East Harlem Youth Embrace Participatory Budgeting

“But to what extent will this project benefit the whole community?” Jonathan asked.

“But son, it’s a golf course on a roof! What could be cooler than that?” said another young delegate.

“Who’s gonna go play golf on a roof? We need to get more computers in our struggling schools!” yelled a third.

This debate was just one example of the lively discussions among budget delegates during a recent late-night meeting in East Harlem, as they weighed their community’s project ideas against the criteria of community need and feasibility.

In year two of participatory budgeting in District 8, more than 25 young people are participating as budget delegates in our youth and education committees. In our last youth committee meeting, two delegates from the Boys and Girl Harbor after-school program presented their project proposal for major gym and roof repairs for their center. Other delegates asked about how many people, programs and sports teams used the space. The teens passed around photographs showing the holes in the roof and other damage that needed to be fixed.

The majority of delegates in this year’s education committee are young men of color from the local East Harlem program “Getting Out Staying Out” which connects formerly incarcerated and court-involved youth with education and employment resources. Timothy, a youth delegate, whose past includes a jail bid upstate, is passionate about getting 40 new computers for the special ed program at Park East High School.

“I was put in special ed classes when I was younger so I understand what they’re going through,” Timothy says. “I want to help the youth stay out of trouble and end the violence…because I’ve been there and I don’t want them to go through what I did,” he says.

Through the budget delegate process, youth who were formerly considered “high-risk” and not involved in any way with the political process have now become active urban planners and political decision-makers for their community. Some are focused primarily on the capital projects and others are most interested in the leadership skills they are able to acquire (for free) through the PB process. Either way, they know they are part of something new: an experiment in participatory democracy.