Power to the People
by Jenna Spinelle, August 21, 2023
Durham is undertaking a third round of “participatory budgeting,” which gives residents a more direct say in how city money is spent.
When parents from Book Harvest stood behind tables at the Child Care for NC event at the North Carolina General Assembly in April, they were there in part because of funding that came from their fellow residents in Durham.
Book Harvest, a Durham-based children’s literacy organization, was chosen for funding as part of Durham’s participatory budgeting program. The city began using Participatory Budgeting in 2018 and has since awarded nearly $3.5 million in city funds to projects chosen by residents. A third cycle that will allocate $2.4 million is currently underway, with funding decisions expected in August.
Book Harvest received $40,184 from Durham’s second participatory budgeting cycle in 2021. Amy Franks, the organization’s associate director of school and family engagement, says the funds were used to hire parents to work as ambassadors. Parents set up tables at neighborhood events, built a parent-to-parent network, and held events that allowed parents to connect with one another.
“We wanted to shift the power and decision making to parents and have them at the table from the beginning, rather than decisions being made for them,” Franks says. “We were at grocery stores and laundromats and parks and bus stations so that we could make sure the parents were aware of things that we were doing and to bring them to the table so that ultimately they are leading the charge.”
In many ways, what Franks articulates about Book Harvest’s use of participatory budgeting funds is similar to the overall goal of participatory budgeting—to shift the power of the purse away from a small group of elected officials and city staff to the residents. As organizers in Durham and Greensboro have learned over the past decade, it’s a goal that’s sometimes easier said than done.