The real champions of change

The real champions of change

I’m honored to be in Washington DC today to receive a “Champions of Change” award from the White House for work (along with Alderman Joe Moore from Chicago, and Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito from East Harlem) on participatory budgeting.

I’m excited to meet and learn from other elected officials, not-for-profit leaders, and community organizers who are pioneering new forms of civic engagement and open government (like Jessica Klein, co-founder of Rockaway Help, which created new technology tools to enable people to collaborate for disaster relief). 

But there is something not-quite-right about getting an award for something as inclusive as participatory budgeting (which The New York Times called “revolutionary civics in action”). The whole idea of participatory budgeting is to see elected office not as a vehicle for one person’s leadership, but as a way to bring people together to take shared responsibility.  The best part of participatory budgeting is how people step up together to act as stewards of the shared public realm – our schools, parks, public transportation, streets, libraries – that makes our life together possible, and sometimes even ennobling.

So I want to make sure to recognize at least a few of the real “champions of change” – the volunteers, community leaders, and staff who have made participatory budgeting possible and done the patient work of making it successful in New York City over the past two years.

Without the Participatory Budgeting Project (and its executive director Josh Lerner) and Community Voices Heard (director Sondra Youdelman, great staff, and so many grassroots leaders), participatory budgeting would never have come to New York City.  And they have stuck with us for countless meetings, trainings, phone calls, canvasses, joys, frustrations, elections days, and much more.  We’ve also had tremendous support and leadership from the Urban Justice Center, Center for Urban Pedagogy, Groundswell Community Mural Project, Arts & Democracy Project, Old Stone House, Project for Public Spaces, and Fifth Avenue Committee.

In my district alone, literally hundreds of volunteers have stepped up to take leadership as members of the District Committee, as budget delegates, facilitators, organizers, poll-workers, and much more.  There are too many to name, but a few deserve special note: Pam Jennings, Joan Minieri, Caron Atlas, Christine Petro, Ryan Lynch, Rachel Fine, Alix Fellman, Neil Reilly, Kim Maier, Matt Green, Annie Ferdous, Rachael Fauss, Arlette Mathis, Joni Kletter, and Mamnun Haq.

If you want to get a real flavor for what it means to be active on a PB delegate committee, you can check out some of the many great blog posts here, here, and here.  Better yet, sign up to take part in next year’s process by e-mailing us at lander [at] council [dot] nyc [dot] gov

My extraordinary staff do an incredible amount of work on participatory budgeting.  Because they are not either “the council member” or “the community leaders,” they are often under-recognized.  But participatory budgeting would simply be impossible without them: Alex Moore (who has directed the effort both years), Rachel Goodman (my chief-of-staff, who reorganized our office so we could do this), Michael Freedman-Schapp (among other things, our capital budget, agency-relationships, and technology guru), Catherine Zinnel (district director, who is deeply involved in many of the projects), Emma Ertinger (office-manager and all-around problem-solver), Vicki Sell (who specializes in public education), and Gabi Friedlander (Boro Park liaison).  A deeply heartfelt thanks to all of them.

Participatory budgeting is growing in New York City and beyond.  We started in four City Council districts (Melissa Mark-Viverito, Jumaane Williams, Eric Ulrich, and me), added four more in our second year (David Greenfield, Dan Halloran, Steve Levin, and Mark Weprin).  Many candidates running for City Council (and some Boro President) seats have said they’ll join us, so we could have something that really achieves some scale in New York City.  And elected officials are joining in Chicago, San Francisco, Vallejo CA, and more.

There have been quite a few other “Champions of Change” from Brooklyn recognized by the White House (no surprise).  They are a pretty inspiring bunch (and I am humbled to be in their company): Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of NYC, Javier Valdes of Make the Road NY, Noha Waibsnaider, an internet entrepreneur who runs Peeled Snacks, Carolina Salguero of PortSide NY, Walter Meyer of Power Rockaway Resilience.  You can read about all of them and others here

As the President said in recognizing us: “in this democracy, we the people recognize that this government belongs to us, and it’s up to each of us and every one of us to make it work better. We can’t just stand on the sidelines. We can’t take comfort in just being cynical. We all have a stake.”

I like to call it “organized compassion.”  But it’s not only compassion for others.  It’s a recognition that we all do better together.  And it’s a pretty good championship team to be on.