Participatory Budgeting Vote Week
Nostrand Avenue Improvement Association Proposal to Plant Trees on Nostrand Avenue with Funding from Participatory Budgeting in the 35th Council District - Represented by Laurie Cumbo
Proposal: Plant twenty trees on Nostrand Avenue and side streets with tree guards and create a prograrn to care for them. Estimated cost: $50,000.
Who votes: Everyone 11 years old and older without regard to being registered to vote or immigration status. One does have to be a resident in the 35th District. (See map below)
When: March 30 to April 7 Where: At polling stations one of which will be the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza during library hours, also at Medgar Evers Prep High School gam-6prn. Also it will be possible to vote on line.
Participatory Budgeting: The Nostrand Avenue Trees Proposal is one of about ten proposals. Voters can choose five when they vote. The winners get funded out of $1,000,000 set aside for this purpose. NAIA endorses these other proposals: Medgar Evers Prep technology upgrade, Elijah Stroud renovation of girrs bathroom, The Trees Proposal for Sterling Place, and the Charles Dorsey request to renovate their bathrooms.
Tom Oesau and the Poster Meeting
On March 7, I trekked far east on St. John Place to go to a “Poster Meeting” at 1644, sponsored by Neighbors in Action to make posters to be used at an Expo, now scheduled for March 30 to kick off the voting in Participatory Budgeting. Jason Hur was there, from Laurie Cumbo's office, and so was Karolin Betances from Neighbors in Action, who sponsored the event. Also present were three cultural workers from Arts and Democracy who were to help us delegates create our posters. About six people eventually showed up to make posters, and the cultural workers circulated among us helping us with design. I primarily worked with Tom and Emily and got an assist from Karolin who found some pictures of trees on the internet and printed them up for me. I was thankful for the all the help I got. Tom gave me a overall idea of what I might do for my Trees Proposal and Emily spent a lot of time with me actually filling in details. I decided to place a tree on the left side of my poster, and Emily and I gradually decided to make the leaves out of different colors of green crepe paper, Emily cut a lot of leaves and I pasted them on to the board. As we were chatting I found out Emily is ethnically Korean but was adopted by white American parents. When she was older she went to Korea, and she now has a partner who is Korean. She did not know Korean when she was young but she can now speak fairly well and keeps practicing with her partner. She told me that she and all the others present had gone to Pratt and got involved through that connection. She told me about some of the projects she had been involved in, one of which was an organizing program in Kensington that worked through music. All the projects that Arts and Democracy do are attempts to organize communities through the arts.
I was very impressed by Emily and decided I would like to profile the group. I asked Tom Oesau, who was the leader, for an interview, and a week later it took place. First of all, Tom told me a bit about himself. He grew up in Racine and went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He majored in Psychology and Sociology, but even then had an interest in urban life. He came to New York right after graduation and got a job at “Time Out,” an excellent way to find out what is going on in New York, particularly from a young person's point of view. He worked there for fifteen years, but gradually found he wanted to do something with more depth. He enrolled in an MA program at Pratt to study urban design and focused on the issues of land use and creating access for under-represented groups in the process of urban planning. His thesis was about Racine where he discovered the city government had a good plan but was out-funded by the merchants downtown, who, in developing their area did regressive things – they wanted to keep out “undesirables,” reduce the amount of low cost housing, and make the area primarily attractive to tourists. Tom's adviser told him to keep his sharply critical insights for the thesis but to tone them down for an article in a general publication.
It was at Pratt that Tom came into contact with Karen Atlas, who was teaching courses on urban planning but had also founded two organizations: one was Arts and Democracy and the other was Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts in New York (NOCDNY). The first was primarily an ideas organization that partnered with like minded groups to hold conferences and other events to promote their ideas about community involvement, the latter group worked with local people to actualize organizing through the use of the arts. It is Arts and Democracy that works with Participatory Budgeting and they do so on a national and even international scale, but NOCDNY does community organizing. Karen Atlas put together a small team of people all of whom attended Pratt, though not at the same time. Her two organizations are highly leveraged meaning that with just four workers, they have a large impact, this on a budget of something around $100,000, NOCDNY finds community groups and helps them organize, grow, and become focused through the arts. The music program in Kensington is just one of these efforts. There is now a permanent Arts Council that came together which holds multiple events to draw the community together in many ways. Tom told about another project spearheaded by Bangladeshis – a group directed at creating a plaza and improving transportation. A long-standing group in Williamsburg called El Puente created a program called Cultural Blueprint directed at improving communication about health issues. Another group call Peer Learning Exchange focused on organizing immigrants all over New York. In Gowanus, a group created a play drawing people from three housing projects to address issues of gentrification and zoning. They used an old warehouse to create a Gowanus Community Center that was used extensively during hurricane Sandy and afterwards as a storage and meeting venue.
It is wonderful to know about these thriving organizations that exist on a shoestring and have such a big impact on the city – popping up wherever they find an opportunity to work with local people and help make their issues dramatic and vivid, letting them discover their own voices as they come to be actors on a large stage. There the usual story is told by corporations and big money about how they get what they want. There is a counter-story that is much more interesting, much more hopeful, of people learning to understand and take control of their own lives.
