Enthusiasm across District 39 is growing as the Vote Week for the 5th year of Participatory Budgeting (PBNYC) approaches! First implemented in 2011, PBNYC has allowed district residents to determine how over $1 million of their city council member’s discretionary funding is spent, encouraging constituents to voice their ideas regarding neighborhood improvements. PBNYC has served as a way for different district communities to unite in working together on larger city-funded projects.
Council Member Brad Lander, who first took office in 2010, worked with several other city council members to implement PBNYC in 2011. Now, serving his second term as a city council member, Councilman Lander has continued working towards the inclusion of all district residents in local government processes, especially through Participatory Budgeting. Throughout each PBNYC cycle, Council Member Lander leads neighborhood meetings, attends the project Expo, and helps organize the efforts to get out the PBNYC vote.
Read the full interview with Council Member Brad Lander below to learn more about his experiences with the PBNYC process in District 39:
Ilana Cohen: How and why did you initially decide to implement Participatory Budgeting in District 39?
Brad Lander: Before I got elected to office, I did a lot of community organizing and planning work. I ran the Fifth Avenue Committee...Then I ran the Pratt Center for Community Development, whose whole mission is about engaging people in planning for their communities. But when I got [elected into] office, we weren’t doing that much of that. Pratt invited me [to a panel] to hear this alderman named Joe Moore from Chicago, who was the first person in the United States to be doing Participatory Budgeting...I thought they were inviting me...to talk about all our good community planning work but really, they were inviting me so that after Joe Moore presented about Participatory Budgeting...they could ask [if I would] commit right [then] to doing Participatory Budgeting...I was caught, and it seemed like a good idea. In some ways, [Pratt] cleverly organized so that they could make me do [Participatory Budgeting] but looking at the bigger picture, that basic idea that what government is supposed to be about is people in communities working together on common and shared goals is why I’m interested in being in public office, and we’re not very good at that. Faith in government is at an all-time low. You look at these [presidential] elections and you can see why, and we have a lot more to do to show people that government can be a strong vehicle for coming together to take care of the stuff that we love like our parks, our libraries, and our schools, and [for] solving problems together.
Ilana Cohen: How is the PBNYC process valuable for the District 39 community?
Brad Lander: I think [it is valuable] for a lot of reasons. We get great projects and the projects that have already been implemented are really wonderful projects. There are a lot of streets and intersections that are safer [as a result], there are improvements in the public libraries, and you [can] see the kids in the Windsor Terrace and Carroll Gardens libraries using the technology that’s in there. [You can see] the areas in Prospect Park where the drainage has been fixed, or see what the new reading garden is going to be like. We get great projects, but we also get the energy of creative ideas and the strength that comes from people working together.
Ilana Cohen: Has the PB process in District 39 changed over the last 5 years since it was first implemented?
Brad Lander: Yes! We have more young people involved. This year, for the first time, we’re doing expense projects as well as capital projects, and some of the projects on the expense ballot are really exciting. More people are involved. We’ve definitely had growth in the number of people who are voting, and of course, more people are doing [participatory budgeting] all around New York City. When we started, we were only four districts, and most people thought it was a little strange or weird. Now, more than half of the city has Participatory Budgeting in their districts and last year, over 50,000 people voted.
Ilana Cohen: What are the benefits of doing expense projects in addition to capital projects this year?
Brad Lander: One great thing about PB is the way it stokes people’s creativity, and things that we otherwise wouldn’t think to do can get on the ballot. The reading garden was really creative...But there’s some risk [in the PBNYC process] that things get settled in their ways, and with the capital projects...you can be creative, but it gets harder and harder. I think that having expense projects allowed a new kind of creativity. And in some ways, the expense projects are always going to be a little easier to be creative with than the capital projects because you can do anything. With the capital projects, you have a whole, heavy set of rules...there are things we just can’t do with capital funding that are dynamite ideas. Everything on the expense ballot--the translation equipment, the support for school integration--is an inspiring idea. I wish [all the projects] could get funded.
Ilana Cohen: What is your favorite part of the PB process and why?
Brad Lander: Hm, that’s a good question. It’s hard because I like all the parts so much. I guess I like the Expo the best. That’s the most engaged voters getting to meet the people who have done all this work and getting to talk to them about why they care about their projects. The conversations that take place there really capture the depth of the passion and creativity that the delegates have...Especially [as] last year was the first year you could vote at the Expo. There’s a lot of good parts of PB, but I think the Expo would be my favorite.
Ilana Cohen: What advice do you have for youth who want to become engaged in the Participatory Budgeting process?
Brad Lander: We would love to have more young people involved and we’re open to finding new ways and ideas to make that happen. Sometimes, people come with a project they love from a particular school. I think the expense funding in the future could be a unique place for people to bring their ideas....I think that people are most engaged when they have a project or idea that they are excited about, but the danger is that they don’t all make the ballot. So if you come with an idea and it doesn’t make the ballot, then you might be a little sad.
Ilana Cohen: What do you think are a few of the most inspiring or helpful projects that have won the District 39 PB cycle in the past?
Brad Lander: My favorite will always be that very first one...the bathroom renovations at P.S.124, partly because we leveraged that into bigger change, and partly because those kids were just so cute...And that project was actually able to get implemented very quickly. One challenge is that it often takes a long time to implement the PB projects. Another one of my favorite projects from that first year was the compost equipment for the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and that still doesn’t exist now...But [the bathroom project at P.S. 124] got implemented just a few months later and the kids were very happy. And then, after two years of having the top winning [PB] projects be school bathrooms, we said, ”Let’s push the Department of Education to fund a $100 million school initiative to fix up bathrooms.” So that was not only a good project, but a big success story. [Now] I’m really excited about the reading garden, which hasn’t been implemented yet, but is moving forward quickly...The library technology is fun because I’m in those libraries a lot and I get to see people putting it to use.
Ilana Cohen: Is it easier for any specific participatory budgeting committee to have winning participatory budgeting projects?
Brad Lander: Yes, and this a sort of debate between the constituents and the delegates. The schools have a built in constituency and so they have an easier time turning people out to vote than other [issues] that people care about, but might not feel as connected to. That said, every year a library project has gotten funded, a parks project has gotten funded. Prospect Park draws so many people from the district and the borough, so it gets a lot of love. Part of the idea of limiting the number of projects on the ballot to three per category is to make sure that no one kind of project gets all the funding.
Ilana Cohen: Does the District 39 Participatory Budgeting process coordinate with the Participatory Budgeting processes in other New York City districts?
Brad Lander: Yes, in New York City and now, all around the country. In New York, when we started [doing PBNYC], it was just [in] four districts: Melissa Mark-Viverito in East Harlem, Jumaane D. Williams in East Flatbush, Eric Ulric in the Rockaways, and here. Those four districts did work pretty closely together, along with the Participatory Budgeting Project...and Community Voices heard...We developed a common rulebook and developed the [PBNYC] process...Once Melissa became Speaker, she brought PB into the city council. Now, there’s staff within the city council’s central staff who help coordinate and organize the whole process...There’s a citywide steering committee, council members, council staff, budget delegates, district committee members, citywide partners, all together thinking about how to make the best policies we can citywide. And members don’t have to do all the things the same way. We [in District 39] piloted expense funding this year even though that’s not part of the citywide process, but [we got] a lot of support...The first year [of the PB process] we counted the votes...Now, the votes are all scanned and counted by a central counting organization, and ballots are all printed centrally, so there’s a lot of support that contributes to the PB process.