Education scholar at Brown sparks civic engagement in Central Falls and Providence

In a series of recent collaborations with local cities and schools, Jonathan Collins has shown how “participatory budgeting” can empower and engage people whose voices are often excluded from conversations about public spending.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — American voters have the power to set town and school budgets, support or strike down major improvement projects and choose the representatives who control local purse strings. But they rarely get to weigh in on the finer details — whether a year’s town budget increase will fund road improvements or expanded public transit, for example, or whether a new school bond will support higher teacher salaries or additional teachers.

In recent years, an education scholar at Brown University began to wonder: If Americans could weigh in on the minutiae of town and school budgets, instead of letting elected officials speak for them, what would they say?

Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor within Brown’s Department of Education and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, has spent the last two years working with Providence-area schools and governments to answer that question. Through a series of projects launched in collaboration with local representatives and school leaders, Collins is demonstrating the power of “participatory budgeting” — a democratic process that asks community members to decide via conversations and deliberations how to spend part of a public budget.

“As a society, we’ve gotten very good at expressing our individual needs, but we’re not as adept at identifying our collective needs,” Collins said. “That’s leading people to pursue their own interests ahead of what’s good for everyone. But democracy isn’t about one person being loud — it’s about how we, as a collective, can bring our diverse ideas, experiences and backgrounds to the table, combine them and use them to solve problems we’re all experiencing.”

Collins’ scholarship has long focused on improving civic engagement. In a 2021 study, he found that encouraging dialogue between school board members and the general public helped boost attendance at public meetings and increase the public’s trust in the officials. And with help from a $2 million federal grant, he’s currently developing a curriculum that could improve high school students’ engagement in social studies classes by allowing them to discuss the social issues they care about with sitting members of Congress.

It's no surprise, then, that in the summer of 2021, school leaders in Central Falls, R.I., turned to Collins and his research team to observe and improve long-term civic participation among parents and students there.

Like many hard-hit cities and towns across the United States, Central Falls had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government, and a significant portion of that sum went to schools challenged by chronic absences and teacher shortages amid the pandemic. The district decided to allocate $100,000 to a participatory budgeting project called Voces Con Poder (Voices With Power).

Working with district leaders, Collins sent surveys to every member of the school community, including students and families, asking them how they would use the funds. The surveys generated 240 unique ideas, which they then brought to a group of about 35 students and parents chosen as delegates. Collins' research team, which included undergraduate students at Brown, provided stipends, meals and Spanish translators to the delegates as they met twice a week for eight weeks to curate, evaluate and narrow down ideas, ultimately shaping them into nine structured proposals that all students and parents later voted on. The winning ideas focused on after-school extracurricular programs and an app to improve communications between students, parents, teachers and staff about school safety concerns. 

Collins said the summer-long process did far more than simply allow students and parents to choose where funds could be directed. It also changed participants’ perspectives of the local power landscape.

“That’s key to having long-term civic participation,” he said. “Individuals must believe that people in their same position have the power to improve and change conditions. We knew this would offer us a really exciting opportunity to explore the extent to which democratic innovation strategies are useful in improving the school experience, particularly for students in communities of color.” 

‘True, mass democracy’

Inspired by the success of Voces Con Poder in 2021, Central Falls’ city council and mayor are now working with Collins on another participatory budgeting program called Next Door Nation. The program aims to increase access to transportation for the elderly and those who are disabled, with funds from Central Falls’ public budget and a grant from Centreville Bank.

“One downside of broader participatory budgeting processes is that they often focus on priorities that rise to the top,” Collins said. “That makes sense most of the time: It’s important to serve the public as a whole and help as many people as possible. But sometimes that means that folks with more specialized concerns can get pushed to the margins. Next Door Nation is a project that squarely addresses a very specific group of marginalized people.”

The project started in March with an idea survey and an appointed slate of delegates who reflected the diversity of Central Falls’ communities of elderly and disabled individuals. It will soon conclude with a public vote, which could result in anything from new sidewalk construction to expanded bus routes to new bus stops — all of which could increase access to transportation for thousands of city residents who are elderly or disabled.

Collins also took the lessons he learned from Voces Con Poder to a middle school in Providence — where, with grant funds from the Spencer Foundation, he spent the 2021-22 academic year exploring a new kind of participatory budgeting model.

“In Central Falls, they took ideas from the public, and they selected a subset of delegates or representatives who then turned those broad ideas into concrete proposals, which the public ultimately voted on,” Collins said. “Moving forward, I wanted to remove the representative model and instead try true, mass democracy.”

Democracy isn’t about one person being loud — it’s about how we, as a collective, can bring our diverse ideas, experiences and backgrounds to the table, combine them and use them to solve problems we’re all experiencing.

Jonathan Collins Assistant professor of education and international and public affairs
headshot of Jonathan Collins

Last fall, Collins and his research team first visited the local Providence middle school — the identity is confidential due to some of the information students shared as part of the process — to brief them on how participatory budgeting works.

“I told them, ‘The school is getting this grant, and you’ll decide how the grant gets used,’” Collins said. “They stared at me like I had six eyeballs.”

After a few weeks, students embraced their decision-making power. First, they individually identified through surveys and collaborative activities in the school cafeteria what they saw as the biggest problems facing their school. Then, members of each grade gathered for town hall-style meetings to determine which problems from the surveys and small group discussions rose to the top of their collective priority list. Like voters at a caucus, they debated and persuaded one another in small groups before finally taking a large vote. Ultimately, students voted to use grant funds to renovate several school bathrooms and to create a food seasoning station in the cafeteria that reflected the students’ diverse cultural backgrounds.

“We saw that when we gave these students opportunities to problem-solve together, they landed on things that would benefit the entire student body,” Collins said. “You didn’t see elements of selfishness. You saw them having earnest discussions about what it would take for the student body as a whole to want to get up and go to school in the morning.”

Collins said he believed the experience was both empowering and educational for the students. By deciding how to allocate school funds, they learned more about how school budgeting works. He said early evidence shows that students who participated in the town halls became more knowledgeable about school and district operations — like which level of government gives the most money to schools, and what role the superintendent and education commissioner play — compared to when they were surveyed before all activities and the town hall.  

Collins hopes his experiments in participatory budgeting inspire more schools, districts, towns and even states to involve the public in decisions on spending. He is already looking for ways to scale up the projects in Central Falls and Providence, bringing participatory budgeting to more schools and towns in the metropolitan area.

“I want to have processes like these operating everywhere, especially in places where there are high concentrations of people of color, low-income people, and others whose voices have been marginalized,” Collins said. “It’s so valuable for them to take part in a democratic process that so explicitly prioritizes their voice, one where the people with the fancy titles aren’t doing any of the talking.”