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Power to the people


By Cynthia Gibson | OW Contributor

Los Angeles is home to some of the widest wealth disparities in the United States. Years of systemic racism and underinvestment have left many L.A. neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, unemployment and environmental hazards.

An effort to put power in the hands of the people most impacted by income inequality is coming to Los Angeles communities in the form of a new community-based budgeting process. The Los Angeles Reforms for Equity and Public Acknowledgement of Institutional Racism (L.A. REPAIR) is LA’s first participatory budget (PB) pilot program. The program will distribute roughly $8.5 million in city funds directly to nine historically disenfranchised communities in Los Angeles.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said the implementation of L.A. REPAIR was in direct response to calls by L.A. residents for racial justice and a greater participation in local government in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Garcetti also said PB will provide power to residents to implement ideas that work best for their community.

“This is about taking down some of that hierarchy and making a real horizontal budgeting process that everybody can show up to,” said Garcetti in a press conference launching L.A. REPAIR.

“If you have a good idea, if you have the power of that idea, and the power of the organizing [people] behind it, you will get the resources to be able to see that idea actually enacted,” Garcetti said.

L.A. REPAIR’s  nine “Repair zones” include Arleta-Pacoima; Mission Hills-Panorama City-North Hills; Westlake; West Adams-Baldwin Village-Leimert; Skid Row; Boyle Heights; Southeast LA (South LA east of the 110 Freeway); South LA; and Wilmington + Harbor Gateway.

Repair Zone representation

The City’s Civil, Human Rights and Equity Department (CHRED) will oversee L.A. REPAIR. CHRED officials stated that areas selected for participation were based on U.S. census tracts and other indexes. The Repair Zones are areas which have a high percentage of people of color and a high share of the population living below the poverty line.

In general, the L.A. REPAIR Zones represent 50% of Los Angeles residents that live below the poverty line, 63% of the City’s Black/African-American population, 50% of the City’s Hispanic/Latino population, and over 45% of the City’s COVID cases. In addition, 47% of households in these Zones have no internet access and 64% of renter households are rent-burdened, paying more than 5% of their household income for rent.

“L.A. REPAIR gives real people real power over real money. This is more than just $8.5 million, it’s empowerment for the neighborhoods of Los Angeles most impacted by poverty and systemic racism,” CHRED Executive Director Capri Maddox said.

A CHRED report outlined the details of L.A. REPAIR, including the basis and purpose of the program. The report stated that academic research shows a direct correlation between historical traumas and institutional racism and the current challenges faced by African-Americans, Indigenous people, Latinos, and other people of color in the United States. Descendants of these groups nationwide continue to suffer from poorer health, earn lower incomes, experience homelessness at higher rates, and hold less wealth than their White counterparts.

CHRED also concluded that specific communities continue to live at a severe structural disadvantage with some of the poorest and highest need areas in the country resulting from years of structural and institutional racism. Since March 2020, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted these communities as well.

According to CHRED, participatory budgeting is the most direct way to enable traditionally excluded groups to decide on investment priorities in their communities to help overcome explicit or implicit systemic biases that may have prevented community priorities from being addressed.

The participation of these communities in the allocation of public resources begins the process of reparation by shifting power away from a historically unrepresentative institution, into the hands of the historically disempowered residents. The intent of this PB is to direct funding to the most impactful services based on what the community reimagines for post-pandemic priorities.

Steps toward budgeting

LA. REPAIR participatory budgeting process consists of a five-steps: Design; idea collection; proposal development; implementation; and voting.

A steering committee and REPAIR Zone advisory committee, made up of people from the community, develop the rules that will govern the process. The advisory committee and community partners collect ideas on how to spend funds allocated to their zone. Ideas are vetted for feasibility and legality, then community-based organizations are invited to submit proposals on how they would implement community ideas.

Finally, each L.A. Repair Zone votes for their favorite proposal and the winning projects are funded and implemented.

There are a four key ways the people residing in REPAIR Zones can participate in the process:

Idea creator – Any resident of the REPAIR Zone can provide ideas for programs, including those residing in an L.A. City shelter or housing.

Project planner – Community based organizations will develop ideas into fully formed program proposals that can be voted upon by residents in the REPAIR Zones.

Voter – Any resident of the City of Los Angeles, including those at an L.A. City shelter or housing, who reside in the specified REPAIR Zones.

Advisory Committee Member – Members will oversee the local implementation of PB in their respective Zones as well as assist with planning throughout the process. Committees will be composed of local organizations, institutions, and community leaders.

The initial vetting and proposal process will be facilitated over an 8 to 12 month period.  Three of the Repair Zones: Boyle Heights; Southeast Los Angeles (South L.A. east of the 110 Freeway); and Mission Hills – Panorama City – North Hills; have begun the process of selecting the advisory committees. The remaining six zones are scheduled to start the selection process in 2023. The full timeline for all nine zones is available on the L.A. REPAIR website: https//

History of REPAIR

The concept of participatory budgeting originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as a response to the city’s rapid growth and inability to provide basic services to its residents. The process gave a voice to residents living in low-income areas whose interests were usually ignored. Residents were given a say in which projects should be funded and built in their community. Citizens would engage in multiple rounds of debates and deliberations, and ultimately vote on how a certain percentage of the municipal budget was spent.

Measurements taken before and after the implementation of participatory budgeting showed a more equitable distribution of city services.

Participatory budgeting in the United States has steadily gained momentum.  Chicago was the first city to implement a pilot project in 2009. Since then more than 50 participatory budgeting programs have been initiated across the country. In California, the process has been adopted in several cities including Long Beach; Fresno; Vallejo; Oakland; and San Francisco.

Shari Davis, co-executive director, Participatory Budgeting Project, will lead the participatory budgeting process through education, and sharing best practices.  Participatory Budgeting Project is a nonprofit organization that creates and supports these processes, including a range of technical assistance services. Since 2009, the organization has helped with the distribution of $386 million and worked with 739,000 PB participants across the U.S. and Canada.

Davis has nearly 15 years of service and leadership in local government. As director of youth engagement and employment for the City of Boston, Davis launched Youth Lead the Change, the first youth participatory budgeting process in the US, which won the US Conference of Mayors’ City Livability Award. In 2019, Davis was honored with an Obama Foundation Fellowship for her work on participatory budgeting.

“The system that we call democracy right now in this country has a lot of closed door, non-transparent decisions that are being made and often imposed on people that often really deepen inequity and further oppression,” said Davis during a 2020 TED Talk.  “I think there is an opportunity to implement real democracy that looks very different. Everyone has a role to play in PB. It works because it allows community members to craft real solutions to real problems and provides the infrastructure to the promise of government.”

Garcetti acknowledged that L.A. Repair is only one small step toward closing the inequities caused by decades of redlining, racial covenants and discrimination.

“We know that White wealth compared to Black wealth is 10 to 1. But here in L.A., Black wealth and the wealth of Mexican heritage families is 1/100, not 1/10, to that of White wealth. So we’ve got our work to do.”

Our Weekly coverage of local news in Los Angeles County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.