A Great Antidote to Lack of Faith in Government

Last week, a New York Times, CBS News poll revealed that faith in government is at an all-time low, with a whopping 89 percent of Americans reporting that they don't trust government to do the right thing. There are many reasons for this: stagnation in Washington, even as the economic picture continues to stall, rising unemployment, and growing income inequality.

But closer to home, we've just finished a month that helped restore my faith in democracy.

As most of you know by now, participatory budgeting is a new process in New York City, in which community members decide how to spend a piece of the City's budget. Along with three other City Council members (Melissa Mark-Viverito, Jumaane Williams, and Eric Ulrich), I am allocating at least $1 million in City capital funds to the process. Neighborhood residents will brainstorm, propose, research, and ultimately vote to decide which projects are funded with their tax dollars. You can learn more about the process here.

The process began last month with a series of "neighborhood budget assemblies" at which people met in small groups to brainstorm and propose ideas. In my City Council district, we held five assemblies, attended by over 500 people. Around the city, there were two dozen meetings, with nearly 2,000. We're doing additional meetings at senior centers, PTA meetings, and with young people.

Every meeting I've attended was filled with a buzzing, democratic energy. People keep coming up to me to say some version of: "Thank you so much for giving us a space where our voice and ideas matter." Whether in Park Slope or Kensington, whether white, black, or Latino, Bangladeshi Muslim or Orthodox Jew, third-grader or octogenarian, people have participated actively in small groups, sharing and discussing ideas. A great team of volunteers have helped make it all possible, facilitating small groups, explaining how the process will work, contributing food, and encouraging their neighbors to attend.

One interesting and modestly surprising (to me) thing is how much consensus there has been around very practical proposals. There have been some "out there" ideas, like public seltzer-water fountains, the Gowanus gondola (or "Gowandala"). And there have been very creative proposals for advancing sustainability, for public art, for community and youth centers. But some of the biggest support has come for very practical, concrete improvements to the public realm: making the dark, isolated, slippery subway entrance at the Ft. Hamilton F/G subway station safer; traffic calming at dangerous intersections; fixing broken sidewalks; security cameras and streetlights.

Maybe it corresponds with the times, but people seem to want to invest in their streets, parks, subways, sidewalks, libraries, and schools -- the core public spaces in our neighborhoods -- where both neighborhood life and a democratic society are made possible.

You can get a sense of that democratic energy by checking out one of the videos that have been made of the process so far.

Even if you missed the neighborhood assemblies, it's not too late for residents of the 8th, 32nd, 39th, or 44th City Council districts to submit ideas. Residents can also give their ideas online or submit videos with their ideas.

It really is not that surprising: when offered the opportunity to meet and talk together with neighbors, in a collaborative process, to use shared resources to confront common problems and improve our community, people respond enthusiastically.

That's what inspired Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited from France nearly 200 years ago. If he were around today, I think he'd report that participatory budgeting is one important space where we are renewing "Democracy in America."