How to Make City Budgets Racially Just? Let Citizens Do the Numbers

The amount of money spent on hiring sworn law enforcement officers to patrol public schools shot up nearly 40 percent between 1997 and 2009, despite the fact that crime in school has steadily declined for decades. A coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP, argues that this policy funnels kids of color into the school-to-prison pipeline.

But that debate doesn’t always make it into the process of setting the budget, which is where important decisions, like how much money goes to counselors in schools and how much goes to police, ultimately get made. Budgets are usually determined by elected officials and their advisers, while ordinary residents may only get a chance to comment at a public hearing.

Participatory budgeting offers an alternative: a democratic process where community members have a chance to directly decide how to spend portions of a public budget. The process of participatory budgeting is slowly catching on in the United States, and the Movement for Black Lives–a coalition of more than 50 racial justice organizations–saw it as so important that it’s listed among demands in a platform released in August.

To write the participatory budgeting section of the platform, the movement recruited Catherine Albisa, executive director of the National Economics and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). NESRI is a nonprofit organization that advocates for human rights and partners with community groups. Albisa, who is a mixed-race Cuban and identifies as Hispanic, says she was happy to help.

Here, she discusses connections between participatory budgeting and race, how doing budgets differently can transform our culture, and what a just and democratic budget process might look like.

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