Youth Voices Heard

On Tuesday, December 16th, 2014, The Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at UIC hosted Chicago Public School (CPS) students from Alcott College Prep, Washington High School, Richards Career Academy and Chicago Virtual Charter School for a workshop titled, “Understanding Policy and Social Movements.” These schools participate in a CPS program called the Global Citizenship Initiative that was created in 2012 to address a lack of civic learning opportunities in school curriculum. The workshop included many sessions to introduce, explore, and engage with public policy issues and social movements in Chicago.

In one of the event’s workshops, students were introduced to participatory budgeting (PB). PB is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. The process engages community members with government and allows them to make budget decisions that affect their lives. In a typical PB process, community members brainstorm ideas for how to spend money, develop project proposals based on the brainstorming, and vote on the project proposals. The highest-voted proposals are then implemented in the community.

PB has been used at the city level for municipal budgets, at the county and state level, and in public agencies such as schools, universities and housing authorities. In Chicago, PB is currently used in three of Chicago’s Aldermanic Wards (22nd, 45thand 49th) where residents of the Ward determine how to spend roughly $1,200,000 dollars of the ward budget for infrastructure improvements.

As a part of the PB workshop, students participated in a mock participatory budgeting (PB) process where they were tasked to democratically decided how to spend $1,000,000 to improve the physical infrastructure of their school. Students in small groups brainstormed ideas, presented the ideas to the larger group, and voted on projects to determine the top three projects. Most of the ideas the students came up with involved improving or addition of student spaces. In the brainstorming sessions, students expressed inadequate space to study, lounge, eat, play sports, and utilize for drivers education classes as the most pressing infrastructure issues they face; citing cramped cafeterias, no lounge or study areas, shared or no drivers education range, and contested sports fields that are shared with other schools and not guaranteed every day. The top three projects the students voted to fund were: the renovating and reopening of a closed school with less infrastructure issues, a student lounge space for students to study and congregate, and a driver’s education range to provide realistic road space for students to learn to drive.

The appeal of the PB process to the students was that it allowed for direct involvement in combating the infrastructure issues they experience at school. The process was received well and many students vowed to express their interest in conducting the PB process at their schools to give input to the budget decisions that affect their lives at school.

About the Author:
Matt Wilson, Economic Development Planner: As an Economic Development Planner for GCI, Matt works primarily within the Neighborhoods Initiative, where he works in collaboration with community-based organizations, university faculty, and staff to provide technical assistance and services for community and economic development projects.