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Mar 09

What Millennials Are Doing With Millions In Government Funds To Reclaim Their Communities – Forbes

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A 17-year-old was recently at the White House for a gathering on engaging American citizens in collective decision-making in their communities. This particular high-schooler is working to motivate his peers to get involved in local government by identifying and voting on what gets funded through a hands-on, deliberative process called participatory budgeting.

This conversation and movement is happening among young people across the country. As Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman, author of a new book on the subject, Democracy Reinvented, often says, “They come for the pizza. But they stay for the process.”

Millennials are finding new ways to engage in democracy beyond just voting in elections. More than any other generation, according to Pew research, millennials are likely to support an activist government. From participatory budgeting to municipal crowdfunding, civic innovations are engaging millennials who may eschew partisan politics, or may not even be eligible to vote, but want to stay actively engaged in their community. In an election year with fierce partisan divides, such innovations might be the key to keeping communities together.

Participatory budgeting, which originated in Brazil in 1989, has recently spread across the US, with upwards of $50 million being spent with direct community input. It has capitalized on grassroots engagement and technology to collaboratively engage policymakers, citizens, and non-profits in democracy. At its core, participatory budgeting is about empowering citizens, including many millennials, to work directly with public officials to identify, advocate for, and vote to fund local community needs. Residents attend sessions led by their local politician to decide how to allocate a set budget across the community, regardless of partisan affiliation. “This is exciting,” says Gilman, “because it creates different channels for people to engage in civic life.”

Boston had the first youth-driven participatory budgeting process in 2014, with youth ages 12-25 deciding how to allocate $1 million. The youth allocated spending to community needs like laptops in high schools, playgrounds, art walls, and security cameras. Boston has long found ways to engage youth in government, with the establishment of the country’s first Mayor’s Youth Council 25 years ago. But it’s not alone. Half the New York City Council does participatory budgeting in their communities, with about $40 million to allocate, and the minimum voting age is 14. Seattle also pledged to implement an entirely youth-driven process this year.

In many cities across the US that use participatory budgeting, the participation age is younger than the national voting age. “Participatory budgeting is a once-in-a-lifetime civic education,” says Gilman. “It’s creating a new mechanism for engaging people who can’t legally vote, where they would otherwise not have a voice.” Many participatory budgeting communities also allow non-citizens to vote as long as they are residents, engaging a group who know and care about their community but have no other way to partake in democracy. Gilman notes that the communities that are most successful at an inclusive participatory budgeting process are those that embrace grassroots organizing: “In the US writ large, it’s been about mobilizing communities through organizing, and getting not just the usual suspects to participate.”

Participatory budgeting is gaining in interest and participation across the country, but, importantly, the process is becoming institutionalized and reoccurring, instead of one-off events. This year, millennialsoutnumber baby boomers, and will soon cast more ballots than the older generation. At the same time, a Harvard study found that millennials have a record-low level of trust in government. By engaging youth early and often in a hands-on democratic process, we may see a shift in the levels of millennial engagement and confidence in government.

Technology has also improved civic engagement for millennials. Boston pioneered the use of SMS text messaging to disseminate information and allow voting for their participatory budgeting process. “They know youth are on their phones, so they’re meeting people where they’re comfortable,” Gilman explained. Leveraging technology for civic engagement has also been prominent in the rise of civic crowdfunding and maker studios. “Technology has the potential to tap into the do-it-yourself culture of millennials,” says Gilman, who is a millennial herself. On civic crowdfunding sites, like Citizinvestor, community members are going outside the political process to pledge dollars to local needs.

Ultimately, Gilman shares, civic engagement is about figuring out “how to tap into people’s interests and ingenuity to create a conduit for impacting and improving public decision-making.” While participatory budgeting is not yet in every city, interest is spreading rapidly, and the non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project is tracking which localities have it. Gilman suggests that if your community doesn’t yet do participatory budgeting, you should leverage the age of connectivity we live in to email or tweet at your public officials and ask why they haven’t implemented it in their district. Putting pressure on elected officials can go a long way, says Gilman. As the 2016 election approaches and passes, youth can vote on more than just their next President, and decide how to improve everyday life in their communities.

Source: What Millennials Are Doing With Millions In Government Funds To Reclaim Their Communities – Forbes

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