As Black-Led Community Research Project Kicks Off, So Does Mayoral Task Force Charged with Allocating $100 Million to BIPOC Communities

Screen Shot from King County Equity Now press conference

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that King County Equity Now says the group will hire some non-Black researchers for paid positions, in addition to volunteer researchers.

By Paul Kiefer and Erica C. Barnett

On Monday afternoon, members of the King County Equity Now (KCEN) coalition’s research team held a press conference to discuss their progress on a Black-led public safety research project they hope will be supported by a $3 million contract with the Seattle City Council.

Although their remarks revealed little concrete information about the Black Brilliance Project (as the undertaking is now known), one detail is clear: KCEN and its 14 Black-led nonprofit partners see the project as an opportunity to provide financial support and jobs for members of the city’s BIPOC communities, and Black communities in particular, as well as a way to lay the groundwork for a larger public safety-focused participatory budgeting process next year.

That process, said KCEN researcher LéTania Severe, began in earnest last week when the coalition behind the Black Brilliance Project hired 50 researchers, using their own resources to tide the project over until city funding begins to flow. The coalition expects to hire a total of 133 paid researchers representing “the diversity of Black peoples in Seattle,” most of whom will be Black youth. 

Severe added that KCEN hopes to provide those researchers “living-wage jobs”; in their email to PubliCola after the press conference, KCEN’s press team expressed hope that the researchers would remain employed past December 2021. Their first task will be figuring out what barriers exist to participation in participatory budgeting, and an online community needs survey focuses on identifying those barriers.

At Monday’s press conference, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze dismissed the mayor’s task force as “cherry-picked by white, wealthy people with access to power,” and therefore a reflection of the mayor’s pre-determined priorities.

The Black Brilliance Project’s outline comes from the “2020 Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Reinvestment,” a document assembled in collaboration by KCEN and the Decriminalize Seattle coalition outlining a $3 million “community-led research” project that would be the first step toward participatory budgeting. (PubliCola wrote about this process last month.)  The city council allocated $3 million for the project in its rebalanced 2020 budget; the mayor’s 2021 budget proposal does not extend the funding beyond 2020.

Although the council’s research contract dollars have not yet reached their team, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze said the coalition “moved forward with promises of seed money and [their] own funds” to pay the new staff. As of early September, the group’s primary source of funds was the Africatown Community Land Trust, although it’s unclear whether the group currently has funding from other sources. According to Severe, KCEN’s organizers have been working as volunteers since the group formed four months ago.

The 2021 city budget process is happening parallel to this work. On Tuesday morning, Durkan released her proposed 2021 budget, which includes $100 million in unallocated funds that will be spent in accordance with recommendations from a special “equitable investment task force” appointed by the mayor. (The money is parked in a budgetary waiting area called Finance General, where it will remain unallocated until the mayor decides how to spend it next year.)

This morning, Durkan called her task force—whose members she has not yet announced—”a form of participatory budgeting” and a “community-driven process” that will drill down on what BIPOC communities want to see in the city budget. Durkan provided several examples of areas where the task force may recommend improvements; none, notably, involved cuts to the police department, a key demand from Decriminalize Seattle, King County Equity Now, and other BIPOC groups during the budget rebalancing process this year.

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“Some time before the end of this year, the task force will come back” with recommendations, Durkan said. “They will be deciding those priorities with community—a broad-based community participation process.”

Durkan said she didn’t consider the work of her task force to be in conflict with the council-funded community research project. “I think those processes could be very complementary. Getting as many young people involved as possible, having community-driven research and the like, is complementary to having other voices coming in and engaging and making decisions collectively about what the future, and the future of that community, could look like with really broad-based investments,” she said.

At Monday’s press conference, Glaze dismissed the mayor’s task force as “cherry-picked by white, wealthy people with access to power,” and therefore a reflection of the mayor’s pre-determined priorities. In their press release after the conference, the KCEN press team also pointed to a recent editorial in the South Seattle Emerald by Choose 180 Director Sean Goode, who declined an invitation to join the mayor’s task force on the grounds that it undercuts direct community input and the ongoing efforts to redirect public safety spending to non-police alternatives.  

But the mayor’s process, which will benefit from technical support from dozens of city staff, will have a jump start on the research project. Her task force is expected to produce specific budget recommendations by next February—in time for a March rebalancing proposal— while the KCEN-led research and participatory budgeting work could last well into next year.

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the legislation that will fund KCEN’s research, told PubliCola that she doesn’t know if KCEN’s research work will wrap up in time to impact spending in the 2021 budget, but said she believes that if the research project isn’t complete in time to “inform the work of the task force” this year, “the goal is that that becomes an annual part of the budgeting process. So if it doesn’t inform the task force by February, it will hopefully continue to inform the council” in future budgets.

“Getting as many young people involved as possible, having community-driven research and the like, is complementary to having other voices coming in and engaging and making decisions collectively about what the future, and the future of that community, could look like with really broad-based investments.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan

Of the $3 million the council plans to allocate, KCEN expects to spend nearly $1 million on direct cash assistance to their target communities, as well as on childcare, nutritional support, transportation, and participation incentives for those who take part in their community meetings and focus groups.

In the first episode of the research team’s podcast, Severe explained the reasoning for those expenses. “Folks from the government come in[to BIPOC communities] and want to get expertise from the community,” she said in the recorded conversation with Glaze, “which is really just free information for the government employee who is being paid to talk to you. This is a great opportunity to infuse some money into the community – getting people paid for the time they put into this.”

In response to questions from PubliCola about how KCEN plans to remain accountable for their research spending, the group’s press team said via email that their priority is remaining “accountable to community.” Therefore, they explained, they plan to release regular reports in the form of “weekly videos, podcasts, and community dialogues.” If KCEN receives the council’s research contract dollars as expected, the ordinance providing that funding only requires that the group produce “regular reports and presentations” on their progress; KCEN’s proposed accountability strategy could satisfy that requirement. 

The press team did not answer questions about the application process or the qualifications for the more than 100 youth researcher positions but explained that “anyone who is accountable to community and is curious can be a researcher on our team.” These researchers will be led and supervised by a smaller group of adult researchers from KCEN’s nonprofit partners— including, among others, Freedom Project Washington and East African Community Services, representatives of which appeared at the press conference—whom KCEN intends to pay for their work. 

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