By Zainab Iqbal
Published: February 21st, 2018
Brooklyn College students can begin submitting proposals on how $30,000 can best benefit the campus.
This initiative is part of participatory budgeting (PB), a democratic process that allows ordinary people (in this case, students) to decide how to allocate money that is a part of a public budget. Brooklyn College was the first college in the US to instate the budgeting process. The $30k is funded by College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) Student Government reserves, and the process occurs every year. In the past, several projects have been funded, including a renovation of a lounge in SUBO. To make PB work, students first need to get together to brainstorm ideas.
On Thursday, Feb. 15, CLAS Student Government held a town hall for students to pitch their visions for the campus. After showing a quick video that described PB, Dr. Michael Menser, assistant professor of philosophy, took over.
“One of the great things about PB is that it gives us a much deeper understanding of democracy,” Menser said. “Rather than just being able to say what your needs are or to choose someone else to do stuff for you, you actually get to make a proposal to address your own needs…something that can benefit you all.”
According to Menser, this is the fourth time the BC student government has done PB. The initiative first began in 2012, went on hiatus, and then restarted for the last two years in a row.
The PB process was first established in Brazil about 30 years ago and was brought to NY in 2011. Menser is the president of the Board of the Participatory Budgeting Project that helps to set up the project in New York City. Now, in the US and Canada, 25 cities employ the practice of PB.
Hudis Lang-Kaztow, a student at the town hall, suggested getting automatic light switches for every room on campus. The Sustainable CUNY Reserves program is a university-wide effort to reduce energy consumption on CUNY campuses. If a campus can spend less money on utilities, they can put the savings towards other campus initiates. According to Lang-Kaztow, getting automatic light switches can both help the environment and save the college money.
“I just want to make a different in BC’s ecological footprint,” Lang-Kaztow said, “and I think light switches, that shut off and turn on automatically, can make a big difference.”
Other students suggested new gym equipment, more bike racks, a volleyball court available for everyone’s use and updated lighting and sound equipment in a room in the basement of SUBO.
After brainstorming ideas, students need to submit PB proposals. The proposal consists of a few simple questions, such as the project name, intended location, a specific description and why the project is necessary. Students also have to note the estimated cost, but they shouldn’t worry much about that, Zunera Ahmed, Speaker of the Assembly for CLAS Student Government, told the students.
“Be creative and don’t see that number as your limit,” Ahmed said. “In CLAS we always say, ‘Dream big, and we’ll always figure out how to make it happen.’”
Ahmed urged students to think about how their project can benefit everyone.
“I ask when you’re writing your proposals to ask not only what we can fix, but what can we add? The proposals are to benefit you guys, but also to benefit every generation afterwards,” Ahmed said. “So if you think having a statue of Beyoncé can benefit you and future generations, then by all means, write that. I hope you really reflect on your time on this campus and think, ‘If I had this one thing my education, my campus life, my student life would be so much better because of this one thing.’”
But to make PB work, students need to participate, as it’s a student-led and student-funded initiative. According to Ahmed, it only gets bigger and better when there are more people participating. Last year, the budget was $17,000 compared to the $30k this year.
CLAS has a goal to get at least 400 proposals by March 2. Proposals can be submitted online or on paper through a form provided by the student government. After proposals are submitted, CLAS Student Government will go over each one and vet it. During elections, students will get to vote for which one they want initiated on campus. The $30k does not have to be used for one project. If the winning proposal costs less than $30k, the leftover money will be used to fund another project.
CLAS Student Government President Nissim Said encourages students to take part in the PB process.
“If you value democracy, you have to appreciate PB,” Said told The Excelsior. “Students are given a chance to decide how they want money to be spend. Many students either don’t hear about it or don’t understand its importance, and it is very important.”