, school police funding $1.2 million to allow them as community members and guardians within a student's school, the school students themselves and faculty and staff to work together to redefine public safety for themselves— a really dynamic process.
Seattle, the one sort of on the precipice of launching one of the largest city wide PB processes we've ever seen in the US with a justice focus and building on extensive leadership and advocacy from black community members. And there's so much to celebrate these days. It's really, really exciting. And so, you know, our biggest successes get to come from getting to collaborate with partners who are really on the front lines of moving forward, their vision, their dream, their you know, their I suppose sort of a spirit of what's to come what can possibly be and it's a great reminder, a testament that processes like these can sometimes sound nice and also sound like they're just not possible. You can't do it. There's just no way. And I think this is great testament all it's exciting success is just that this work is possible. It's thriving, where there's willingness to go for it. People you know, are in these times of having to decide know, what is our community led recovery look like in times like this? What is that? What does it really mean to invest infrastructure funds really equitably the likes of which you probably won't really see again, anytime soon. What is that? we maximize opportunities. And I think that where there's a willingness and openness to try it, it's possible. That's really exciting.
That's amazing. It sounds like there's a lot of lessons learned that can be applied across multiple community led decision making processes or projects, whether now or in the future. And I'm curious if funders invested more into health equity and racial justice, what would this look like? Or what would need to change in order for this to happen in order for this to be realized?
Yeah, this is such an interesting and dynamic question. And I think really, I mean, if funders invested differently. And we could just say, if funding was moving into health equity and racial justice, for all, I think that we would probably see way fewer needs that have to be met by philanthropies, foundations, nonprofits, a lot of other spaces, are that we wouldn't have such a reliance on these kinds of financial support in the ways that I think a lot of nonprofits currently do. I think we might see more projects that we maybe see coming out of participatory budgeting or participatory democratic practices, investments in spaces that are already more inclusive and equitable, are led by folks who are not often seen as maybe career nonprofit professionals, but really are tapped in to the needs of their community, and are those folks who will, you know, make a difference, right, we'll make a break. If somebody has a meal that day, if somebody is able to make it to school that day, whatever that might be. I think we see more investments made to some of those folks who maybe exist outside of formal structures, formal institutional spaces. I think my dream is that if we're all really successful at this work, we won't see as many spaces that consolidate power at all, or influence or resources on behalf of the public good. I think we would see philanthropies and even government institutions, nonprofits, like really pivot and shift and build spaces of abundance, right, where we're able to relate to one another very differently. And maybe all this is like a pipe dream, but I think also really interrogate and sort of our reliance on capital, capitalists sort of like engagement at all. I don't know it's we're talking about participatory budgeting and say, I wish we just didn't have to rely on money. We rely so much on like community led investment of money. But I do think that there's ways for us to hopefully down the line interrogate do we need this, why? Are there other ways we can be in relationship with each other. And I think participatory budgeting being situated within solidarity, economies practices is really interesting to me, I think because of that. But I also feel that within this current structure, it would be great to see more funders offer more flexible funds to organization, so they have the flexibility to pass through funds to community members in a way that's nimble and based off community need and not just deliverables. And I know, we need accountability and transparency and all of that. But really, you know, folks who are fueling our movements for change can look different. They can be loose coalition's that can be artists, they can be young, they can be elders, whatever that might be, you know, how do we mobilize sort of resources in a way that really centers their expertise, I think that would go a long way in advancing our overall movements for justice and equity. And maybe we’d see more practice around maybe participatory grantmaking, where community has leadership and directing philanthropic funds to, that would be really awesome to see that work evolve and expand across the country, and beyond.
That’s an interesting concept of practice, and very timely, because money keeps or money's coming in, where communities are part of that process of how are they driving and influencing those decisions before they’re made.
So Sue, I know you're going to go ahead and take us towards the end, in regards to action and future. Go ahead, Sue.
Yeah, I think, Kristania, you know, you've just shared some of this broader vision. And if we make it a little more concrete, what do you see as some of the most critical points of action in the year ahead to advance or further support community-led decision making?
So many things come to mind. The first thing I think, and it's a point, it's not merely a point of action, I think it's more just maybe it's more individual action, and opportunity. But I think we're going to need to see in the next year and beyond people who are willing to risk more, and particularly folks who have institutional cushion or the support and clout, credibility of other broader spaces, you know, to recognize our community members and community leaders are taking risks all the time, our institutions have to take risks as well. So, a critical point of action, maybe if you're within an institution is try something different. Be willing to really consider something you maybe would never have tried before. We also just recommend you know be specific in your asks for change. We don't want if you want a participatory policy making process, you don't want it to be softened and you want it to be co-opted, like, let's be really bold and asking for what we want and what we need.
We got to really interrogate how our institutional barriers can undermine community engagement and collaboration. Let's make sure we pay our community leaders who have expertise, let's shift, right, and be willing to give up and remove serious inequities around power. Let's define who's the focus of you know what we're doing, and let's make sure they are in the driver's seat of how we pursue that work. So, all of those things within our institutions, we've got to work with our community to define the terms that we're going to use for our work, we have to critically define what is equity? Right, what is safety? What is health? You know, what do communities actually need? And how do we design processes with our community members and adjust right, our roles and network.
All this to say, in the year ahead, I would encourage folks to be particularly aware of/vigilant around, you know, our so called COVID Recovery funds that are coming in, they have perhaps you know, right after our infrastructure funds, influxes of resources, who's making decisions about them, you know, and what should the role of community be in that. Would really encourage folks to learn more about their local people's budget, processes, local campaigns that really are seeking to open up policies and practices to community leadership. And know, I mean, if it's in your city, you don't know if it's going to happen this year, organizations, institutions, run participatory budgeting internally as well. You can start there, we do, which is probably no surprise, but many others do as well. And yeah, really just be mindful, I think of how and where you're willing to make participatory processes a standard for how you make decisions in your work. And a core piece of how you approach it doesn't have to be sort of an extra thing you do if and when conditions are perfect, you've got time and you've got extra money and extra staff, consider where and how this can be a new way of how you make decisions as a standard practice. Those are some of the challenges I would offer to folks to do and this year or this year ahead. And really think about how we connect with and support bolster, or even just step back from as appropriate, where community leadership is driving some of the work that we need to get done.
Totally appreciate that. And I wonder, as we come to a close here, is there anything else that you want to share in these final moments of this podcast?
Well, thank you for having me. It's been really lovely. And I'm really exciting. I think I'll just share, I'll end on a note of just excitement. And in honoring sort of all the partners that we're working with, who are really doing it, who are doing really incredible work. And again, participatory budgeting is just maybe one tool and a broader set of tools or to get us towards liberation, and you know, very different ways of being with each other. But also shout out briefly, we have the great privilege and honor of being sort of a backbone convener to a national coalition centered around work that looks at participatory democracy more broadly. We have local and national partners as part of that. And it's called Democracy Beyond Elections. And so, if participatory budgeting is of interest, check out Democracy Beyond Elections, as well I will share more about how people can find information from them. They are leading an American rescue plan act campaign to invest those resources through participatory budgeting, but they're also creating working groups and other configurations to surface new models of participatory policymaking. It's an innovative, dynamic, really incredible space to be in. And I can't encourage people enough to really think about it. That's the place I'd like to connect just to get started.
Wonderful, and you know, Kristania, it has been great talking with you today. We are moved by the work that you do. And I know I learned some stuff here during our conversation. And we're really truly grateful that you took the time to share these insights with us today. And if anyone wants to learn more about the participatory budgeting project, check them out on the web and social media. And thank you for listening to CA4Health People.Power.Perspectives Podcast.