A Million Dollar Question: Youth Lead the Change
City of Boston and Participatory Budgeting Project
The city's participatory budgeting program invites young adults to share their ideas for building a better city through capital investments in local neighbourhoods and communities
The caption on the t-shirt says “I’ve been managing millions since I was a teenager.” No kidding.
In January 2014, the City of Boston launched the first youth-led participatory budgeting process in the US, inviting teens and young adults to decide how to spend $1 million of the city’s capital budget through a process called Youth Lead the Change: Participatory Budgeting Boston. First announced in 2013 by former Mayor Thomas Menino, and now championed by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Youth Lead the Change represents an important project for the City, increasing youth civic engagement and making Boston a stronger city for all.
Youth Lead the Change (YLC) is a process designed for youth, by youth, that gives youth real power, over real money, to fund real projects for their communities.
Led and funded by the City of Boston, the project was implemented by Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit organization that empowers community to come together and decide how to spend public money, primarily in the US and Canada.
Participatory budgeting (PB) originated in Porto Alegre in Brazil over fifteen years ago, where it proved to be an important community development strategy. Since then, the model has been adapted and applied successfully around the world, including in North American cities such as New York, San Francisco, Toronto and Chicago. At the highest level in the US, the benefits of participatory budgeting were recognized by the White House in its 2014 Open Government National Plan for Action: “It’s a best practice for civic engagement, used by over 40 [US] cities, districts, universities, schools, and other institutions across the country.”
Engaging and Empowering Youth
The goals of the YLC project include civic education and engagement, and the inclusion of youth voices that are typically excluded from municipal politics and decision-making. The participatory budgeting process gives Boston youth a unique opportunity to learn how fiscal decisions impact their neighbourhoods and communities while learning how their city government works. For city leaders and managers, youth engagement in the capital budgeting process also becomes an investment in its citizens and the future success and prosperity of the city.
Strategies for empowering immigrant and minority youth are especially important as demographic shift continues to impact the linguistic, racial and ethno-cultural make-up of an increasingly urban ‘Metropolitan’ America. According to a 2011 Brookings Institution report on the 2010 US decennial census, 50% of infants in the US under age one are non-white. Today nearly one in four Massachusetts children are either immigrants or children of immigrants.
How cities respond and manage their growing diversity is important to community well-being and resilience. And no group is more impacted by social change than a community’s young people. Boston’s participatory budgeting model offers cities a fast track to youth engagement while planning forward to meet the city’s changing needs.
From Ideas to Agents of Change
Unlike the traditional top-down approach where city officials have complete control over capital outlays, Boston’s participatory budgeting process starts from the bottom-up, bringing together youth and young adults to brainstorm ideas and develop proposals before putting them to a public vote.
As a first step, the City established a Steering Committee made up of representatives from local youth organizations and city staff to oversee the process and determine its rules and structure, creating the YLC Rulebook to guide participants and Committee members.
Steering Committee members and the Mayor’s Youth Council representing diverse neighbourhoods used their networks to raise awareness about the project. Targeted outreach was carried out in Boston’s public high schools and low-income and immigrant neighbourhoods. Translation and interpretation services were available to remove barriers to participation. Volunteers distributed information in classrooms and outside schools, including subway stations, malls and supermarkets, to recruit young people from all backgrounds and stages of life.
Next, Idea Assemblies were organized throughout Boston to inform people about participatory budgeting and its goals, recruit volunteers and start generating ideas for physical improvements to city parks, streets and schools.
Open to the public (of all ages), these neighbourhood assemblies challenged young people to think practically about how to improve quality of life in their city –from basketball courts to bike lanes, more green spaces to better libraries. PB eligibility guidelines allowed for a wide range of expression as long as the funds were used for “physical infrastructure projects that benefit the public, cost at least $25,000, and have a lifespan of at least 5 years.”
Over the course of two weeks, seven Idea Assemblies took place in Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, South Boston and Rosindale. A dedicated website was created to allow people to submit ideas even if they could not attend in person.
473 great ideas later
473 great ideas later, a core group of highly engaged young Change Agents was ready to work with the Steering Committee to turn the best submissions into a set of actionable investment proposals that could be put to the public vote. PB Change Agents are highly engaged young volunteers between the ages of 12 and 25 who “live in Boston and go to school, work or volunteer in the city.” No small commitment, Change Agents are expected to spend 15 hours a week over a 4-month period refining the PB decision-making process and pitching the best ideas.
