Participatory Budget Delegates

Getting to Know Some Participatory Budgeting Delegates

Having written a piece last month about my experience with Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the 35th District, I decided to find out how other delegates were faring. I had hoped to make contact with around six but with Christmas and the New Year coming up, it seemed most people were in holiday mode. However, I did manage to meet with three delegates and had interesting conversations with them. I also asked two of them to give answers to follow up questions by email. It should be pointed out that the process has moved on. We have now sent the proposals that were formed to the various relevant agencies and they have responded. The answers have been no, maybe and yes. My proposal to paint murals on the walls of schools, which I formed jointly with Deirdre Levy, was turned down because the Schools Construction Agency does not handle the painting of murals. Jason Hur, who is handling PB for Laurie Cumbo, found this out and suggested other ways that this idea might be pursued. My other proposal to plant twenty trees on Nostrand Avenue between Empire Boulevard and Sterling Place as well as some side streets was given a “Maybe.” The response was “Specific tree pit locations to be discussed if requested, 212-788-7801.” Was the proposal a “capital” request (necessary to pass this stage)? The answer was “yes.” And then there was a further note saying, “Funds to be transferred to Forestry.” I was confused by this response and asked Jason to explain. He wrote back, “The idea is valid. If the project were to win, the Parks Department would need to call our office at 212-788-7801. We'll be announcing which ideas make it to the ballot in January, and the hope is that we've locked it in by then to share with folks in April via the expo.” So the proposal is in the running; if it were chosen for the ballot, it would be presented at an Exposition in which there would be a presentation of all ideas on the ballot just before the vote at the beginning of April. So I was pleased to have made it this far.

The first delegate I met with was Deirdre Levy with whom I had worked on the abortive murals idea. I found out that she had grown up in Queens of a mixed Filipino/Israeli family and had gone to Albany University, SUNY to get a BA in Public Affairs and Policy and then an MA in Higher Education Administration and Policy Studies. Afterwards she got an MS in Childhood Special Education at Pace University. For the last six years she has taught at Coy L. Cox School, 369K in Fort Greene. She teaches special education classes; most of her students suffer from some form of autism and all of them have severe disabilities. She got into this field almost by chance and found it overwhelming at first, but now she is in for the long haul. Before she did this job, she was in Americorps and worked in various schools including the Manhattan High School where she dealt with students who had been in prison. She is someone who is very active with outside groups – Liga Filipina Network, promoting Filipino Culture, Educators for Excellence, City Year, and she has taken an interest in the North Prospect Heights Neighborhood Association, which she hoped would get behind the murals proposal.

I asked her what she thought about the failure of the murals idea in PB, and she said she fully intends to pursue it through other means. Deirdre is co-chair of the Education Committee in the PB process, tasked with coming up with education proposals, and she is pushing one for her school to renovate the bathrooms that are badly in need of repair and are not compliant with Special Education laws. She is hoping this proposal makes it onto the ballot. This initiative is Deirdre's, but it has backing from her school and the parents of the Community Roots School located at the same site, and Deirdre will make the best presentation possible at the Expo in March. Schools with their connections to parents, teachers, administrators and students over 11 years of age are typically the winners in the voting.

Deirdre has been a good student in the PB process. This is her first time working in the program and she has been listening carefully and gathering the facts so that she can be as effective as possible. Being involved is part of her make-up; she is very energetic and determined, but also someone who moves forward in a deliberate way. When I asked her if she would want to participate next year, she gave a one word reply: “Definitely.” She is glad to take on challenges and gives the air of someone who will keep pushing forward until she succeeds. Deirdre imagines getting directly involved in politics in the future. She may someday decide to run for office. She would be a formidable candidate.

Another person who agreed to see me is Sharon Hunt, someone who grew up in Crown Heights, where her mother still lives. She has been working her whole life, for 26 years in a pharmacy but she has other ventures going on the side. She has an on-line/street business called Definitive Statements which sells crocheted items. Sharon has raised a boy and a girl and lives in her own place in Crown Heights. Despite her busy life Sharon decided to further her education. Studying part-time she worked her way through a double degree program at Queens college, getting her BA in 2017 and an MA in 2018 in Urban Studies. She is now looking to get work commensurate with her education.

