Boston’s city government is in a moment of deep reflection and debate: How much say over the city’s budget should everyday residents have? What will our new powers look like?
Boston’s Participatory Budgeting ordinance is still under debate, which makes this time especially important to guarantee that the needs of Boston’s residents are met.
Participatory Budgeting, that is, the opportunity in law to directly propose and vote on part of the city’s operating budget, is important not only for the opportunity, agency, and empowerment it will provide community members but also because it builds solidarity and creates a binding force to bring residents together for the cause of building up their community.
Bostonians overwhelmingly passed a ballot question in 2021 that mandated participatory budgeting, and as students at the Boston Latin School and the John D. O’Bryant School, we want just and democratic decision-making as to how the city’s money is spent.
The mayor and the city councillors are now considering how to structure this unfamiliar new democratic process. At the heart of the debate is the question of how to make sure that the communities in Boston that have struggled with generations of neglect and disenfranchisement are empowered in the process and will truly benefit from their participation.
A municipal budget is a moral and political document, an expression of needs and priorities, and soon the people of Boston – including high school students like us – will be able to directly define part of it, drawing on our expert familiarity with life in our neighborhoods and our imaginations for a better tomorrow.
A form of participatory budgeting has been practiced with young people in Boston since 2014 via Boston’s “Youth Lead the Change.” Now, the idea is expanding as a city-wide piece of democratic infrastructure.
A meaningful amount of money is needed for this process to truly address the needs in underserved communities. At least $40 million, which is 1 percent of the operating budget, is necessary for participatory budgeting to create meaningful, transformative projects in Boston’s communities.
In another critical area, the Oversight Board for Participatory Budgeting should be organized created with racial and economic equity in mind. Residents’ voices should be valued because we know best what we need, and we can relate to, and understand, our neighbors across the city. The city should hold a public nomination period for Oversight Board members as a way to ensure that those who oversee the process have our needs and concerns in mind because they also share the same needs and concerns.
This will allow for new faces to be a part of leading Boston, faces that represent Boston’s rich culture and diversity. The board needs to have community members with lived experience on it to understand community demands, to address the problems that we see with our eyes on a daily basis. This will also give young people like us the opportunity to be nominated and represent the city’s youth on the board.
The board should learn quickly that different parts of Boston require more support than others; it’s why neighborhoods should be funded equitably. We should make sure that neighborhoods that require more help are prioritized.
Additionally, grassroots organizations that have built networks within Boston neighborhoods should be leading participatory budgeting events in those areas. These indispensable connections will require effort and coordination by the organizations that should be paid for.
The people of Boston within underserved and overlooked neighborhoods have long been disenfranchised, and that has caused them to be divided as they are looking to leadership to help solve their ever-growing problems.
Participatory budgeting in Boston can be stronger and more progressive than in other cities by building off of the strong sense of solidarity that Boston constantly strives toward. Ensuring a diverse oversight board, funding grassroots partners, and equitably distributing adequate funds across the city are paramount considerations if we want to make positive change on the way to becoming a city where we can truly say we’re united and empowered.
Adam Welds is a Dorchester resident and Faviola Rodriguez Jarquin lives in East Boston. Both attend the John D. O’Bryant School. Li Phelan Zhang of Allston is a student at the Boston Latin School.