by Lara McCaffrey / Empower San Diego / March 16, 2012
In the upcoming months before the fiscal year’s end, an alliance of like-minded individuals have come together to change the budget conversation in San Diego. The Community Budget Alliance (CBA) has been convening since the beginning of the year to discuss strategies to educate government officials and citizens on what to allocate more money to in order to improve the quality of life in the city. A powerful and influential part of the alliance are members from the San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP). No strangers to the budget issue, SDOP finds that joining forces with CBA aids their mission of helping San Diegans in low income communities stand up and demand more investment from taxpayer money and will help elect politicians who are mindful of where budget money should be spent.
SDOP has been participating in projects to allocate more budget money to communities in need even before formation of the CBA.. “Everything we’ve done has always been about asking the city to make choices about where they spend the public’s money,” says Hannah Gravette, Lead Organizer with SDOP. This time SDOP, along with CBA, will discuss how they can permanently protect cores services vital to livelihood of taxpayers in poor neighborhoods.
SDOP has witnessed the same pattern unfold year after year: more budget money is allocated to wealthier neighborhoods instead of those in need. Why is this?
“Historically, or in the past, we’ve seen that these communities have played too little of a role and really there has been an extensive public process,” says Laura Schreiner, a community organizer with SDOP. “Community meetings and council meetings that are during the day when a lot of working folks can’t participate to review budget priorities for the city… And we’ve seen that the average working person with an interest in the budget and the outcomes actually doesn’t have too many opportunities to engage in that conversation to make sure those outcomes reflect what the community needs”.
The lack of participation by the poorer neighborhoods is consistent with the lack of resources the city is willing to provide them. The greatest participation in city council meetings are from those wealthy neighborhoods. As a result, those are the communities that are receiving the most attention. As a result, their communities have received the most attention.
How do we get more San Diegans to participate in the budget decision making process? In past attempts to encourage civic engagement, SDOP’s strategy has been to motivate people to fight for values upheld in religion. For example, many Christian faiths consider family and children important. These values translate to the political sphere easily. The quality of family and youth’s lives can be improved if members from one or more of their 29 member congregations encourage the City to build better parks and support after school programs.
More strategies for getting San Diegans involved in budget decisions will be discussed as CBA meetings progress. Schreiner, who sits on the Steering Committee, says that most recent meetings have consisted of articulating shared values, identifying city council meetings to be present at and looking at the budget timeline.
SDOP finds that being apart of CBA has opened their mind to new ideas and increased the likelihood of their mission’s progress. “I think it’s useful to have more folks brought into the conversation and that’s been eye opening for me,” Shreiner says. “For us, it’s more allies. We might have different priorities or what different issues we think we should tackle, but all in all, we’re working for the same city. So it’s power in numbers.”
Tackling the entire budget conversation is a hefty task–even for an alliance of San Diego’s best activists. However, Schreiner and Gravette are positive that CBA will make strides before the end of the fiscal year in June. Gravette points out that the current political climate in San Diego will have a part in helping their cause: the mayoral election will be taking place in June and some City Council seats will be up for election as well. Voters affected by CBA will be more inclined to elect politicians that will make wise decisions regarding budget issues.
“There are people in office right now that are making decisions that will affect the budget in June and will be asking voters to vote for them,” says Gravette. “So I think that if voters can be clear about what their priorities are, and if [representatives] want to be reelected or elected to a new office, they’ll have to demonstrate those decisions in the budget. So I think there is an opportunity, and people we’ve been talking to are really ready to take advantage of that opportunity.”