One hundred folding chairs stood in the middle of the Sunset Park Recreation Center Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 for a participatory budget meeting especially geared for Chinese people in the community. It was the first time the presentation was translated into Chinese.
Thirty-five Chinese-speaking community members and a handful of kids attended the meeting led by Councilman Carlos Menchaca and community liaison and translator, Kaden Sun.
“This is the first time this presentation has been translated into Chinese and it’s because you asked for it,” Menchaca told the group. “Tomorrow, we’re doing it in Spanish. We’re doing this to reflect our immigrant community.”
The meeting was part of a process called participatory budgeting, a concept that began in Brazil and was brought to the United States and Canada by the non-profit, Participatory Budget Project. It is a process that gives community members the ability to make budget decisions. First, ideas are proposed, then, delegates write proposals, and finally, all residents within the district vote. The top projects are funded in the next fiscal year.
In 2011, four Council Members brought the concept to New York City and committed at least $1 million of their district’s budget to this democratic process. Since then, participatory budgeting has spread to 27 Council Districts that have committed $32 million to projects that have been approved through the process.
Last year, Councilman Carlos Menchaca pledged $2,390,000. The winning proposals included more access to technology in schools, renovations in public schools, and outdoor fitness equipment for the Sunset Recreation Center. This year, Menchaca will commit another $2 million.
“We have to build a good relationship between government and residents,” said Menchaca. “What we are doing today will make our community stronger.”
But this meeting took the process to another level by conducting business in Chinese. After a slew of introductions and an explanation, in Chinese, of how this works, the community members were separated into four different groups. Each group convened in front of an enlarged map of Sunset Park and two bulletin boards to aid its discussion.
In one group of six Chinese mothers, Liang Jing, 30, talked about how she has three children and would like to see an upgrade to Sunset Park’s playground and a library closer to Eighth Avenue.
“Our kids have to go so far to borrow books,” said Jing. “I’d rather them stay in and read online, but too much screen time is bad for their vision.”
After half an hour, all attendees reconvened into a circle and presented their ideas to the whole room. Safety, recreational space upgrades, and shelter from the rain were the overlapping concerns from the four groups.
“It’s important to know the similarities, so we know the priorities,” said Menchaca, then he went on to explain the next step is for people to volunteer as delegates to draft proposals to city officials. Menchaca says the commitment is a few hours a week over the next four months and he hopes for about 60 to 70 delegates. According to his office, by late October, he had about 30 delegates.
Shelly Lin, part of the group of Chinese mothers, pressured her group to volunteer and got four of them to do so.
“Ideas are easy, but actually doing the work is difficult,” said Lin.
Menchaca emphasized that delegates do not need to speak English, be a resident of Sunset Park, or even be a citizen of this country.
“All you need to have is a heart and love for Sunset Park,” said Menchaca.