Boston met a milestone of the “Youth Lead the Change” project, with the votes in and the projects picked. The city set aside $1 million and asked people aged 12-25 to decide how to spend it.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh at the vote results party last week. He told the young people involved that they were not advocating to the mayor or city council for what they wanted. They were directly making the choice.
What could be more empowering? What could do more to develop civic virtues? It seems appropriate that the pilot program is in one of America’s cradles of freedom. When I lived in rural New England, I was fascinated that my tiny town had direct town hall meetings, in which people debated civic issues. Those Northeasterners make democracy real.
Former Mayor Thomas Menino committed to the project last year. He announced a partnership with The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP). He advertised a job for a youth organizer “responsible for engaging young Bostonians in the process and working closely with both PBP and City of Boston staff.”
It looks like everything they did had direct, authentic engagement in mind. “Participatory budgeting is a real school of democracy,” said Josh Lerner, executive director of PBP, in a statement. Participants designed the project from the beginning, and chose what they would be voting for.
The young people chose from among education, community culture, parks/environment/health, and streets and safety projects. Each voter picked four out of 14 projects. Of those, seven won.
Winners included a skate-park feasibility study, public art walls to allow local artists to show their work, security cameras for one neighborhood, upgrades to sidewalks and lighting around a park, and Chromebooks for three high schools.
All of these are things that should help the community be safer, smarter, and more expressive. As the old civil rights activists would say, they build “the beloved community.”
“Cities across the country should examine Boston’s process for critical lessons about making urban governance more open, accountable, and participatory,” wrote Hollie Russon Gilman of Harvard’s Ash Center. I say—hear, hear!
But next time, try one just for old people. Then, tall people. Then, women. Kidding! Young people voting is the perfect place to start. After the pilot, though, open it to all. Participation should technically be for everyone. Otherwise, isn’t it an oxymoron?