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Shari Davis: What If You Could Decide How The Government Spends Public Funds?

Jul 23, 2021

Part 1 of TED Radio Hour episode The Public Commons

Public places don't always fully meet the needs of a community. Shari Davis explains how participatory budgeting can give us all a voice in creating safer and more equitable public spaces.

About Shari Davis

Shari Davis is a community organizer and youth advocate. They are the co-executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), an organization that empowers everyday citizens with the ability to directly manage public money.

Davis first became involved in city government in high school, serving as the Citywide Neighborhood Safety Coordinator on the Boston Mayor's Youth Council and working at the Mayor's Youthline.

As director of youth engagement and employment for the City of Boston, they launched Youth Lead the Change, the first youth participatory budgeting process in the U.S., which won the U.S. Conference of Mayors' City Livability Award. In 2019, Davis was honored with an Obama Foundation Fellowship for their work on participatory budgeting.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Katie Monteleone and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And as we begin to gather again in parks, city centers or at school, I've been wondering, why do we want to meet in certain places but not others? What do the best public places have in common?

SHARI DAVIS: The first thing that I think of is safety, and the second thing is creativity. And when we are in spaces where we can be together safely, I think that we can do things that we maybe didn't imagine.

ZOMORODI: This is Shari Davis. They help communities and local governments decide together how to spend public money. I talked to Shari as they stood outside one of their favorite public places, the library.

DAVIS: I am just out front of a really awesome neighborhood branch library. And around me are summer camp students or young people, children, basketball courts. It is a beautiful day in California.

ZOMORODI: Shari is at a branch of the Berkeley Public Library, but this library offers more than books. People can come here for all kinds of resources.

DAVIS: And just outside, there is a tent set up with various seating areas and designated activities. So folks can rent a laptop. Folks can learn about kitchen equipment and rent an item that they want to do a kitchen equipment project with.

ZOMORODI: So, Shari, it seems like some libraries have really figured out how to serve their neighbors, to become the heart of a community. And maybe we should be looking to them as a kind of model if we want to build better public places - right? - and build more of them.

DAVIS: For sure. I think libraries are special and magical places. And in the work that I do, it's actually around seeing people create special, magical spaces to be used in community. And libraries are an example of these beautiful hubs that can take on the shape of whatever community that uses them really needs. And so this example of a library is exactly that. We're seeing community members really define how they want to use the library, how they want to come together, how they want to learn, how they want to expand what a library could possibly be. And I think that that's a really powerful example of what happens when we do things like community-led decision-making that allow community members to radically imagine what's possible in a space and then live into it.

ZOMORODI: OK, this brings us to what you do. You help communities, as you said, build and support public places that actually meet their wants and needs through something called participatory budgeting. So for those who aren't familiar, what is participatory budgeting?

DAVIS: In short, PB, or participatory budgeting, is a framework that centers community-led decision-making and allows community members to design, plan and decide on how portions of a budget should be spent for use in a community. When we talk about deep participation or participatory democracy, we're talking about months-long processes that allow people to go through what it means to actually imagine a different world, to test it, to build it and then to iterate on it, to evaluate that process.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: When I look around this library, I'm seeing folks that are engaging in activities, they're creating together, and they're also kind of designing the other pieces of this common space. That's what a public common is for. And I think what is possible in that space is everything

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: From the library to the playground, the town square to the local park, citizens gather in public to play, learn, people-watch and feel part of a community. And at their best, these places build trust between neighbors. They create a cohesive society. But all too often, common spaces don't provide equally for everyone. Those who need these places the most are left out. And online, creating inviting public places sometimes feels impossible. We've seen how the web can bring people together and turn them against each other.

And so today on the show, what does it take to make sure a public place actually serves the public, online and off? Shari Davis believes every one of us should have a say in how public places are built and run, and participatory budgeting is one way to make sure that happens. But it's still kind of a new concept in the U.S. Shari first learned about participatory budgeting in 2014, back when they were working for the mayor of Boston.

