Black Brilliance Research Project releases its preliminary report

(updates below re: rescheduling the second half of the presentation — it will now be on February 26 instead of next Monday)

Over the weekend the City Council published the preliminary report of the Black Brilliance Research Project, a $3 million effort commissioned by the City Council and led by King County Equity Now. The contract calls for KCEN to do research in advance of a community-led “participatory budgeting” program to invest $30 million of public funds in creating community safety.

The 1045-page report, originally submitted to the city on December 21, has spent a month being hammered into shape by the Council and KCEN through an internal review and editing process. In concert with the publishing of the preliminary report, project leaders are presenting their findings and recommendations split over two meetings with the Council. The first half of the presentation was delivered yesterday morning and focused on priority areas for community investments; the second, scheduled for next Monday originally scheduled for next Monday but rescheduled for February 26, will concern recommendations for how a participatory budgeting program should be implemented this year. You can watch yesterday’s presentation here.

 

The core of the report is about 85 pages, and is split between discussion of priority investment areas and a proposed roadmap for the participatory budgeting (PB) process. The other 950-or-so pages are a hodge-podge of appendices, mostly consisting of reports from some of the subcontractors in the research team.

There are several important learnings in the report that are worth consideration, and some serious thinking went into what a participatory budgeting program might look like in Seattle. That said, the report can be challenging to read: it’s a flashy, shifting maze of colorful page layouts, photographs, and non-sequitur pull-quotes that make it difficult to follow the flow of the report and to identify those key insights.

 

 


Priority areas for investment

The research project identified five high-level recurring themes in their investigation that form the basis for priority areas for investment of the $30 million in funding allocated by the City Council:

  • Housing and physical space;
  • Mental health;
  • Youth;
  • Crisis and wellness;
  • Economic development.

Housing and physical space:  There are two important insights in this section. First, it reminds us that decades of structural racism in zoning, real estate transactions, and financing has left the Black community, and other BIPOC communities, with little ownership of housing, commercial spaces, and community buildings in the city, which severely limits their independence and self-determination; they are at the mercy of landlords and developers. That suggests that investments that increase the number of Black-led and Black-owned properties and spaces should be one priority. The second insight is that there is a critical scarcity of housing for those formerly incarcerated, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness and dependent on family and the community for shelter. Post-incarceration housing, the report argues, should also be an investment priority.

Mental health: The report calls out several issues specific to how mental health services are made available to BIPOC communities. First, many of the city’s mental health service providers are not prepared to provide culturally-relevant services, including for example being prepared to address issues of race and the impact of racism with their patients in therapy sessions. There is also a lack of providers who can adequately provide therapy for those suffering from the trauma of incarceration. There are also limited sources for financial assistance in obtaining mental health services; this is exacerbated by the fact that according to the report most Black therapists don’t bill health insurance companies directly, so their patients must pay for services out-of-pocket and wait to be reimbursed by their insurance provider. The reimbursement model creates an extra burden on financially strained individuals attempting to obtain mental health services.

Youth: The report argues that the youth incarceration system creates additional trauma for jailed kids, with little to no mental health support to help them move forward post-incarceration. Separately, it suggests that youth, who are stakeholders in the programs targeted to them, need and want to have a greater say in determining the programs that are funded. Finally, it argues that mentorship programs outside of school should be a funding priority.

Crisis and wellness: The report identifies two areas in particular as funding opportunities: support for victims/survivors of domestic violence, and support and treatment for those with substance abuse issues. But it goes further, explaining that their researchers found a desire in the community for peer-based, “hyper-local” approaches to delivering programs and services around crisis and wellness with roots in the communities they serve, rather than larger, outside organizations.

Economic development: The report lists several impediments to individual and community economic development that suggest investment priorities. First, there are structural barriers to BIPOC communities accessing affordable housing, due to qualification requirements that insist on a tenant having documented monthly income at least 2.5 times the rent amount, as well as other rules that serve to exclude members of BIPOC communities from subsidized housing. In addition, the report argues that a culture of criminalization, and the stigma that accompanies those with past criminal records for the rest of their lives, creates an unending series of structural and cultural barriers to Black economic development through policies governing housing, employment, and access to services. The report recommends that community-based organizations receiving public funding should be required to offer services to formerly incarcerated individuals. It also suggests that “cradle to career” pathways, with relevant mentoring, should be a funding priority to help individuals establish their economic footing.

 


 

Recommendations for a Participatory Budgeting process

At a high-level the participatory budgeting process, as sketched out by the Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit that advocates for and supports PB efforts in jurisdictions around the world, is fairly simple:

The trickier part is in deciding who runs the process, who is responsible for what, and who gets to appoint people to the various workgroups with decision-making power.

At the heart of the BBRP proposal is a steering committee that makes the rules and guides the overall PB process. The report lays out the following responsibilities for the steering committee:

Here’s the report’s somewhat confusing description of how the members of the central Steering Committee would be chosen:

Steering committee members will be chosen by a community-driven process that will be shepherded by a citizen jury. For the steering committee and the citizen jury, the selection criteria and a scoring tool will be widely distributed. People can recommend themselves or other appropriate people for either the steering committee or citizen jury. All recommendations will be scored based on the criteria listed in the Black Brilliance Research (see page 62). People with a score of 80% or higher are placed in a candidate pool for either the steering committee or the citizen jury, whichever they selected.