To prepare the youth volunteers for an informed decision-making experience, the city provided orientation sessions and training, and assigned each change agent to a thematic committee guided by trained facilitators. Each committee then worked with city departments and officials who helped determine whether or not the ideas were eligible and feasible. Issue areas included: Education, Parks & Recreation, Environment, and Public Safety.
Through a process of careful deliberation, a total of 14 projects was finally selected to be included on the ballot. Projects were divided into four categories: streets and safety; parks/environment/health; community and culture; and education.
Then came the exciting part. The proposals developed by the Change Agents were were put to the vote. Boston youth between 12-25 years of age were invited to select up to four of the 14 projects on the ballot.
A Winning Formula
The 2014 PB process brought in 1,500 eligible votes for seven approved capital projects, all to be funded and implemented by the City. Boston youth chose wisely and with great creativity. In the preliminary Idea Assemblies, ‘violence’ was identified as one of the three biggest problems in the community. A proposal for the installation of security cameras was one of the final seven projects chosen, right up there with skate board parks, Chromebooks and art walls, clearly demonstrating the ability of young people to have fun and make informed, responsible choices.
“Deliberation is an important part of developing proposals – the participants learn how to negotiate, advocate and see other points of where and that’s where the Project’s work happens,” says David Beasley, Participatory Budgeting Project’s Communications Director about the process. “Voting (then) makes sure that the results are validated and that the community has control and shows transparency.”
For Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the Participatory Budgeting Project has had a tangible impact on city neighbourhoods and their young people: “This helps to foster a greater sense of responsibility in their communities, and helps create a climate of ownership and civic-minded engagement. I am committed to the participatory budget project not just for the impact it has with these capital projects, but the future investments it will bring by making our young people a part of our process.”
Alongside the commitment of the youth, David Beasley credits political will as the factor that most enabled the project’s success: “Boston has a long tradition of really engaged mayors. With participatory budgeting, they saw an opportunity to listen and hand over some power to young people. The group of young people who worked on the project have taken incredible ownership and made the work possible. It has been a combination of a lot of great work by a lot of young leaders and the political will to hold it up.”
“I was extremely impressed by the projects that made it onto the ballot,” said Mayor Walsh, announcing the winners of the 2014 initiative. “The winning projects will make positive and meaningful change in the lives of Boston residents throughout the City. The City budget is not taken lightly, and these young people were dedicated and passionate, becoming a driving force in the way our community process is run. This is only the beginning, and I look forward to seeing all of the great things our young Boston leaders have lined up for the future.”
An evaluation of the first year pilot found some major successes with respect to effects on individual participants, who reported social benefits, heightened awareness and increased knowledge and skills. Both Change Agents and youth members of the Steering Committee cited a broader awareness of needs in other neighbourhoods throughout the City and a better understanding of government processes and democracy in general. In addition, many participants reported gaining specific skills including leadership, teamwork, networking, communication and professionalism.
The learnings from the first year’s process are invaluable as the City of Boston makes history by allocating $1 million of Boston’s capital funds for a second consecutive year.
Participatory Budgeting Project’s advice for other cities considering youth-led participatory budgeting?
“They should do it! It is an incredible way for young people to get involved in civic life early and meaningfully. There are many ways cities can do this. When you have a process with a budget, it creates a sense of community and ownership – the youth see that not only are their voices and expertise valued but their needs are prioritized,” says Beasley.
Making it Work for You:
- Youth engagement programs have demonstrated potential to create future leaders. What are you doing to enlist the involvement of young people in your organization or community?
- Like all successful projects, youth projects benefit from well-defined roles and responsibilities, accessible information and record-keeping, knowledge-sharing and feedback loops, and a transparent decision-making process that recognizes all parties around the table.
- Debriefing sessions at the end of a project provide invaluable opportunities to gain insight and perspective on what went well, what could have been done better, what participants gained in the process, and how lessons learned can be applied going forward.
For this Good Idea contact:
Francesco Tena, Participatory Budgeting Project
City of Boston Department of Youth Engagement and Employment
1 City Hall Plaza
Boston, MA, USA,
For further reading :
- Youth Lead the Change: Participatory Budgeting Rulebook 2014-15
- Youth Lead the Change: Pilot year evaluation report
- Promoting Innovation in Civic Engagement: Celebrating Community-Led Participatory Budgeting
- Participatory budgeting: where has it worked? [website]
- Examples of participatory budgeting projects