DAVIS: I remember it like it was yesterday. The mayor called me into his office and said, Shari, we are going to run the country's first youth-focused participatory budgeting effort. And I said, yes, sir, marched right down to my desk and Googled what participatory budgeting was.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And that's how I found out about a global movement that allowed community members to make real decisions about portions of a budget so that they could decide what resources they needed and what was going to offer them the best use of funding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Shari Davis picks up the story in their TED talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DAVIS: It was 2014 in Boston, Mass., and Mayor Menino asked me to launch the country's first youth-focused PB effort with $1 million of city funds. Now, we didn't start with line items and limits or spreadsheets and formulas. We started with people. So we brought in young people from historically and traditionally marginalized neighborhoods, members of the queer community and youth that were formerly incarcerated. And together, we imagined a Boston where young people can feel safe in their communities and where they can transform public spaces into real hubs of life for all people.

And that's exactly what they did. In the first year, young people allocated $90,000 to increase technology access for Boston Public High School students by delivering laptops right to Boston Public High Schools. They allocated $400,000 to renovating parks to make them more accessible for all people of all bodies.

Now, admittedly, this didn't go as smoothly as we had planned. Right before we broke ground on the park, we actually found out that it was on top of an archaeological site and had to halt construction. I thought I broke PB. But because the city was so committed to the project, that's not what happened. They invited community in to do a dig, protected the site, found artifacts, and then moved forward with the renovation. If that isn't a reflection of radical imagination in government, I don't know what is.

I had never even seen an archaeological dig before, and now I have young people coming out of their homes and participating in an archaeological dig that extended Boston's history. And so I didn't break PB. But, again, I learned that there's actually some importance in deep community building and implementation. We could not have moved forward in protecting that site without community showing up. They showed up because they believed in what happened.

ZOMORODI: I mean, Shari, this all sounds amazing, but I can only assume that actually making it happen was incredibly hard. And I wonder if one of the hard things was just convincing people to give their time. Like, for me personally, I didn't even know that participatory budgeting was a thing in my neighborhood. And for other people, I wonder if they're like, yeah, yeah, yeah - one more thing to do. I'll get to it eventually. Like, how do you convince people to take part?

DAVIS: Well, I think we have to recognize that so often, people want to be involved, and they don't have an avenue to do that. So where do we channel that energy for effective and smart decision-making? Well, PB is an opportunity for that. And I don't often have to convince people to do it, but I do have to explain that it will be real. And this is not about tokenized leadership. This is not, like, just for fun. This is powerful, and it allows us to do things that maybe we didn't think about before. And that makes the argument itself.

ZOMORODI: So can you just tell us, like, how widespread is participatory budgeting? Like, do we know, like, in terms of how many states or local municipalities, like - how did it come about in the first place?

DAVIS: Well, first of all, participatory budgeting has existed for over 30 years globally. And while it's maybe 10 years new in the United States, there are entire countries that do participatory budgeting. There are processes as large as what happens in Paris, France, where community members decide on over 100 million euros.

Now, when you look at the United States, there are instances like Phoenix, Ariz., where they started with one school in their high school district where students had an opportunity to decide a portion of district dollars. Then it went to five schools - the entire district. And now Phoenix Union High School District is embarking on a journey of reimagining safety. They made the decision and acknowledge that continuing to employ armed officers is not keeping students safe. And so they're saying, let's get clear on what safety means for us driven by students, parents and teachers. And I'm like, this is the potential of what PB looks like.

ZOMORODI: We started this conversation talking about how a public place can make a town or a community make people there feel like they belong, like they have a say. And I guess I'm wondering, like, now that you've been doing this for a long time, what change do you see in people in terms of how they feel about their government if they have taken part in participatory budgeting?

DAVIS: I think the biggest one that I see with participatory budgeting is actually the relationships. It's the trust built between community members and each other. It's the trust built between community members and those that are in government. For me, the biggest win is being able to change the way that you see yourself in this larger system and to understand that the system can be changed. And so, yes, I've seen beautification projects happen around cities across the country. I've seen new structures be built. But for me, it's the behavior change. For me, it's seeing folks say, like, being a community member is great, but I can be a part of something bigger. Actually, I want to run that agency. That's the real win for me.

ZOMORODI: That's Shari Davis. They're co-executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, and you can hear their full talk at ted.com. On the show today, the public commons. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.