Chelsea’s Secret Budgeting Weapon News

| 29 Oct 2015 | 10:58

Participatory budgeting, in which neighbors vote how to spend $1 million in discretionary money in each council district, has so far been a relatively low-profile grassroots effort in most parts of the city.

But in Chelsea, the process has been given an unexpected boost – from teenagers.

“We want the youth to be involved,” said Gonzalo Casals, vice president of programs and community engagement at Friends of the High Line, the group that raises nearly all of the elevated park’s operating budget. Last year, at the start of participatory budgeting, the organization convinced the city council to lower the minimum participating age from 16 to 14.

It then sent members from its teen program to get trained and get involved in last year’s participatory budgeting. The kids reached out to fellow teenagers, informed them of the project, and gathered them into a “youth assembly”--to brainstorm decisions on how to spend a million-dollar public fund in the neighborhood.

“It was amazing just to see how teens are highly engaged to get a say in our future,” said 19-year-old Will Natal, a member of the Teen Arts Council at Friends of the High Line; he was one of five teenagers who got trained and helped attract more teens into the project.

“It’s a fun opportunity,” said Natal. He used to walk around the neighborhood, seeing things that should be fixed, but didn’t know how to go about it. He loves that participatory budgeting gives him a shot at a solution. “PB gets the idea out,” he said. “The improvements that are made by these proposals--ultimately it’s us who are going to inherit them.

And not just proposing, the ideas are out to be adopted. Liam Buckley, a secondary school student who lives on west 39th street, volunteered to be a participatory delegate last year.

His proposal for a bathroom renovation at the Lab School became a winning idea after a public vote that took place last April. The project was granted $560,000 in funding; but later, the NYC School Construction Authority agreed to provide funding to implement this project—proof of participatory budgeting’s ability to raise awareness for community improvements, beyond the program’s own resources.

“We created posters that were displayed in the library … That was really a great chance for the community to find out about our projects,” Buckley recalled at a kickoff party for this year’s participatory budgeting, in September. “We really showed that we weren’t kidding about this project, it is something that is really a necessity for our school.”

Natal and Buckley has become good friends through the youth assembly. “Liam is a nice, humble kid,” said Natal. “You can really tell he cares about his school.”

Natal’s own proposal didn’t go through last year, and that’s part of the reason he decided to come back again this year. “I’m still working on resurfacing the basketball court at Fulton House,” he said. “This time we are going to make it.”

This year, Natal and his peers are reaching out to not only teens, but also to adults, and encouraging people of all ages to take part in the program.

“This inter-generational outreach is sending an important message,” said Maritza Carmona, government and community relations manager at Friend of the High Line. “If I’m approached by a teen and I feel like, they are doing it, and I should be doing it as well.”

Natal said the process left him, and his friends, feeling like they were an important part of the process. “We weren’t treated as we were the youngest,” he said. “We were treated as if we were the same age.”