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‘What difference would that make?’

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Since 2010, Chicago aldermen have been using participatory budgeting to give ward residents a say in how some of the money in their ward will be spent. First implemented in the 49th ward by former alderman Joe Moore, participatory budgeting allows ward residents to propose and vote on capital improvement projects to be funded by the $1.32 million dollars of aldermanic “menu money” allocated to each ward by the city of Chicago each year. Most participatory budgeting projects have funded projects like road resurfacing, traffic safety improvements, and ward beautification, and the practice is currently active in nine wards.

To be eligible for menu money funding, which is a type of municipal bond, a project has to fulfill several conditions. First, it must be for infrastructure improvements, so proposals like after-school programming, reparations funds, or jobs training are out of the question. They must also be on public lands and accessible to the general public, making school improvements ineligible in most cases.

“There is a lot of need and there’s a lot of interest by community members in improving schools,” explained Thea Crum of PB Chicago, an organization that provides resources and training to wards on implementing participatory budgeting within their districts through UIC’s Great Cities Institute. “Those are not eligible with this money.”

But for the last several years, PB Chicago has run a parallel program in Chicago Public Schools called “PB in Schools” using seed grant funding to involve students in the process of annual school improvement and teach valuable civic skills in the process. “PB in Schools really began as youth committees in the wards. And then, because so many youth don’t go to high school in the neighborhood that they live in, we thought, ‘Well, let’s do some youth committees in the high schools,'” said Crum.

PB Chicago first ran a pilot program in three CPS schools—Hyde Park Academy, Al Raby High School in East Garfield Park, and Steinmetz College Prep in Belmont Cragin—and now runs in ten elementary and high schools across the city. By the end of the 2020-2021 school year, 16 schools will have participatory budgeting programs.

Unlike city participatory budgeting money, the participatory budget funding in CPS can be used for anything. However, the small size of the grants—typically for $1,000 to $2,000—precludes costly changes, like improved school lunches, or projects that would require the school to pay the salary of a new staff member, like a school counselor. So far, the money has been used by schools to establish safe spaces for students, install new water fountains to save students money on disposable water bottle purchases, set up school spirit stores, renovate bathrooms and cafeterias, and more.

Liseth Salgado, a teacher at Kelly High School in Brighton Park, volunteered to try the PB in Schools program in her ninth-grade civics class in 2018. In addition to the $1,000 in grant funding Kelly High School received from UIC, the principal provided a matching $1,000 in school improvement funding.

In and out of the classroom, participatory budgeting typically consists of phases—planning, idea collection, proposal development, and voting. In the planning, or brainstorming, phase students or participants come up with ideas for projects by identifying needs in their school or community.

Salgado took students on a walking tour of the building, going through the hallways, gym, locker room, auditorium, bathrooms, and classroom with a paper and pencil to write down ideas for potential improvement projects. Then students with similar ideas broke off into groups to formulate a written proposal and presentation to the rest of the class.

“In the proposal they also had to include a persuasive paragraph and we talked about how politicians create persuasive speeches to persuade people to vote for them, so it was kind of like the same thing in class—you had to persuade people to vote for your project,” said Salgado. The students then voted on each others’ proposals based on whether the proposal was realistic, whether $2,000 would cover the costs, and whether the project would serve a significant proportion of the school population. Through in-class voting, the best eight projects were chosen to present to the school principal.

“One idea that really stood out was when a student said that a lot of the students at Kelly didn’t feel comfortable going into their gender-assigned bathrooms and that there were times her friends would ask her, ‘Hey can you come with me inside the bathroom?’ to check and make sure no one is there,” said Salgado. “And you know what? As a teacher, I can tell you that sometimes the adults in the building, we’re so busy with grading and lesson planning, meetings, e-mails that we don’t always remember to think about ‘Hey, what do my students need to feel comfortable going to their assigned bathrooms?’ It never, never crossed my mind.”

“The whole reason why I wanted gender-neutral bathrooms is because there are a lot of LGBTQ+ students in our school and some of them really don’t feel comfortable going into the boys bathroom or the girls bathroom,” explained Sylvia Qualls, an 11th grader at Kelly High involved in the participatory budgeting pilot as a ninth grader. “So I decided to propose gender-neutral bathrooms so that everybody could feel safe in the bathroom. We got comments and feedback from the principal and he really liked it. He said it was a really good idea.”

All of the proposals revealed unmet needs in the school that teachers, staff, and school principals hadn’t previously considered.

“Another one of the things that was proposed was shower curtains in the locker rooms,” said Crum, who helped oversee the program in Kelly High School. “It came out through the process that part of the reason students were chronically late after gym class was because they didn’t want to take showers in front of each other without shower curtains. When that came to light through the participatory budgeting process, the need was still identified in a way where people could hear it and resolve it.”

