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Shari Davis and the Participatory Budgeting Project

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Shari Davis and the Participatory Budgeting Project

The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.

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In the private sector, managers and key stakeholders annually align on budgeting and capital expenditures for the next fiscal year. Doing so creates transparency, ownership, and understanding of the goals for the following year.

The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), launched in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as an anti-poverty measure, recreates the decision-making process that most successful businesses use for capital expenditure decisions. PBP empowers community members to decide how to spend public money collectively. Doing so strengthens democracy, builds stronger communities, and makes public budgets more equitable and effective. Since its founding, PBP has spread to over 7,000 cities worldwide and has been used to decide budgets of states, counties, cities, housing authorities, schools, and other institutions.

Shari Davis, Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, has seen the positive effects of the participatory budgeting process first-hand. PBP is the lead organization advancing participatory budgeting (PB) across the United States and Canada. To date, PBP has empowered more than 400,000 people to directly decide how to spend $300 million in public funds in 29 cities.

Since PBP’s first U.S. initiative in 2009, PB’s popularity has grown exponentially because of the organization’s work. Key milestones include a youth only PB process in Boston, PB for federal community development funds in Oakland, and PB in public schools.

Davis came to PBP after nearly 15 years of service and leadership in local government. Born in Louisiana, her family moved to Boston when she was eight. At an early age, her parents had conversations about what to expect from the world and how to maintain their safety. Shari wanted to do more herself to improve the world.

She started early. Raised by the Bostonian community, Davis stumbled into a community center martial arts class at nine years old and began teaching adults martial arts the following year. Her instructor was a black-immigrant police officer, and through the Police Activities League’s sponsorship, Shari was able to travel to compete as a black belt at age 12.

Davis wrestled with her perception of the police and her father’s incarceration, growing out of his membership in the Black Panthers. Once out of prison. Davis’ father later earned a masters’ degree, but he continued to be wary of the police. So was Shari, though we vowed to put her wariness to positive use. 

Building from her leadership experience in martial arts, Shari joined the mayor’s youth council at the age of 15 where she advised the mayor and city officials on the needs and wants of local youth members. Her first assignment, as the youth and police liaison, allowed her to continue to build bridges between her community and law enforcement in Boston.

Although working at the mayor’s office was a 6-week internship, the mayor extended her internship after she highlighted the value she provided. Shari then created the division of Youth Engagement & Employment to centralize her work across multiple departments. This division, led by Shari, staffed over 4000 youth members across Boston. The creation of the division gave her hope that citizens could change the government because she saw how her concerted efforts brought about change.

As Director of Youth Engagement and Employment for the City of Boston, Davis launched Youth Lead the Change, the first youth participatory budgeting process in the US, which won the US Conference of Mayors’ City Livability Award.

Davis draws several lessons from his Boston and PGP experiences:

--Ensure the design of the process is participatory from the beginning.

--Leverage moments of political change to push for participatory democracy.

--Secure buy-in from a diverse set of champions and stakeholders.

--Make research documentation and evaluation a core component.

--Create a mix of face-to-face and digital approaches.

--Focus resources on outreach and engagement of communities that are traditionally excluded from decision-making.

--Cast a wide net to test a variety of approaches to participatory democracy.

--Build networks and share best practices.

--Use pilot processes and research to establish proof of concept.

Davis believes the Biden Administration’s executive order on climate change[i] offers a good use-case for the Participatory Budgeting Project. The executive order creates a government-wide initiative to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. PBP’s experience suggests that involving the targeted communities in the decision-making process will help build stronger communities and make public budgets more equitable and transparent.