“It seems obvious that people who live in a community would know what it needs,” says Julian Quijada Montiel. The 17-year-old senior at Cholla High School is sitting at a table littered with snacks and coffee, highlighters and post-it notes, worksheets and notebooks, and — for the fidgeters among us — Play-Doh and pipecleaners. With a deep voice and a thin mustache, he leans back, gestures at the table, and says, “I’ve always been very interested in how decisions are made.” 

Julian is taking part in a novel experiment for Arizona: participatory budgeting.

The idea is that a city or jurisdiction cedes some of their fiscal prerogative directly into the hands of the community. Tucson’s Ward 1, which largely covers the city’s west side and parts of downtown and the south side, has designated $450,000 for the people to pitch and assess ideas, vote on the most promising, and ultimately use the money as they see fit.

In other words, Julian is not only gaining insight into how decisions are made, he’s helping make them.

Julian Quijada Montiel listens to a teammate during an event at the Ward 1 office on Saturday, March 18, 2023. The program is part of the ward’s participatory budgeting process. Credit: Michael McKisson

While some school districts in Arizona have tried participatory budgeting in the past, the Ward 1 initiative appears to be the first general program in Arizona to invite all residents to help decide how to spend the city’s money. 

The idea came from council member Lane Santa Cruz after she spent time in New York and Chicago, cities that allocate some funds for participatory budgeting. Santa Cruz represents Ward 1 communities. Her first push was for each council office to have discretionary funds so that they could fund community infrastructure projects.

“I remember doing a whole presentation and pitch to the mayor and council about why I thought it was important,” she says.

Budget vote

If you live in Ward 1, from April 29-May 15 you can vote online or in-person about how to spend $450,000.

In-person voting events

• Saturday, April 29, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Día de la Niñez at El Pueblo Park, 101 W. Irvington Road

• Sunday, May 14, 8-11 a.m., Bicis y Burros at the Ward 1 office, 940 W. Alameda St.

Find more information here.

While none of the other council leaders were ready to make the plunge into participatory budgeting, they were glad to direct some of their own funding, and had no problem with Lane trying the full participatory project in Ward 1.

One of the primary goals of the pilot project is equity. Ward 1 organizers define that standard, in part, as bringing “historically excluded voices into decision-making processes” with an intent to “address and work to repair structural forms of injustice, racism, discrimination, oppression, exclusion and inequality.” 

To achieve this goal, they’ll be funding one major project, costing around $250,000 as well as 20 smaller projects, costing around $10,000 each.

As Julian and the other “proposal captains” hunch around tables working on notebooks, spreadsheets, coffee, and Play-Doh, they go through the ideas one by one. Various whiteboards covered with charts and notes help them stay organized. The general vibe feels like a work retreat, but with a certain spending-money-for-good ebullience to the room.

Julian Quijada Montiel, left, and Martin Pacheco listen to a teammate during an event at the Ward 1 office of council member Lane Santa Cruz on Saturday, March 18, 2023. The program is part of the participatory budgeting process. Credit: Michael McKisson

A volunteer walks through the open front door to set down a tray of ciabatta paninis. Another volunteer goes table to table offering lemon cookies. Despite the temptations, the proposal captains are locked in, and need to be drawn away from the cascade of ideas for strengthening their communities.

“This is not how I was envisioning it in my head,” says Martín Pacheco, an education major at University of Arizona. “I thought it was going to be dudes in suits, but we’re just normal people.”

Martín doesn’t even notice the offered cookies and leans back into the table to discuss a youth storytelling grant — one of the proposed ideas — with Julian. 

This is what, as the guidebook puts it, “gente-led decision making” looks like.

The importance of “small wins”

Participatory budgeting is a relatively new concept, but it’s based on a simple theory of democracy: that the people who live in a place should be in charge of how it’s run.

First developed in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, the practice of participatory budgeting has since spread to over 7,000 cities worldwide.

An American city that’s had success with participatory budgeting is Durham, North Carolina, which began the process in 2019 by allocating $2.4 million for the people to use as they saw best. That amounts to about $9 dollars per city resident.

Durham is currently in its third cycle of participatory budgeting. Zachary Roth, a journalist and former fellow of the Brennan Center, noted that the city has hired two full-time staffers to work on the process, “which meant a lot of community outreach could be done.”

The city also built a map to track proposals and “to promote equitable distribution by reaching communities that need funding the most.”

“Maybe even more important than funding is that residents must genuinely feel they are in charge of the process,” Roth says.

Roth wrote about participatory budgeting, citing swelling ranks of people dissatisfied with the U.S. political system and sick of partisanship and a lack of action at the national level to solve problems. He noted, however, that people are more supportive of and active in their local governments. Many people want a say in policies and laws that affect their lives, he argued.

Participatory budgeting empowers the voices and ideas of people so they’re part of the system of solving problems in their own communities. This is key to bringing agency back to the people and re-building trust in government.

“If they do the work of proposing projects and then organizing to get those projects approved by voters, the projects will get implemented promptly and without too many changes,” Roth says.