In the end, Kelly High School’s principal committed to working on all of the projects presented to him. “He was very impressed, and he actually e-mailed me and said, ‘All of them are great. I couldn’t choose,'” Salgado remembered. “‘So, I’m going to try my best to work on all these issues. Maybe not right away, but over time.'”

To start, the principal decided that one of the staff bathrooms on the first floor of the school was to be designated now as a gender-neutral bathroom, a low-cost change that will make dozens of students feel safer at the school. Students had also been struggling with overcrowding at the high school, especially at lunchtime in a loud lunchroom without space for everyone to sit. The participatory budgeting process allowed them to suggest the solutions that would be best for them.

“If you walk around Kelly High School now you can see there’s lots of lunch areas in the hallways. So, these students have a choice if they don’t want to go to a packed lunchroom, they can just sit out on one of those couches, chairs, or tables and work on homework, listen to music, either alone or with a couple of friends, and have lunch together,” said Salgado. “I had a student two years ago who had autism and he did not like being around a lot of people, any sort of loud noise made him irritated. What we noticed during his lunchtime was that he was just walking back and forth in the hallway. Now, we have lots of available space in the hallways for him to have lunch.”

In all, around 130 students, or a quarter of the freshman class, were involved in the participatory budgeting process. In PB Chicago’s evaluation of their pilot program, nearly 90 percent of students felt that they had the power to influence change in their schools and communities, 85 percent better understood their school and communities’ needs, and 70 percent felt they could express their views and ideas with knowledge and confidence in front of a group of people.

Salgado has seen this newfound confidence with students in her classroom. Students who were previously distracted in class or hesitant to participate started coming to class excited to work on their participatory budgeting project and kept up their engagement after the program ended.

“It made me care about the class more,” said Qualls. “I feel like my proposal opened up more people’s eyes and a lot more people got used to the fact that there’s LGBTQ+ people in the school and that they don’t feel comfortable going inside the existing bathrooms.”

At Al Raby High School, students identified a need for spaces to reflect and decompress when feeling overwhelmed about school or factors in their personal lives or communities. “A lot of research has shown that these types of student lounge spaces are really needed for adolescent students,” explained Crum. “The amount of money that we typically are using for PB in the schools is usually not enough to cover counselor salaries, but the power of what happens in the PB phase, both on the ground as well as in the schools, is that it creates spaces where people hear each other differently.”

Students at Al Raby identified cyberbullying and interpersonal violence as additional key issues to address among the student body and used the participatory budgeting process to create The Steam Room, a safe space for students to unwind and get resources and support around issues of cyberbullying, anger management, and dating violence. The students also proposed a peer mentorship program to accompany the new designation of the space. And after students identified the need for additional support through the participatory budgeting process, the school’s principal and the teachers were able to lobby for funding to make more school counselor time available to students.

This success story isn’t unusual—needs identified through participatory budgeting can often be addressed by leveraging other kinds of city funding. At Steinmetz High School, students identified their track and field as in urgent need of repairs, a project that would be more costly than the school could fund through annual repairs and one that would be ineligible for traditional aldermanic participatory budgeting menu money, since school infrastructure is not publicly accessible to the whole ward community.

Students on the 36th Ward Youth Committee worked with adults in the ward to develop a project proposal and were able to receive an additional $4.5 million for the renovations through the city’s Quality-of-Life Planning fund. To be eligible for aldermanic menu money, the students also proposed the track and field be publicly accessible off school hours and combined the $4.5 million Quality-of-Life Planning funding with $1 million of ward participatory budgeting money to renovate the entire track and field.

Advocates see the space created for dialogue between young people and community or school decision makers through participatory budgeting as the most valuable part of the process, even if the original proposal ends up being ineligible or not selected for funding during the formal ward or class process.

“I’ve had some of these mock sessions before and one of them was before we were doing PB in Schools—we would have students come to us from high schools and I was sitting in a group of students and I was like, ‘What’s something that you think would make a huge difference?'” explained Crum. Students all responded that they would like more bus stops and for busses to run more frequently.

“And I asked, ‘Why, what difference would that make?’ And they said, ‘Well, I mean, we wouldn’t get shot at,'” remembered Crum. “And it makes you realize—why is no one doing this? Why are these kids out there worrying about that, at the age of 15?”

PB Chicago recently released a new tool kit for PB in Schools, designed through a participatory action research methodology in collaboration with CPS teachers. “We have been working on developing multiple different models to expand PB in schools with the provision of institutionalizing it within CPS in the next three to five years and hopefully having PB be available for every high school student and every elementary school student in Chicago,” said Crum. “We’re really trying to talk about changing culture and building civic skills, really introducing people to forms of participatory democracy and showing the ways it actually works.”   v

This story was published with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.

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