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Andreas Addison column: Reimagining the city through participatory budgeting
Building Trust

Andreas Addison column: Reimagining the city through participatory budgeting

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A deep fissure has opened in Richmond. More than ever, we have felt an extraordinary tension between all of us. For more than 45 consecutive days, protesters have taken to the streets, and they have demanded action, specifically from their elected officials.

In response, City Council has introduced a slate of legislation, the mayor has removed monuments to the Lost Cause all across Richmond and the General Assembly has called a special session next month. Still, the tension within Richmond has not subsided.

It has become clear that we must strengthen the relationship between our local government and city residents. Richmonders are frustrated seeing policies enacted that did not emerge from, nor were led by, residents. As a local government, we must acknowledge that if we are to realize a Richmond that genuinely is resilient and equitable, we have to try something new.

The city has to invest in a model of collaboration that centers the voices of Richmonders in the decision-making process. The first step toward this is to embrace participatory budgeting in the administration’s budgeting process.

As we look to reimagine public safety and to better invest in our community, our solutions must grow from the ground up. As the mayor seeks input and recommendations through his task force, he also must put some rigor behind it.

We cannot afford to simply listen. We need to listen, learn and let Richmonders lead. I am proud to have led City Council’s passing of legislation to implement participatory budgeting in September. Now is the time to put it in motion.

With more than a 30-year history worldwide, participatory budgeting places public dollars in the hands of residents, giving them a transparent way of investing in their community. Residents introduce their ideas to meet their neighborhood’s most pressing needs and city staff helps them develop actionable project proposals.

The community-designed and the city-supported process culminates in each resident casting a ballot for the projects they believe will make the most significant difference in their neighborhood. Chicago introduced the first participatory budgeting process in the United States and since then, cities across the country have designed models that best fit their needs.

Durham, N.C., began its first process in 2019, and residents already are seeing their ideas implemented. Improvements include technology advancements in their schools, planting trees to provide shade in the summer heat and new entrepreneurship programs at community centers.

While much of the focus of participatory budgeting is on how the government allocates public dollars, the process could accomplish much more. First, we can expand and elevate the capacity of residents to be active participants in making community decisions.

Instead of decisions being made for Richmonders, adults and children could come together to imagine what their neighborhoods can become and develop real proposals that achieve that vision. In doing so, they may finally begin to bridge the gap between current social challenges and our collective vision for democracy. Adopting this new model for building the city’s budget would empower Richmonders to realize both their resilience and their collective efficacy.

Secondly, participatory budgeting is a way to build new trust between residents and local government. This has to start with the city of Richmond, acknowledging that it needs to learn more from its residents, rather than about them.

The city administration must recognize the immense knowledge that resides on every street and honor resident experiences by giving them some decision-making power. Participatory budgeting uniquely is structured to bridge the knowledge and experience gap between government and people. There is no better time than right now to bridge that gap in Richmond.

I will be the first to admit that participatory budgeting is not solely the solution. It is not going to fix centuries of distrust and injustice in one fell swoop. But it is the first step in a much larger effort to ensure the city strategically invests in a future defined by its residents. That future includes goals, vision and priorities that create equity, diversity and inclusion.

In the past, we have taken small, sometimes uneasy steps in this direction. And we must recognize the work of our many community organizations that already are amplifying and resourcing our communities. Yet, the moment demands an even stronger commitment. Not a one-off, but one that is intentional and sustained.

We cannot go back to the way things were. Today, I call on the city of Richmond to join me in making this commitment. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to rebuild trust and collaborate with all Richmonders. It is time for the city of Richmond to do more than just fund the change. The city needs to change the way we fund.

Andreas Addison represents the First District on Richmond City Council. Contact him at: andreas.addison@richmondgov.com

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