Seattle City Council central staff and representatives from King County Equity Now (KCEN) joined forces during Monday’s council meeting to provide a progress update on the Black Brilliance Research Project, a city-funded effort by nine community organizations to distill the public safety and community development priorities of marginalized communities in Seattle, particularly Black communities. The research is supposed to be the first step toward a citywide participatory budgeting process, which will shape how the city spends nearly $30 million the council set aside for investments in community safety projects in the 2021 city budget.
Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose office oversees the $3 million contract that funds the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP), prefaced the presentation by drawing a line between the project and the upcoming participatory budgeting process. “This is not a presentation about the participatory budgeting process,” she said, preempting any discussion of the project’s ultimate goal.
After months of preparation, the concrete details of the participatory budgeting process are still hazy; meanwhile, the deadline for transitioning from the Black Brilliance Research Project to the participatory budgeting process is approaching.
KCEN has spent the last five months advertising the BBRP as the vital first step toward “true community safety”: Its product, they maintain, will be a set of problems and priorities that Seattle’s public safety budget should address. To reach that end, KCEN has spearheaded a research process that has involved paying more than 100 community-based researchers to conduct surveys and interviews, produce photography projects, and host podcasts that address themes of public safety and community health. (The organizations that make up the BBRP are subcontractors to the nonprofit Freedom Project Washington, which is serving as the fiscal sponsor for the project.)
But after months of preparation, the concrete details of the participatory budgeting process are still hazy; meanwhile, the deadline for transitioning from the Black Brilliance Research Project to the participatory budgeting process is approaching.
The Black Brilliance Research Project began last September, guided by the Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Reinvestment that KCEN co-produced with the Decriminalize Seattle coalition in the wake of last summer’s protests against police violence and calls to defund the Seattle Police Department. The Blueprint specified that the research would focus on defining “what health and safety actually means, including (but not limited to) alternatives to policing”; it also outlined an ambitious plan to spend roughly $1.2 million to cover the immediate needs of research participants, including transportation and childcare, as well as direct cash assistance. According to the Blueprint, the research project’s final product would be a “road map for how to engage in an accessible and equity-centered” participatory budgeting process by 2021.
The city contract that supports the research, as well as the ordinance appropriating money for the project, set broad deliverables for the BBRP. Aside from a work plan, a community needs assessment, and three data-driven presentations before the council, the contract asks KCEN to produce a “community participatory budget process” focused on public safety and a road map to repeat that process in the future.
Based on Monday’s presentation, as well as the 1,045-page research report that KCEN released last Friday, most of the researchers’ work has gone into interviews, focus groups and surveys—some to assess barriers to civic engagement, some about policing and the criminal justice system, some about mental health, housing and education, and others that posed open-ended questions about public safety.
In a presentation to the city council, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze distilled those suggestions into the same high-level priorities for public safety spending that KCEN has identified in presentations and reports since September
In the work plan they submitted to the council in November, KCEN wrote that all of the research would seek to answer three questions: “What creates true community safety, what creates true community health, [and] what do we need for our communities to thrive?”
While the qualitative data they’ve gathered can be a valuable guide when weighing budget priorities, the data collection itself has some holes: Elderly people, as well as Latinx and Asian American communities, are noticeably underrepresented among the 4,000 people who have participated in the research so far. Additionally, while KCEN has translated its online surveys into more than a dozen languages, the BBRP’s research teams only include one Spanish-speaking member, one Chinese-speaking member, one member who speaks Amharic and Oromo, and no members who speak Vietnamese, Khmer, or Tagalog. (The primary non-English language spoken by researchers, by far, is Somali.)
The researchers’ expanding collection of qualitative data includes hundreds of suggestions for city investments in public safety or community well-being. Some, like investments in arts education for young people, are relatively broad. Others, like the suggestion of a city program to transform vacant buildings into affordable housing, are more specific.
In their presentation to council, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze distilled those suggestions into the same high-level priorities for public safety spending that KCEN has identified in presentations and reports since September: housing and physical spaces (including rapid re-housing, cultural centers, and retail spaces); “culturally specific” mental health care services; mentorship and job training for young people; “economic development,” including financial support for Black business owners and home buyers; and non-police crisis response. Glaze told the council that the research findings were adding greater nuance to those priorities; they brought up emergency housing for domestic violence survivors as a more specific priority within the “housing” category.
The BBRP research teams won’t be responsible for collecting specific project proposals that could be funded through the participatory budgeting process, but KCEN’s research report gestured toward a handful of potential ideas. Among them is The Silent Task Force, which the report describes as “part of a network of providers of an ‘Underground Railroad’ style intervention and support program for addressing domestic violence” that involves crisis mediators and safe houses; the Silent Task Force is also one of the groups fielding a research team for the BBRP. (The Silent Task Force research team also contributed a section to the report, but the case study of their organization appeared in a section authored by KCEN).
