By Paul Kiefer
PubliCola has obtained a copy of King County Equity Now’s (KCEN) work plan for the public safety research project that’s intended to lay the groundwork for a participatory budgeting process next year. About $30 million of the $1.5 billion general fund budget is supposed to be allocated using participatory budgeting—a process that enables the public to vote on which projects and priorities they want to fund—next year.
The Seattle City Council finalized a $3 million contract with Freedom Project Washington, a nonprofit that offers programs inside and outside prisons to help with reentry and prevent re-incarceration, to fiscally sponsor KCEN’s research last week. With the contract finalized and the work plan submitted, Freedom Project Washington now has access to the first $250,000 of that total. Freedom Project Washington is allowed to subcontract with other groups to conduct parallel research. Currently, though, KCEN is the group’s only subcontractor.
The work plan offers the most detailed glimpse yet into the workings of the Black Brilliance Research Project, which KCEN launched in mid-September. KCEN has hired more than 100 paid researchers—largely Black—who will work until at least next spring and present findings from their research to the council twice: once in December and again in the first quarter of 2021.
The work plan includes a step-by-step guide for the new researchers, for whom KCEN hopes the experience will be an “opportunity for personal and community growth.” The instructions give the researchers significant leeway in devising their own research areas, questions and methods.
Broadly, the researchers are responsible for studying the “community safety” and “community health” priorities of specific demographic groups; the work plan names “Afro-Latinx people who use wheelchairs” or “second-generation Somali youth” as examples of possible focus areas. The work plan also outlines possible methods for answering research questions: for instance, to study the effectiveness of community response teams as an alternative to 911 responders, the work plan suggests that researchers could measure changes in 911 use after the establishment of a community response team.
In September, KCEN launched an online survey, available in 15 languages, to determine what kind of barriers exist for potential research participants. Since September, 850 people have taken the survey: over half of the respondents have been Black, and a similar proportion have been younger than 34. According to the survey’s findings, more than half of potential participants would need help paying for gas to attend research sessions, roughly half requested help paying for groceries, and more than a third requested access to high-speed internet, laptops or tablets.
Both the survey and the group’s tentative budget reflect an assumption that much of the research would take place at in-person community meetings and focus groups. According to the “Blueprint for Divestment/Community Reinvestment” released by KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle last summer, the group intended to spend more than $200,000 on transportation and childcare to help research participants attend in-person meetings (though those dollars could also be used to provide childcare for participants taking online surveys).
In a conversation with PubliCola, a KCEN spokesperson noted that they intend to spend a sizeable portion of the contract dollars to improve internet and computer access for potential research participants, which would become essential if the Black Brilliance Research Project shifts to an online-only model.
The work plan does not include a clear explanation of how the research findings will inform the structure of next year’s participatory budgeting process, but it does include a list of preliminary recommendations for changes to the city’s budget priorities, based on feedback from respondents to the project’s surveys and from interviews with Black residents. These priorities include reducing the size of the Seattle Police Department, more investment in community-based alternatives to policing, and less spending on “government responses to harm,” such as social workers employed by the city.