– John DeWind
Expo Day at Grand Army Plaza
March 30, 10am to 2pm was Expo day for Laurie Cumbo's 35th District; budget delegates gathered at Grand Army Plaza to present posters outlining their proposals hoping to get votes. A polling station was set up right next to the people with their posters where voters could cast their votes after considering the choices. Not all the proposals were represented, but most were. Sharon Hunt was there with two posters one for Trees on Sterling Place and the other for Bus Signs that would tell how long until the next bus arrives. There were two proposals to renovate bathrooms in schools. Deirdre Levy was there hoping to get funds to fix up the disgraceful bathrooms at Charles Dorsey, and Rodney Solomon was trying to do the same for the girls' bathrooms at Elijah Stound. Among other budget delegates I recognized Caroline Vitale, Gail Lambert (principal of BASE High School), Antonnet Johnson and Yogi Rosario. All of the delegates had received training in how to manage a polling station. There were really just three simple rules. One, determine the voter lives in the 35th District. Two, have them fill out an affirmation slip; on it they promise they are telling the truth and they give their address and birth year to determine they are indeed in the district and are over 11 years old. Three, once they have filled out the slip, they get a ballot and one is not allowed to persuade them anymore though one can answer informational questions. For example, I was asked why there were no proposals for comfort stations in parks. The answer is they are too expensive, well over the limit of $1,000,000. After voters casts their ballot they get a sticker that says they have voted.
The weather was warm and there was a big crowd present for the farmers' market, which was going on simultaneously. As the morning and early afternoon passed the number of people who were interested grew and a line formed to cast votes. Other districts were represented besides Cumbo's, eleven in total, and various politicians showed up to see how the event was going. There was Brad Lander who represents the 34th which is mostly made up of Park Slope, Mathieu Eugene of the 40th, and Laurie Cumbo herself came, encouraging those who were tiring under the midday sun.
I brought one of my interns, Abdul Diallo to help round up votes. He was quite good at getting them; he said as soon as people knew we wanted to plant trees and care of them they were almost all in favor. Some voted right there and others preferred to vote online at pbnyc.org/vote. It was a great community day. Delegates got to know each other better and meet the voters, and there were the volunteers at the polling stations busily collecting ballots and then the politicians came and helped out. I met many different people – Rachelle Vagy who is designing my magazine, Mark Thurton who works with Community Board 8 was there, my daughter's friend Ben Lockhart came with his girlfriend and there was Leah Alpert from Neighbors in Action.
This is just the first day of voting. It will go on until April 7. All the delegates are racking their brains about what to do to find more votes. Maybe subway stations in the morning, when schools get out in the afternoon, restaurants and bars that get a sizable turnout in the evening. We all will just have to see what works. However, what a pleasure to meet residents of the district and find out they are interested in improving their own lives and those of their neighbors.
– John DeWind
Two Days of Voting
On Saturday, March 30 voting began in the Participatory Budgeting program at Grand Army Plaza during the farmers' market. I showed up with my poster for the Trees Proposal for Nostrand Avenue and brought along my intern Abdul Diallo. My poster, as well as a number of others, was set up in a semi-circle of tables with the hope that people would come over, take a look, and ask questions. However, at first not that many people came by. So Abdul and I stationed ourselves in the middle of the foot traffic and, using a map I had drawn up, asked people if they lived in District 35. Some people brushed us off (about half), and some looked at the map to see if they did reside in the district. Of these about half discovered they did not – many were in Brad Lander's district which takes in Park Slope, others were in Rober Cornegy's district in Crown Heights North. However, the others who did live in District 35 usually took an interest and followed through. First they filled out a card giving their addresses after which they go a ballot and voted. Altogether in the four hours we were present, Abdul and I got about 30 people to vote. Others took our literature and promised to vote online. A little math suggests that about every eight minutes we found a voter and we were connecting with about one in four people we approached. It was both tiring and fun to do this work. We were on our feet virtually the whole time, standing in the sun with a wind blowing our papers and poster around. However, it was interesting to briefly meet the voters and hear from them. I discovered there is a well of support for planting trees. Everyone seemed aware of climate change and knew more trees would mean less CO2 and more Oxygen, and people like trees – several wanted to talk about their favorite species. Also we discovered who the best prospects are. Someone walking slowly was more likely to stop than someone walking quickly. Someone not carrying parcels over someone weighted down by several. People with children were more likely than those without.
The next day I went to the Central Library to man a polling station there. People at the library knew nothing about it, and at first there were no materials Eventually I met another poll worker named Joyce, and she discovered the person who was supposed to have brought the materials was sick. Eventually she arranged to have someone else come over from another polling station. Sharon Hunt appeared with the needed materials The library gave us a table even though they had heard nothing about our coming, and an hour late we finally set up and were ready. In the hour remaining we managed to get about twenty votes. It was a rainy day and as people came into the library they took plastic bags available to put their wet umbrellas in. At that place I could question them. At the library was a much more diverse group than the day before. There were people from out of town and quite a few foreigners, and the people from Brooklyn came from all over the borough – Canarsie, Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, Borough Park and more. However, we still found local and people and usually they would vote. We ran out of English language ballots, but we did get one person to fill out a ballot in Hebrew and another in Spanish. So in two days, the people I worked with and I found about 50 votes, but here are polling stations all over the district, and I plan to come back and do more work getting people to take an interest in community affairs and vote for what they want.
– John DeWind