More and more, public health departments are partnering across sectors to engage in non-traditional activities involving citizen engagement to better understand the needs of the communities they serve. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is pursuing the innovative practice of participatory budgeting (PB), a process of public involvement in decision-making. PB allows ordinary people to decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. Residents identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects and make real decisions about how money is spent.
Only through true empowerment can residents in communities disproportionately affected by health inequities take ownership of their health. Since many communities with low civic engagement have been historically disempowered, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department aims to create a hyper-local and authentic civic engagement opportunity with visible results. To achieve this goal, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department sees PB as an innovative, democratic process in which community members have the authority and resources to respond rapidly and directly to the root causes of their health problems, reduce the scale and duration of problems, and through their participation improve feelings of connectedness and well-being by participating. With funding from PHNCI, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has initiated PB projects in three schools in Eastside Tacoma, one of Pierce County’s highest-need communities.For these PB projects, organizers first identified students not normally empowered with leadership opportunities to guide the PB process. Next, these students formed advisory groups to plan how to communicate about this project to their school; harvest ideas about how to improve the school from as many students as possible; and synthesize and prioritize the hundreds of submitted ideas into 6-10 final voting options. Finally, the PB projects culminated with a student vote to choose options they would fund. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department learned that having students lead this process from start to finish is an important lesson that extends beyond this project.
Research confirms what we see in communities today, which is a strong link between civic engagement and the health outcomes of a community. Empowering students to choose the best way to plan and spend these funds—even if their proposals aren’t linked directly to health—is the best way to support them taking ownership. They will be invested in leading changes in their communities for them to be healthy.
Jacques Colon, Health Equity Coordinator, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department
At Giaudrone Middle School, students recently held their vote and decided to create a new student lounge they call the Husky Lounge. Students talked about the need to have a space for students who feel stressed out from life at home to relax, a place to talk through problems rather than skipping school or making other bad decisions, and their desire to take ownership of the school as their own.Meanwhile, at Lincoln High School, the connection between this project and long-term civic engagement is quite clear. Thanks to a partnership with the Pierce County Auditor, students at Lincoln will get to have an authentic election experience before they are old enough to vote. The Auditor will print the voting ballots using county ballot templates, and students will then be able to place those ballots in official mailing envelopes and drop them in an official ballot box that will be brought to the school. A student-led voter registration drive will precede the vote, and the week’s events will culminate with a group of students taking a field trip to the County Elections Headquarters to witness the voting counting process from the inside.
Visit the Tacoma Public Schools website for progress on the PB processes implemented, and be sure to subscribe to our e-newsletter to stay up-to-date on activities from Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and our other innovation grantees.