Cleveland City Council will decide whether residents can help spend $5 million using a process called participatory budgeting.

Mayor Justin Bibb proposed legislation Monday that would set aside some of the Cleveland budget to run an 18-month pilot that would create opportunities for residents to participate in generating ideas and making spending decisions.

The move was celebrated by members of PB CLE, a coalition of Cleveland residents who have been championing participatory budgeting —  “the people’s budget,” as they call it — for a year and a half. The group has spent the time researching, building partnerships across the city’s 17 wards, and speaking during public comment periods.

Participatory budgeting is already in place in several cities worldwide, including New York City, but in Cleveland the hope is to make city dollars work as hyper-locally as possible with projects proposed by residents, said PB CLE’s co-coordinator, Molly Martin.

“The whole goal is to bring out the non-usual suspects,” Martin said, referencing efforts to engage non-English speakers, people without housing, and high school students in social studies classes–all groups that are typically less engaged in civic spaces.

“Instead of electing a council person to make those decisions for you, … this is a mechanism that will help people understand what residents want to see,” Martin said. “It’s a culture shift.”

Bibb first expressed support of a participatory budget pilot when he took office in 2022, reupping his commitment in July as part of his plans for Cleveland’s more than $500 million in federal coronavirus relief money. The legislation was introduced this week with a package that included $40 million in proposed spending from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money.

Three members of City Council are co-sponsoring the ordinance: Ward 7’s Stephanie D. Howse, Ward 12’s Rebecca Maurer and Ward 15’s Jenny Spencer.

The legislation would only approve $510,000 in administrative costs to run the pilot. Bibb’s administration said it intends to allocate roughly $5 million toward projects that come out of the participatory budgeting process. That is about 1 percent of Cleveland’s ARPA money. The city’s General Fund budget for 2022 was about $704 million.

Cleveland VOTES would oversee the process with the support of Neighborhood Connections, a nonprofit community-building organization. (Neighborhood Connections provides support for Cleveland Documenters.)

One temporary city staff person would also be hired to make sure the project followed city regulations and to coordinate among the city departments that would plan and execute the projects.

The pilot would include several ways for residents to get involved in the budgeting process: they can get paid to serve on the steering committee that helps design the process, pitch projects at idea-collection events, receive a stipend to serve as a “budget delegate” to turn an idea into a proposal, and, ultimately, vote for which projects are selected for funding.

City Council would still have final approval over any money spent or contracts that come from a participatory budgeting process if the amount is $50,000 or more.

Residents holding a sign that says "People's Budget" outside of Cleveland City Hall.
Supporters of participatory budgeting hold a sign that says “People’s Budget” outside of Cleveland City Hall on Jan. 9 Credit: Kenyatta Crisp for Signal Cleveland

The idea may face an uphill climb on council, where there’s skepticism about turning over the power of the purse.

Ward 1 Council Member Joe Jones said during a meeting Monday that allowing an “outside group” to distribute tax dollars the city got as part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act would circumvent council’s spending authority. 

“We were elected by the citizens of the City of Cleveland to represent our territories,” he said.

PB CLE supporters — more than 750 of them, as well as 60 endorsing local organizations — said they are optimistic about the legislation’s passage. 

Signal Cleveland chatted with four supporters to learn what got them involved and why they think this direct engagement in government decision-making matters.

Cheryl Stewart wants to empower Cleveland residents

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Cheryl Stewart’s entire life is steeped in Cleveland and community. The 64-year-old Ward 6 resident and retired nurse even has her motto — “helping others pray with education,” or “H.O.P.E.” — tattooed in red ink on her forearm.

“What (PB CLE) is talking about doing is something close to my heart,” the lifelong Clevelander said. “I want to empower the people of Cleveland, those of us that grew up here, fighting to stay here, watching their neighborhoods change or gentrify, and give hope for a better city.” 

Stewart first discovered PB CLE through her work with Woodhill Co-op, a group of neighbors in Ward 6 working to assist residents’ needs (their work is currently centered on making laundry facilities available).

“I’m seeing the impact we’re making on this micro level: under this guise of doing laundry, we’re engaging the whole community, talking with neighbors, empowering people to identify issues and propose solutions,” she said. “Just imagine what we would do citywide if given the chance.” Stewart has championed participatory budgeting everywhere from City Council chambers at public comment periods to discussions with neighbors on the street.

