Empowering Communities Through Participatory Budgeting
Ashley, 24, works internationally to help young people, educators, school-district administrators, city staff, and elected officials engage in participatory budgeting (PB), a process in which ordinary people are empowered to decide how public money is spent. She first learned about PB three years ago while studying at Arizona State University. Since then, she’s taken her learning beyond the classroom and around the world. Today, she’s grateful to work and learn with people who strengthen communities, challenge injustice, and reshape democracy.
What is PB?
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a tool that gives real people real power over real money. It’s a democratic process that’s led by community members for their communities. As experts in knowing best what needs to be changed, community members use PB to determine how to spend public dollars to improve their schools and neighborhoods. Unlike typical budgeting processes, where representatives decide what the people they represent need, PB empowers everyday people to decide for themselves how to spend the money that impacts their lives.
How did you learn about PB?
Like many college students, I began my time at Arizona State University confused about “what I wanted to be,” and what I should study to get there. I knew I wanted to learn more about how identities impact the way people interact, and thought I could use research to do that. I began an independent research project that became my honors thesis. In the process, I worked with a committee of two ASU professors who focused on civic engagement.
While researching ways young people were building relationships and building peace, I was introduced to participatory budgeting (PB). My research travel grants funded me to take Romanian language classes while conducting interviews with PB participants. I was introduced to the first youth PB process in Romania—where young people were working together across differences in ethnicity and religion to decide how to spend public money and improve their communities.
In Romania, I interviewed 50 young people participating in PB and spoke with city staff and partners leading the process. I returned home to Arizona with stories, questions, and a deeper appreciation for the teams who design and run PB around the world.
After conducting graduate-level research in social psychology, political science, and religion and conflict, I realized that while theory fascinated me, I needed to do more than simply study PB in order to make real change. This realization inspired me to begin observing and supporting PB at Bioscience High School in Phoenix—the first high school in the U.S. to do PB in a school setting.
What other career options did you consider?
Before studying youth participatory budgeting (PB) in Romania and supporting school PB in Phoenix, I had dreamed of pursuing a Ph.D. in social psychology to eventually work in academia. I convinced myself this was the one and only path intended for me to follow.
Perhaps part of this determination stemmed from the fact that many of my mentors were professors in academia, and so their shoes were the only shoes I could imagine a future version of me wearing; I had no idea there were so many other types of shoes out there! Spending time with a new set of mentors who were leading PB with young people left me with dreams of pursuing a new, but still related, path: I now dreamed of doing the work I was previously researching.
What work are you doing with PB now?
Today, at the Participatory Budgeting (PB) Project, I offer training and support to teams of city staff members, educators, students, nonprofit partners, and community members leading PB across the U.S. and Canada.
In doing this work, I’ve seen firsthand that people who lead PB in their schools and communities learn about democracy by doing democracy. I’ve seen many students and community members participate in governing their school or neighborhood in new ways, grow as leaders, develop an understanding of budgeting, become more aware of ways to address needs in their community, and strengthen their skills in critical thinking, researching, and public speaking.
Most recently, I helped launch and lead PB in 10 public high schools in the Phoenix Union High School District—the first school district in the U.S. to do PB using school district-wide funds. (Check out these students in action and read about their work!) Of all the impacts that stemmed from PB in these schools, the outcome that stood out most to me was relationship building among students, educators, and staff who participated in the process.
Over the course of the school year, students who participated in PB not only developed as researchers, team members, leaders, and advocates but also became friends with students they hadn’t previously interacted with, and the teachers who advised PB built relationships with students they didn’t see in their classrooms. Beyond the connections that developed within each school, schools developed new kinds of partnerships with school district staff while working together to decide how to improve their school communities.
In 2017, I began planning for an international Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference to bring together 250 community leaders, government officials and staff, practitioners, researchers, funders, young leaders, and technologists in Phoenix, AZ, in March 2018. At this conference, I’m most excited when students and educators tell their own stories about how PB has impacted them and how it’s changed their schools.
As PB continues to evolve and grow, I’m eager to support more and more students, educators, and community members in taking control over the changes they want to see in their communities—and in working together to make them happen.
Learn more about Ashley’s work
- Participatory Budgeting in Schools
- Blog: What happens when students lead PB?
- Innovations in Participatory Democracy Conference website