The citizen jury will be selected using a random sample from the candidate pool. The citizen jury will include individuals who complete the aforementioned application, representation from BBR organizations (to ensure BBR priorities are implemented), and 1 member from the City department that is leading PB (e.g. OPCD). The steering committee may decide a different selection process¬† for other PB workgroups’ members.

It’s unclear who “scores” the candidates, and what exactly the “citizen jury” actually does in “shepherding” the steering committee selection. But continuing down the rabbit-hole, the criteria for being on the steering committee or the “citizen jury” is as follows:

Must include people with the following lived experiences:

    1. People who have been incarcerated
    2. People who are well-connected to multiple community organizations
    3. People with lived experience with homelessness
    4. People with disabilities
    5. People who are trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming
    6. Black women
    7. Youth (at least 2 people)
    8. People from the African Diaspora
    9. People from communities overrepresented in negative health outcomes

From there, the report lists a number of workgroups and other stakeholders that must be joined into the PB process, starting with some key workgroups that the Steering Committee must populate:

  • The Outreach workgroup, to “educate communities about Participatory Budgeting. Invite communities to participate in each upcoming stage of PB.”
  • The Lived Experience workgroup, to “Ensure PB process is aligned with the lived experiences of communities while centering Black-lived experiences.”
  • The Accountability workgroup, to “Monitor and receive feedback about the decision-making process. Bring appropriate parties together to resolve issues.”
  • The Restorative and Proactive Safety workgroup, to “Ensure PB is connected to on-the-ground work and advocacy about community safety and healing.”

The other stakeholders include:

  • Budget delegates, who “do the work needed to turn ideas into real projects,” either on a paid or volunteer basis.
  • Process facilitators, who “do not advocate for particular projects but help residents participate effectively in neighborhood meetings, video calls, and delegate budget meetings.”
  • PB staff: the report recommends three positions be staffed, following a template from the Participatory Budget Project: a coordinator, an assistant, and a division manager.
  • City departments: The report is very clear that staff in city departments play a supporting role, but must take their lead from the community members involved in the PB process. There should be no “strategic advisors” from the City involved. Department staff provide data support, technical support, administrative support, financial management and compliance support, and communications support both internally and externally to the city government.
  • The City Council: At the end of the day, the City Council will be responsible for approving the allocation of money to fund the PB process as well as to fund the projects selected by the voters.
  • The Participatory Budget Project: the BBRP report recommends that this non-profit organization be engaged to provide advice and technical assistance in standing up the PR process and organization.

 

The BBRP report advocates for an aggressive timetable in order to allow for funding of projects in the fall of 2021, starting with idea collection later this month and with voting occurring from mid-July to mid-August:

This is more aggressive than what the Participatory Budget Project suggests in its sample timeline (included in the report’s appendices):

According to this template, the most optimistic estimate would say there is seven months of work to do before voting can begin; the pessimistic estimate is 13 months, and given that what is envisioned in Seattle is a comparatively large PB program being done for the first time, it’s fair to assume that it will be toward the longer end of the range (even before taking into consideration the “Seattle process”).

There are many other issues that will need to be worked out during the remainder of the planning phase, and into the design phase. Those include:

  • How will voting work? The report recommends that all residents of Seattle age 10 and up be permitted to vote for projects. That seems to imply that the city will need to create a new voting system separate from the one King County uses for elections, one that is secure, accurate, fair and inclusive given that $30 million of funding is at stake — much larger than the city’s previous forays into participatory budgeting for neighborhood projects. And it will need to populate it with a new “voter database” of every resident age 10 and up, including undocumented immigrants, in order to ensure individuals can’t vote more than once. Doing this will likely push the timeline out further, and add costs to the PB process.
  • Should 10-year-olds be voting?¬† There are good arguments on both sides. As mentioned above, youth rightfully want more say in the programs targeted to them. On the other hand, we must ask whether they will be prepared to make appropriate choices regarding investing in a wide variety of other programs.
  • Using Council districts as a basis for geographically distributing project proposals and funding will be complex — and potentially inequitable, since the racial and ethnic distribution varies considerably across districts. The report recommends that the steering committee allow for different numbers of budget delegates from each Council district based upon district demographics to balance equity concerns. But given that this is an effort to start to build capacity in community-led alternatives to safety in advance of downsizing SPD across the city, it’s unclear how to balance the impact on the entire city’s population with the need to address historic under-investment in BIPOC communities — and how voters will respond this fall if the dollars aren’t distributed across all districts.
  • The report is inconsistent in its recommendations for whether leadership of the PB effort and its constituent parts should be in the hands of the BIPOC community, or more narrowly in the Black community. There are strong feelings on both sides of that debate, and it will need to be resolved before the pieces are put in place.
  • There are several places where the report insists that its specific priorities must be mandated in the PB effort, and several where it further recommends that organizers and participants in the Black Brilliance Research Project must be given specific roles in the PB process to ensure adherence to the original goals and priorities. That’s a lot of power for the small number of organizations at the center of this effort, most of whom focus on advocacy and inevitably bring their own biases (and financial interests) to the table. The Steering Committee will need to wrestle with conflicts of interest; if an organization has a representative on the Steering Committee or one of the other central workgroups, is it eligible to receive funding through the Participatory Budgeting process?
  • Since the City Council is essentially delegating to the PB organization its power to make budget appropriations, does that mean that that the Steering Committee and workgroups are subject to the rules and restrictions of the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act? The case law says that the PRA and OPMA apply to an outside agency if a “core government function” is delegated to it; and it’s hard to find a more “core” function than writing the city budget. But the legal issues surrounding this will need to be worked out, and the appropriate transparency and record-keeping procedures put in place.