This isn’t about politics; this is about empowering communities. If every council person took this to their wards, solicited ideas, picked the best one and brought it forward, we’d have a melting pot of 17 ideas from 17 wards and the people would then have a vested interest in the city around them.

Cheryl Stewart

Willow Watson would invest in spaces for LGBTQ+ communities of color

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Willow Watson, a 27-year-old literary artist and community organizer in North Collinwood, first learned about PB CLE through a workshop where participants got a crash course on participatory budgeting and tried their hand at creating and pitching project ideas on poster boards. The group then held a mock vote.

“It was really powerful because there were so many kids and young people there recognizing these deep needs and complex issues they realized are missing from the community,” Watson said. “It really gave a lot of agency for young people, and I saw the potential to create spaces for other marginalized groups: Black, people of color and trans people.”

Growing up as a trans person, Watson felt like they didn’t have a place to call their own in Cleveland for a long time. It wasn’t until they went to the College of Wooster, where they graduated with a degree in Africana studies in 2017, that they felt like they “fit in.” 

Since their move back to Cleveland, Watson has been trying to create accessible and comfortable meeting spaces for other Black trans people, working with groups such as Roots, Wounds and Words and Black Space.

A lot of these organizations create vital and necessary spaces for marginalized groups in Cleveland, and it’s really out of a labor of love, but that’s not always sustainable. Participatory budgeting would allow for the expansion of that without forcing us into burnout.

Willow Watson

Watson envisions a Cleveland where trans youth are taken care of on the most fundamental level — with housing, resources and financial support, as the group is one of the most chronically unhoused in the country — but also rooted in community.

“As a low-income person, there are all sorts of things I have to worry about: transportation, health, safety,” Watson said. “Mutual aid does a lot to really change people’s lives.”

Teralawanda Aaron wants to engage youth, encourage civic engagement

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Teralawanda Aaron has always wanted to help Cleveland’s youth. The Cleveland native spent her early years studying entrepreneurship and human services at Tri-C and Kent State, ultimately going on to join the nonprofit world in her mother’s footsteps. Her work with Family Connections Center, assisting youth and young mothers, fueled her passion for working with younger generations.

In 2006, the North Collinwood resident founded The Spot Youth Empowerment, an organization working to engage young people in communities and civic processes. One of their most notable programs includes their voter education program, which provides young people ages 14 to 25 with a stipend to attend a course that walks them through voter registration, how to fill out a ballot, and the various branches of government at the federal, state and local levels.

Since her organization was contacted by PB CLE, Aaron has been a fervent supporter of the process, viewing it as another opportunity for the young people she works with to be involved with local government.

A lot of young people think they vote in a vacuum or feel like their voices aren’t being heard by officials they elect. With participatory budgeting, it means more opinions are being brought to the table instead of a select few. More youth should have the opportunity to have that voice and sit at the table when there’s decisions being made about them and for them.

Teralawanda Aaron

In November, Aaron brought several participants in the voter-education program to speak on behalf of participatory budget at Cleveland City Council’s public comment period

“With participatory budgeting, it would allow youth to speak for themselves and develop programs that would affect their day-to-day, and, ultimately, the future of this city and their communities,” she said.

If given funding from the participatory budgeting process, Aaron would use money to further the organization’s educational mission.

Keshawn Walker wants digestible politics and civic engagement

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The 25-year-old Buckeye-Shaker resident said PB CLE aligns with his personal mission: making political processes and civic information digestible and engaging.

“With so many everyday stresses, you’re not always thinking about political systems or maybe you find it boring, but it affects your life, so we need to find ways to get more people involved,” he said.

Walker, who owns his own trucking company, has spoken in support of participatory budgeting at public comment sessions but also engages in on-the-street education at corner stores and gas stations.

“It’s about bringing people to power,” Walker said.

Even if [the legislation] doesn’t pass, I will still consider it a success because it got so many people involved in the political process. And that’s monumental.

Keshawn Walker

Walker’s organization also works with the Youth Enrichment Program, an activity-based organization that instructs children on practical skills such as self-defense and growing food and also on social skills such as building confidence and navigating peer pressure. He said organizations like that are worthy recipients of participatory budgeting funds.

Signal Cleveland reporter Nick Castele contributed to this story.

Abbey was the service journalism reporter for Signal Cleveland through February 2023. She joined us from the Akron Beacon Journal/USA Today Network, where she was a Report for America corps member covering the City of Akron and local government.