Natalie Rich was one of more than ten thousand Durham residents who voted in the city’s participatory budgeting initiative last month, weighing in on how the city should spend millions of dollars to improve their communities.

Rich voted for the LGBTQ Youth Center, an issue “really close to my heart,” she says. “As a queer person who has experienced rejection from family and friends, I know how important it is to have a place, a protected and welcoming space, for LGBTQ youth.”

She adds: “I think it’s so important for residents to have more of a say in how money in Durham is spent. I really want that project to be funded.”

The program will allot $2.4 million of the city’s budget to projects that earn the most votes in each of the city’s three wards. (Some projects, like the Youth Center, were citywide, meaning they appeared on all three ward ballots.) Other proposals included upgraded projector screens for public schools and improved playground equipment for parks in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The city reached its goal of ten thousand votes at the eleventh hour, after more than two thousand residents cast their ballots in the two days before the May 31 deadline.

PB Durham received over 10,000 votes in Cycle 1 of PB! Stay tuned for the winners to be announced this summer. More details to come!

— PB Durham (@PBDurhamNC) June 3, 2019

Project budget coordinator Robin Baker told the INDY the Durham PB office won’t know the results until at least the week of June 17.

Though the results haven’t been announced, Durham leaders are calling the nascent program a success.

“PB has catalyzed a unique kind of engagement in the city’s financial decisions and the local democratic process,” says council member Vernetta Alston.

Alston hopes the program will open the door to greater representation for marginalized groups. 

“PB has allowed the city to affirm our commitment to community engagement and input, provide valuable opportunities for youth, historically disenfranchised, and undocumented communities to access and participate in local government, and in doing so, send an important message about Durham’s values,” she says.

Unlike in elections for local office, the city allowed teenagers as young as thirteen and noncitizens to participate. Residents could vote online, at permanent polling stations, or at temporary pop-up locations. The project also set up stations at middle and high schools to encourage student engagement.

Participatory budgeting is a growing experiment in cities and counties across the United States and Canada, according to the nonprofit Public Agenda. Seen as leading to more direct citizen involvement in local politics, its implementation has spiked over the last six years. Durham’s project is the forty-seventh such initiative in the two countries since 2014.

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