This is also Sharon's first time with PB. She was told about it by a friend who took her a preparatory meeting. She has been an enthusiastic participant. She began with four proposals. They are sidewalk extensions near where she lives, tree guards near where her mother lives, security cameras at the Jackie Robinson Playground, and Bus waiting time signs for the B48 and B49 buses. The first proposal was declared not capital eligible, she was advised to integrate the tree guards proposal in my proposal for 20 trees on Nostrand Avenue, the third proposal would have go the NYPD who have thus far not been involved with PB, and for the last proposal she was asked to give specific sites with photographs. She has since taken the photographs, but last I heard did not know who to submit them to. No doubt that will be worked out. She was very excited that this proposal might be moving along. She then added a proposal to upgrade the ladies room at the Brooklyn Public Library. Her late submissions could well succeed as the committee not dealing with education has not come up with the requisite number of proposals.

Sharon has worked hard at PB but has been hampered by having an email address that does not always work. I sometimes succeed in reaching her and other times the messages bounce back. When I met with her I found her to be someone who is well-informed and has a personal interest in politics. She is someone who struggles and wants to get help – her rent is too high, she would like to get her Social Security now and not wait until 65, she is very aware of conditions on the street, particularly what happens when young people have no direction and nothing to do. She attended the Town Hall that Laurie Cumbo had with Corey Johnson on December 13 at Medgar Evers College, and she followed the debate on affordable housing carefully and had intelligent things to say about it. When told she might combine her tree guard proposal with my trees proposal she took a walk on Nostrand to the south of Eastern Parkway and noted the lack of trees there that seemed a part of the depressed tone of the neighborhood .

Sharon very much hopes that some of her proposals make it to the ballot, but she also says that as a first timer she is learning a lot and that knowledge will prove useful if she comes back to PB in the future. She says, “... complaining without being proactive hinders positive changes towards making a difference.” Sharon sees a lot that is wrong, but she is not someone to stop just with complaining. She very much wants things to happen and she will do all she can to see that they do.

The last person I will write about in this article is Rodney Solomon. I sat next to him at the first meeting of Budget Delegates and discovered that we are neighbors. He lives a little more than a block away from me and his brother-in-law Jason has been taking photos for my website and Jason's wife brings their son to a story time for young children that my wife recently started. Rodney readily agreed to be interviewed for this article. He is originally from Florida and attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. There he became president of the Florida Club and participated in an effort to make the bus system in the city more responsive to the needs of the residents. Marrying Jason Atkins' sister Yolanda brought him to Brooklyn and there his activism has continued. He joined with Friends of Brower Park to get a upgrade for the bathroom there. Rodney works for a business that develops websites; he has had two children with Yolanda; the older one who is six goes to Elijah Stroud, P.S 316.

Rodney is on Laurie Cumbo's mailing list. When he got a notice from her about Participatory Budgeting he decided to get involved. He and a group of other parents at P.S. 316 had seen the poor condition of the girls' bathrooms there. The activist in Rodney saw a way to do something about it. He volunteered to be a budget delegate and submitted a proposal to have two of the girls' bathrooms renovated. That proposal went before the School Construction Agency and came back with a full endorsement. They declared it a capital project and said it would make a good PB proposal. The endorsement seemed to be a full one.

So the next question is will the proposal make it on to the ballot. Getting it there might take some politicking on the education committee. One thing in favor of the proposal is that several different proposals have been made in regard to PS. 316. It seems doubtful that more than one will be put on the ballot. Given the ringing endorsement from the Schools Construction Agency, Rodney might be able to successfully argue that his proposal should be the Stroud proposal. If that happened then the next step would be to mobilize the school community. Stroud is a successful school with a strong administration and a lot of parent involvement; those elements along with a good presentation at the March Expo could result in a successful vote in April. The pathway forward is open and Rodney has a history of working for change.

In conclusion, I have noticed that all three delegates I have dealt with here are new to the process. They are idealistic and energetic and want to make positive changes. All three have been interested in public affairs, and at least two indicated they will be back next year to engage in PB again. Rodney didn't say this, but if he found another issue that could be dealt with through PB, I can't imagine that he would not also return. PB has opened up a way for people to get involved, but it is just one way. Deirdre will also be working with the Liga Filipino Network, trying to get murals painted. Sharon's interests are wide ranging and she will be trying to turn her newly minted degree in Urban Studies into a job with New York State. One has the feeling that Rodney will find something else that could use his attention, maybe at Brower Park, maybe the Lincoln Civic Block Association of which he is a member. These three delegates are, in short, ideal citizens, concerned about the world and determined to make it a better place. Given their energy and intelligence, one feels certain they will definitely have some successes.

UpdatesJonathan Judge