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.