Eddie Barron, right, works with Maggie Amado-Tellez on a participatory budgeting proposal during an event at the Ward 1 city council office on Saturday, March 18, 2023 Credit: Michael McKisson

‘I want things to be better for everyone’

Each of Tucson’s wards currently has a discretionary budget of $200,000, plus federal grants from the America Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, dished out another $300,000. That gave Ward 1 half a million dollars to play with. To begin, they hired Lead Local, a national organization that assists in community organizing, to help bring the project into reality.  

Between Feb. 1 and Feb. 27, the project received more than 100 proposals from residents through a website submission process.

Those that were too expensive or didn’t meet the project’s goals were discarded. The rest, from March 1 through April 15, are being developed by the 20-or-so proposal captains. They’re charged with taking the ideas and working them out, adding details, further assessing feasibility, and finding out which artist, builder, or gardener can transform the ideas from their seeds to the streets. 

From April 29 until May 15, the public — those who live, work, or go to school in Ward 1 — will be able to review the proposals and vote for them. 

“I’ve never heard of anything like this, I think it’s a cool opportunity to give input for change,” says Elizabeth Miller, who lives in Ward 3, but works in Ward 1. “I want to use my privilege and resources to help push ideas from people who don’t have that privilege. I want things to be better for everyone.”

Research shows that participatory budgeting can achieve exactly that. A 2013 study found that participatory budgeting is “strongly associated with increases in health care spending, increases in civil society organizations, and decreases in infant mortality rates.” 

Besides the concrete achievements of the projects themselves, part of the hope is to spur more civic and community engagement.

“I think we also need small wins to visibilize that government can work, as we’re doing the greater project of shifting how government works and how it relates to to the public,” Santa Cruz says.

Antonio Ramirez, left, works with Nicole Sanderson on a participatory budgeting proposal during an event at the office of Ward 1 council member Lane Santa Cruz on Saturday, March 18, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Is participatory budgeting enough?

Working at the table focused on “mobility justice” with Elizabeth are Nicole Sanderson and Antonio Ramirez, the communications director for Ward 1. Elizabeth searches Google Street View to find the exact bus stop they’re assessing, with the potential of cutting a curb to make it wheelchair accessible.

“People will get motivated, people in the community will be activated” when they see their ideas take shape, Elizabeth says. 

In the span of half an hour Elizabeth, Nicole, and Antonio discuss two projects: besides the potentially cut curb, they consider installing planters outside the Idea School at the Dunbar Pavilion on Main Avenue.

“Residents should understand that it may not be enough for huge, transformative projects,” Roth says. Rather, these are the kind of projects that a city might overlook and yet may — meticulously and concretely — improve the lives of residents. 

While the $450,000 they are deciding how to allocate amounts to just under $5 dollars spent per resident of Ward 1 — with a population of about 92,000 people — it may be enough to spark excitement and incite more participation. 

Nicole is a Ward 1 resident of Barrio Hollywood. She submitted her own proposal during the call for ideas phase. She wants to help people cut costs on casitas — backyard second homes — by paying for an architect to develop a few viable models so people don’t have to pay out the grand or two to hire their own. The idea is to add density to the neighborhood.

“I love Tucson, but I’m always walking around thinking of ways we could improve it,” Nicole says.

Making a new street may seem to be an “improvement,” she explains, but if it’s not well designed, it may flood. If there aren’t protected bike lanes or crosswalks, a bicyclist or pedestrian could get killed. If you just want to drive in and out, maybe the street is an improvement, but if you live there, maybe not.

“Ward 1 is giving the community a chance to define improvement,” she says.

Kerri Lopez-Howell leans backward to speak with a teammate during an event at the at Ward 1 city council office on Saturday, March 18, 2023. The program is part of a participatory budgeting process. Credit: Michael McKisson

Community engagement, empowerment

“Is this project going to create more damage, or can it restore?” asks Kerri Lopez-Howell, another proposal captain, sitting at the table with Julian and Martín.

Kerri is the former CEO of Sunnyside Foundation, which focuses on investing in funding community projects on Tucson’s south side. She remains committed to civic engagement, and is particularly interested in working with young people.

“We sometimes think we have these great ideas, but they don’t work. There’s a nuance when people who live out these plans can be part of the project design and implementation,” Kerri says.

But, Roth cautioned, “Participatory budgeting requires a lot of ongoing work to be successful — it’s not something that can just be created and then runs itself. And even with a lot of work, it’s not going to magically transform the political process or radically change policy outcomes. But if done well, it can engage and empower residents.” 

A new wheelchair ramp, a few murals, some planters, more speed bumps and roundabouts — cumulatively, it adds up. So does engagement.

Taking a break from the daylong session, Julian stands in the sun in front of the Ward 1 office. There are a lot of other ways a high schooler can spend their Saturday. But even as the conversation with some of the other proposal captains wanders to other topics, Julian brings it back to what changes he hopes to implement in his community.

Not many 17-year-olds have their hands on the city purse-strings.

While Julian, other youth, and the older residents turning out to participate may not be city planners or elected politicians, they know what their neighborhoods need.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...