 


 

Expect a follow-up SCC Insight article in the coming weeks on “process issues” related to the Black Brilliance Research Project, including its finances (Crosscut confirmed that the State Auditor is investigating the contract) and the work that went into hammering this report into shape since it was delivered to the Council in mid-December. Your faithful reporter is still collecting important information relevant to that story.

In the meantime, next Monday the BBRP team will present to the Council on its recommendations for the participatory budgeting process, and Councilmember Morales expects both to hear the second half of the presentation with recommendations for the PB process, and to receive the final report, in her committee on February 26.

 


I hope you found this article valuable. If you did, please take a moment to make a contribution to support my ongoing work. Thanks!

 

 

12 comments

  1. Nice job creating some order to tge report. I gave up about 50 pages in. Questions: what is the scope of city functions and funding this budgeting group(s) have authority over? Or is this more a replacement of the old community and district councils?

    1. This doesn’t have scope over any city functions; it’s a new thing to allocate $30 million specifically appropriated for a participatory budgeting program targeted at increasing community safety through investments directly in the community.

  2. “increasing community safety through investments directly in the community”
    Um, the organizers of the BBRP are KCEN, who are Africatown, who have gotten millions over the last 10 years or so and despite claiming to having a proven track record of success have not actually shown anything concrete. I did some research myself and the overwhelming majority of their taxpayer funded projects over the years were quickly discarded.

    1. Well the point of the participatory budgeting program is not just to fund KCEN-selected programs. If it works correctly, anyone can develop and submit a proposal, and then the residents of Seattle get to vote on which ones should get funded.

      I did point out that there are several places where the BBRP folks have insinuated themselves into the participatory budgeting process, raising conflict of interest issues if they are interested in obtaining funding themselves.

  3. Is the $30 million to administer a budgeting program, or projects approved by the Program?

    1. Up to $1 million of the $30 million is for administering the PB process. $500k is “to support the development of a civilian crisis response and social services triage system app to make it easier to find, pay, and support community service providers and healers.” The rest is to fund projects approved by the PB program.

  4. Thanks for deciphering this all and articulating it as clear as possible. Given what I’ve seen from the Africatown crowd (which is basically what this and KCEN stem from) if they have their way there will be very little that isn’t distributed to themselves and their friends. To put it in their own language, there is systemic racism and bias built into their system which is bound to cause inequity and injustice. There’s an integrity problem that is not going away anytime soon IMO.

  5. “People who are well-connected to multiple community organizations.”

    Why don’t they just announce out loud that they plan to steal the 30 million?

    No metrics for success, no idea where the money goes. Also, nothing to say about the 70% year over year increase in homicide as the police department’s staffing plummets. I appreciate your hard work Kevin, but you are way, way too credulous of this. It’s a grift, and they aren’t really trying to hide it.

    1. Trust me, I’m plenty skeptical. The stated intent of this is to create a program where Seattle residents make the decisions about what gets funded, not KCEN. That system is not yet in place and I’ve tried to bring to the forefront the issues — including conflict of interest — that must be dealt with as the program logistics are fleshed out.

      At the same time, there are some genuine issues related to Black and BIPOC communities that are raised in the report and shouldn’t get lost in the procedural debate.

      As I said in the article, I’m still investigating how this contract is being managed and the inner workings of KCEN and the Black Brilliance research project — as is the State Auditor. I have several pieces of that puzzle, but not yet a complete picture, and in fairness to everyone I am waiting to publish until I feel that I understand what is really going on. Paul Kiefer at Publicola published an article yesterday that dove a bit more into the behind-the-scenes stuff; he and I have been trading notes as we both puzzle this out.

  6. I’m curious Kevin, have you received in a blowback from those affiliated with this group due to your reporting? It’s been my experience that the Seattle activist community tends to act aggressively to curtail any criticism. I was wondering if that was your experience with your reporting on this.

  7. Here’s a helpful point of comparison: Based on census data, there are probably around 42,000 Black Seattleites. If we split that 30 million up between them equally, and just sent out a check, they’d each get $700 – akin to an extra stimulus check. That would probably do a lot for Black families in the city; We could even call it reparations. Is this better or worse than that? It seems worse, by a lot.

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