Here’s How I’m Taking Post-Election Action through My Local Democracy

Participatory budgeting gives you a voice.

I woke up on November 8th of 2016 feeling shattered. After a year of volunteering at the Hillary for America Brooklyn headquarters and working as the New York lead for the High Schoolers for Hillary Organization, walking to school through the suddenly-grim streets of New York City was grueling. But as the day passed, I began to feel less mournful and more aware of my own privilege. I was so fortunate to live in a community of people from all different backgrounds–of different races, genders, and faiths–that is largely invested in progressive, Democratic values. Stalking pro-Hillary Instagram accounts and running through tissue boxes did nothing to serve my community, or serve those for whom the presidential administration posed a unique threat. That’s where Participatory Budgeting came in.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a prime example of local democracy; in this process, district residents envision, propose, and vote on projects to be funded by the discretionary funds of their city council member. PB occurs not only across New York City and across the country, but also around the world. It’s a process dedicated to inclusivity, equity, and opportunity for all.

Participatory Budgeting is a process dedicated to inclusivity, equity, and opportunity for all.

I first became involved in PB as an intern at the office of City Council Member Brad Lander, and now, serve as the only teenage member on the District Committee tasked with overseeing PB in District 39. Over the past two years, I have been consistently amazed by the openness of the PB process.

Anyone ages 14 years and older in can vote in PB, regardless of citizenship status or federal voter registration. Students and immigrants who would otherwise never be able to vote have the opportunity to cast a ballot, but the act of voting in PB is about so much more than that.

PB is a way to make your voice heard. It’s a way to escape all the barriers that normally accompany a ballot box and effect change in your community. To say that change starts small is often seen as a cliché, but PB is proof of this fundamental truth. One vote can change the way people perceive politics and government, and open new opportunities for civic engagement.

And that’s why it works. PB relies upon the spirit and dedication of everyday Americans–of local elected officials and their staffs who are willing to invest in the process, district residents envisioning neighborhood improvements and volunteering at poll sites, and, of course, voters willing to take time out of the work or school day to cast their ballot.

Last year, I founded the District 39 PB Youth Committee to engage more students in the PB process. I hoped the committee would be a fun distraction from frightening federal politics, but what it became was so much more than that. I am proud to work with students from across the district whom I would otherwise never meet, whose experiences with government and local democracy are so different from my own, and in whom I have truly seen the capability of teenagers to shape their communities.

participatory budgeting

“PB allows hidden voices to be heard and more change to develop within a community,” says PB Youth Committee member Ahnaf Bin Mahbub, a resident of Kensington and student at Al Madinah High School. “With the comprehensiveness of PB, people of all ages–especially teenagers–have the opportunity to make a difference.”

Since the committee’s inception, the teen members have taken on the role of PB Youth Ambassadors in their schools and neighborhoods. Like typical teenagers, they employ a social media-savvy tactic in PB promotion, but they are also preparing to run poll sites and volunteer at PB events, making PB posters, and writing articles on PB for their school papers.

What PB has taught me is that, above all, we must endure setbacks to experience progress.

“PB gives real power to the people of a community when, at this time, people may be feeling powerless in the current political situation,” says PB Youth Committee member Lara Schuman, a resident of Park Slope and student at Midwood High School.

In a uniquely hostile political environment, it’s easy to become frustrated and give up, especially when your morning is so often accompanied by a Twitter-storm of “alternative facts” from our nation’s President. But what PB has taught me is that, above all, we must be willing to endure setbacks to experience progress. The more frustrating federal politics become, the more important it is for people to find strength and unity in their local communities.

We cannot perceive the whole of government as an inefficient, faceless machine; we must characterize the government we want to have and guide our policymakers. As neighborhoods, districts, and citywide communities working to effect positive change, our accomplishments have no bounds.

Civic engagement is about so much more than federal politics. Taking action in our everyday lives is not just about voting for President, or even just about voting. It’s about looking outside of ourselves and recognizing a need for change in our communities.

“PB allows for anyone and everyone to have their voice heard in their own community; that’s why I think PB is important,” says PB Youth Committee member Chris Stauffer, a resident of Park Slope and student at Bard High School Early College. “It’s a small but very important step in having all of our voices heard.”

The PB Youth Committee met at the Office of City Council Member Lander on Thursday, March 2nd to plan GOTV (Get Out the Vote) efforts.


Ilana Cohen is a junior at The Beacon School in New York City with a...