As a tri-institutional process, the Auraria Participatory Budgeting project had many goals to accomplish within a 4-month period, including promoting collaboration across the three schools on campus, fostering widespread participation in the process from students, and addressing larger social inequalities. With a narrow period to develop and implement Auraria’s first Participatory Budgeting cycle, there were many barriers to overcome to successfully make this project work. Some of the barriers faced as project proposals were developed and vetted involved: getting accurate cost estimates for some projects, anticipating conditions that could delay project implementation, accounting for the institution’s engineering standards, and other structural elements that could limit the possibility of a project.
In spite of these barriers, Auraria PB participants were flexible, open-minded, and prepared to develop other strategies that would ensure projects met all legal requirements and were feasible by AHEC and other campus advisors to be implemented. As a pilot PB project, Auraria PB had both roadblocks and successes that will benefit the process in the next cycle of PB.
This PB process, as a community-based research project, was evaluated to document who participates, how they participate, and the impact of the process on participants. The evaluation was designed to provide data and analysis to This Machine Has a Soul (TMHS) to meet funders’ evaluation requirements by assessing the quality of community participation, documenting the strengths and weaknesses of the PB process, and analyzing its impacts on participants. While the evaluation was a coordinated effort between the principal researcher, community members, and organizers of TMHS, it was primarily conducted by Vincent Russell (principal researcher) and Therese Gardner (assistant researcher) for TMHS. Vincent Russell is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Boulder currently studying the ways communicative practices promote social justice. He was the president of Participatory Budgeting Greensboro where he worked to secure the city’s first PB process in 2015. Therese Gardner is an undergraduate student in the Department of Communication and assisted with the evaluation to gain experience conducting research and to learn about activist social change campaigns for social justice.
Overall, the research shows that participants of the Auraria Participatory Budgeting project felt empowered to influence the decisions that directly affect their lives in a manner many of them had never been afforded. Survey questionnaire responses, interview remarks, and participant observations were used throughout this report to document the impacts both in numbers and participant perspectives and provided evidence for the following findings:
1. Auraria PB increased student involvement and campus/community engagement. Of the 540 individuals who voted, including steering committee members and budget delegate members, 54% of respondents had not previously worked with others in the past year to address a campus/community problem, demonstrating that APB attracted the involvement of students who are not typically involved in public affairs.
2. Auraria PB was successful in representing, and at times over-representing, historically marginalized communities, including people of color and low-income residents, demonstrating that participants were mostly representative of campus demographics in ethnicity, income, and gender. Of the 540 respondents who voted in PB, 71% reported a household income less than $50,000, demonstrating that Auraria PB voters were disproportionately lower income. In addition, Auraria PB voters proportionally represented women, African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics.
“Obviously, to bring many voices to the table and structure for communities organizing themselves. For Auraria, we asked both SC and BD co-chairs to nominate themselves and then vote, and they would really talk amongst themselves. Really concerned to make it equitable.”
- Steering Committee Member
3. Auraria PB was well-received by participants, with 92% of PB voters believing the process should continue after the first cycle.
4. Auraria PB empowered people to get involved in other forms of community engagement, including running for student government, joining clubs on campus, and attending public hearings related to the campus budget. Other indirect effects of the process included some student projects being implemented outside of PB, including a bike rental program and a cigarette butt disposal program.
5. Auraria PB allowed participants a unique means of engagement, in which participants were able to engage in public affairs that differed from traditional forms of community involvement or civic participation. Participants saw PB as uniquely beneficial for teaching them how to advance social change in their communities.
“It [PB] also provided me with the opportunity to become more engaged on campus and develop a sense of community.”
- Student Steering Committee Member
As the first cycle, Auraria PB succeeded in developing project proposals to later be implemented, despite many obstacles that materialized throughout the process and needed to be handled before moving forward. There were several challenges faced due to time and budget that must be considered fully if the process continues in the future.
1. Institutionalize funding from sources that increase the amount of money allocated annually. We recommend more money be invested into Auraria PB to empower students and strengthen the process in a way that effectively engages the campus community and advances equity and inclusion. We recommend that Auraria ultimately allocate $9.85 per student to PB (approximately $414,000) to bring it on par with per-resident spending of PB processes across North America. No less than $50,000 should be allocated to Auraria PB to ensure that participants are provided enough resources to accomplish meaningful change on campus.
2. Increase the timeline of the process to a full academic year. The first cycle of Auraria PB was planned and implemented in the span of a single semester, and many participants expressed not having enough time to achieve their goals. Future cycles of Auraria PB should start in the fall semester and conclude with a vote at the end of the spring semester, which will bring the length of the process closer in alignment to the national average.
3. Strengthen partnerships with campus staff during the project development phase. Establishing stronger connections with campus staff would aid in the development of project proposals to better coordinate project proposal and implementation. Additionally, many student participants believed administrators’ decision-making processes had failed them, so improving communication between campus staff and students would help build trust.
“Just seeing students get excited about what’s possible. And helping them through the challenges that are inherent in this. Stakeholder engagement and thorough research and realistic budgeting. I find those things rewarding because that’s what it takes in the real world to get things done. So to see students put so much energy and passion into something that might not get voted on.”
- AHEC Staff Member
4. Hire more facilitators that are committed to inclusion, equity, and social justice. The first cycle of Auraria PB was led by individuals from community organizing backgrounds. The staff that implement PB should have similar commitments to inclusion, equity, and social justice, for community organizers understand that relationships between community members are necessary to building capacity and power within groups. Hiring such staff will help PB continue to be a unique and empowering form of campus engagement for participants.
5. Organize and host more structured idea collection events. By encouraging more structured idea collection events, members will better be able to promote a deeper, more focused discussion of student needs and campus issues. Guided discussion of project ideas will generate higher quality projects and provide opportunities to build connections between students and between students and campus staff.