Other potential investments that appeared in the report aren’t tied to any existing organization, but could be routed through a variety of existing nonprofits or city agencies. Those recommendations include “neighborhood-based” crisis response teams, as well as a “displacement fund” for property and small business owners facing gentrification. Other proposals, like universal broadband or a $1 billion fund to “help the Black community acquire property and support economic development,” wouldn’t be feasible within the budget that will be allocated through participatory budgeting.
Neither the report nor the presentation gave much insight into the day-to-day operations of the BBRP’s research teams or the project’s expenditures. For instance, in their presentation on Monday, KCEN didn’t update the council on efforts to distribute Wi-Fi hotspots or computers to address barriers to participation in online surveys or the participatory budgeting process.
Invoices and payroll data obtained by PubliCola through a records request don’t give any indication that KCEN had purchased any of that hardware by December. There are also no financial records to demonstrate that KCEN has paid those who participated in its surveys, interviews and focus groups, despite assurances that they would compensate participants for their contributions to the project.
The invoices PubliCola reviewed include one unexpected expenditure: Two payments, totaling $18,750, to an interfaith pacifist organization in Philadelphia to develop a documentary, apparently in partnership with the research team from Black Trans Prayer Book. (In addition, the costs for the documentary include an $1,875 “fiscal sponsor fee” to the Freedom Project.) According to KCEN’s report, Black Trans Prayer Book will release the documentary, which will profile Black Trans, nonbinary and gender non-conforming people “reclaiming spirituality” in a variety of religious spaces, in 2022.
Each organization pays its researchers and administrators a living wage—between $30 and $38.50 an hour—and many also receive medical insurance.
The vast majority of the project’s budget goes toward the more than 100 research staff and administrators distributed between the nine organizations involved in the BBRP. Freedom Project Washington, the fiscal sponsor, is also its own subcontractor and hired more researchers in the first months of the project than any other individual organization. As KCEN has emphasized in past presentations, each organization pays its researchers a living wage—at least $30 an hour, according to KCEN’s report. Invoices and wage data that PubliCola reviewed confirm that researchers and administrators received between $30 and $38.50 an hour, and many also receive medical insurance.
Meanwhile, the participatory budgeting process is looming on the horizon. KCEN’s report estimates that Seattle residents will begin submitting proposals for city investments—a proposal to fund an alternative emergency response program, for instance—as early as February 16.
But it isn’t clear that the BBRP has laid the foundations for that process to begin this month. At a presentation to council last December, KCEN spokespeople said that the structure and rules for the participatory budgeting process would be in the hands of a “steering committee,” which would include formerly incarcerated people, Black women, trans or non-binary people, and people with disabilities, among other marginalized groups. That steering committee doesn’t exist yet; the new report specifies that a to-be-formed “citizen jury” will choose the committee’s members from a pool of candidates.
According to the new report, city council members will play a “support role” in the process by, among other things, serving as “spokespeople” for the endeavor and tracking the implementation of the winning project proposals.
Candidates for both the citizen jury and steering committee need to apply for the positions. Those applications aren’t open yet, though Glaze told the council that KCEN has started identifying potential candidates. While most of the jury’s membership will be chosen using a random sample of applicants, it will also include members from the BBRP research teams and one city employee.
The role of the city council and city agencies in the participatory budgeting process is still coming into focus. According to the new report, council members will play a “support role” in the process by, among other things, serving as “spokespeople” for the endeavor and tracking the implementation of the winning project proposals. Both city council and one or more city departments will also provide technical guidance during the project development stage, namely in the form of “feasibility assessments” and cost estimates. At their December presentation before council, KCEN representatives named some possible city partners—including the Office of Planning and Community Development—but that detail of the plan remains unresolved.
Once the BBRP’s leadership solidifies the makeup of the steering committee and the identities of their city partners, the participatory budgeting process can begin in earnest. It will almost certainly not start in mid-February: during their presentation to council, Glaze noted that KCEN doesn’t expect to submit its final report to council until February 19, and they don’t expect to make their final presentation before the council—the last deliverable in their contract—until February 26.
After that, the council will be able to make available the $30 million it set aside in the 2021 budget to fund the participatory budgeting process. Of that total, $1 million will pay for the idea collection, project development, and polling process itself; $500,000 will pay for a new crisis response app; and the remaining $28.5 million will pay for the winning projects. Though the rules of or method for voting won’t be set until the steering committee forms, KCEN’s report suggests that anyone over the age of 10 who lives or works in Seattle will be able to propose projects and vote on proposals.
But, as council central staff member Amy Gore cautioned, the council hasn’t laid the groundwork for the process to repeat itself next year. Meanwhile, as Crosscut reported last Wednesday, the Washington State Auditor is examining the council’s contract with Freedom Project because of possible abnormalities in the award process.