Working with district leaders, Collins sent surveys to every member of the school community, including students and families, asking them how they would use the funds. The surveys generated 240 unique ideas, which they then brought to a group of about 35 students and parents chosen as delegates. Collins’ research team, which included undergraduate students at Brown, provided scholarships, meals and Spanish translators to the delegates as they met twice a week for eight weeks to curate, evaluate and narrow down ideas, ultimately shaping them into nine structured proposals that all students and parents later voted on. The winning ideas focused on after-school extracurricular programs and an app to improve communications between students, parents, teachers and staff about school safety concerns.
Collins said the summer-long process did far more than simply allow students and parents to choose where funds could be directed. It also changed participants’ perspectives of the local power landscape.
“That’s key to having long-term civic participation,” he said. “Individuals must believe that people in their same position have the power to improve and change conditions. We knew this would offer us a really exciting opportunity to explore the extent to which democratic innovation strategies are useful in improving the school experience, particularly for students in communities of color.”
‘True, mass democracy’
Inspired by the success of Voces Con Poder in 2021, Central Falls’ city council and mayor are now working with Collins on another participatory budgeting program called Next Door Nation. The program aims to increase access to transportation for the elderly and those who are disabled, with funds from Central Falls’ public budget and a grant from Centerville Bank.
“One downside of broader participatory budgeting processes is that they often focus on priorities that rise to the top,” Collins said. “That makes sense most of the time: It’s important to serve the public as a whole and help as many people as possible. But sometimes that means that folks with more specialized concerns can get pushed to the margins. Next Door Nation is a project that squarely addresses a very specific group of marginalized people.”
The project started in March with an idea survey and an appointed slate of delegates who reflected the diversity of Central Falls’ communities of elderly and disabled individuals. It will soon conclude with a public vote, which could result in anything from new sidewalk construction to expanded bus routes to new bus stops — all of which could increase access to transportation for thousands of city residents who are elderly or disabled.
Collins also took the lessons he learned from Voces Con Poder to a middle school in Providence — where, with grant funds from the Spencer Foundation, he spent the 2021-22 academic year exploring a new kind of participatory budgeting model.
“In Central Falls, they took ideas from the public, and they selected a subset of delegates or representatives who then turned those broad ideas into concrete proposals, which the public ultimately voted on,” Collins said. “Moving forward, I wanted to remove the representative model and instead try true, mass democracy.”