I stepped on stage at the Aspen Challenge ready to issue a challenge to a group of high schoolers. These young people had inspiring and infectious energy and were filled with hope and determination. It reminded me of why I do what I do. It reminded me why I wake up every day to lift up youth leadership in solving the problems we face today, and will face tomorrow.
I introduced this group to a democratic process called participatory budgeting (PB) that empowers community members to decide how to spend the public dollars that impact their lives. I asked these young leaders to use PB in their schools to create racial equity. I asked them to join people in more than 3,000 cities, schools, and council districts around the world who are already using PB to make democracy more transparent and equitable.
Twenty-two cities in the U.S. and Canada alone are using PB to build community control. The movement for young people to be leaders in PB is growing. Today, there are two youth-led PB processes for young people and a growing number of school-based PB processes. In 2013, I helped launch Youth Lead the Change — the country’s first youth PB process where young people, ages 12-24, in Boston decide how to spend $1,000,000 of the city’s budget. Boston University’s Initiative on Cities just released a report on YLC.
As someone who began my career in public service at the age of 14, I believe that we need to see young people as leaders today, not tomorrow. Young leaders at the Aspen Challenge are proof of this idea. They are ready to show the world and they asked me how they should do it. I shared some of the quirky things I do — like listening to Man in the Mirror every morning. I also explained that I do the things that I believe in. I believe in participatory budgeting.
Given the current state of our country — and our world — we need PB. It is a proven tool in organizing communities, revolutionizing power structures, and shifting group dynamics to address racial inequities and injustices. By putting real power, like PB, in the hands of young leaders and believing in their abilities, I’m confident we will build better schools and stronger communities, together.
It’s only been a couple weeks since I issued my challenge to empower youth through PB to create racial equity and redefine how we practice democracy. Young people from the Aspen Challenge have already exceeded my expectations. A group of students from the Philadelphia High School for Girls are already started putting their plan into action. They have:
- Given a compelling pitch presentation piloting PB in their school
- Met with officials from their school and city
- Pushed their city to do something that has never been done before, to support real youth leadership with PB to create racial equity.
The Aspen Challenge reaffirmed my guiding belief: Young people are ready to lead by solving problems we face today charting a course forward beyond the problems we’ll face together in the future. I know that PB is one tool that they can use to get the real power to solve these real problems.
Shari Davis is responsible for the strategic development and managing of network building at the Participatory Budgeting Project. You can sign up for their newsletter here.