Empowered Participation: What Cities (including Flint) Can do to Foster Meaningful Participation

This post was originally published in FNU’s Our Community, Our Voice newspaper. It is reprinted here with permission.  To date, most of my work has focused on how local governments and states are becoming less participatory as a result of budget cuts and resource shortfalls.  These fiscal pressures are compounded by popular movements that call for “less government” or “smaller government” in favor of public-private partnerships and the contracting of the public services to private entities, often compromising (or eliminating) time-consuming deliberative and participatory processes. My research has examined how community members respond when their voices are silenced or discredited by local and state leaders. In Flint, this included the elimination of citizen advisory councils and local ombudsman’s offices (among other things) under municipal takeover. When confronted with disproportionate policy burdens (perceived or actual), these community members sought out alternative forms of engagement. They organized coalitions of activists and community residents. They led recall petitions. They organized demonstrations, protests, and actions at the local, state, and national levels. When pathways for participation were eliminated, community activists found alternative means of making their voices heard. Should this be necessary? This is outside the scope of this article. But the message is important: people want to be involved and there should be mechanisms for meaningful engagement. What then is the alternative to this scenario? What might a program that fosters participation and raises up the voices of residents look like? There is a lot written about participatory governance in both theoretical and practical terms. Here, I will focus on a one practical model, participatory budgeting, that may be relevant in Flint,...

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover: Pt. III

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover: Final Thoughts (this blog post was originally published in Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission). I have been warned by numerous scholars, and practitioners alike, to keep an open mind about the use of municipal takeovers. These policies are not designed, they have argued, with malicious intent. Instead, they offer, these policies are intended to help fiscally distressed municipalities deal with the reality that they are facing municipal bankruptcy or dissolution. In other words, would I rather see these cities go bankrupt? Would it be better that the state did nothing and watched the city grow poorer and poorer? No! That does not, however, mean that municipal takeover policies should go unquestioned. The impact of these policies are real—and deserve scrutiny. While I argue that the burdens placed on residents through the implementation of municipal takeover policies outweigh the benefits of fiscal stability, the crux of my research centers on the political impact of municipal takeovers: How local government—and governance—was restructured, how communities responded, and why? As noted in my previous article, my research examines who had access to decision making and who was left out under emergency management. I look at how the policy allocated both benefits and burdens and how people interpreted policy directives. Ultimately, my research offers an explanation for why Flint residents did not “back down” or “shut up,” when the state intervened to ostensibly fix Flint’s finances and instead sought alternative ways of engaging in local politics. I find that the differential allocation of benefits and burdens was interpreted by many as rewarding the...

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover, Pt. 2

This piece was originally published in Flint Neighborhoods United’s Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission. Municipal takeover policies, known in Michigan as the “emergency manager laws,” claim to eschew politics. These policies, which rest on the principle that local government is broken, suspend local democracy in an attempt to fix local fiscal problems. Fear of municipal bankruptcy, economic contagion, and credit downgrades are among the most common motivations for intervening in local municipal affairs. For Flint, the city’s budget deficit was the expressed reason for its takeover. States have a fiduciary responsibility to guarantee that municipalities meet their obligation to provide services to the public. When faced with on-going fiscal problems, some proponents argue that strong state interventions are necessary “in the interest of efficiency”. From an economic-stability perspective, municipal takeovers are considered to be the best alternative when compared to municipal bankruptcy or doing nothing. State interventions by emergency managers are designed to be temporary and quick, yet often the typical processes of deliberation (or checks and balances) be damned. In a 2012 op-ed in the MLive, Governor Snyder defended Michigan’s municipal takeover policy. He wrote, “It’s not about takeovers or control. It’s about helping communities and schools get back on solid financial footing and adapt to changing circumstances and fiscal realities.” Addressing the concerns of public workers, the Governor stated, “It’s not about voiding contracts or circumventing collective bargaining, but about ensuring fair contracts and benefits while recognizing that the past status quo simply isn’t sustainable anymore.”  And his answer to citizens deeply worried about the loss of their voting franchise, he offered...

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover, Pt. 1

This piece was originally published in Flint Neighborhoods United’s Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission. In the summer of 2015, months before the city of Flint made national, rather international, headlines for the water crisis, I began my fieldwork in Flint. I was there to conduct research on the state’s takeover of Flint, under the now infamous “PA 4”. I wanted to understand the political impact of the takeover.  At the time, I was a PhD candidate at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey studying public policy and administration with a focus on community development and urban politics. During my time in Flint, I met (and interviewed) many Flint residents. I rented rooms and apartments in different Flint neighborhoods. I ate at local restaurants and shopped at the Flint Farmers market. By spending time in the city and attending community events, I began to build connections with members of the Flint community. When my interviews ended and my dissertation was complete, I did not cut ties. Instead, I made a personal and professional commitment to stay involved. I made a commitment to share what I learned with whomever will listen and advocate for policy change wherever I can. This is how I came to writing this article for Our Community, Our Voice. In fact, this is the first in a series of pieces about what I learned. First, why Flint? It is a question that I am asked often. First, let me start off by saying that I am originally from Michigan- Grand Rapids to be exact. I studied at Grand Valley State University (first...

A Day Without a Woman: International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. It is a day dedicate to celebrate the successes and achievement of women and gender non-conforming people. It is a day dedicated to action. (It also happens to be a day with a long history, with roots in the 1908 women’s march in NYC and official designation as International Women’s Day by the UN in 1975). Today–March 8, 2017– is also that day that the Women’s March on Washington organizers called for a general strike: “a day without a woman.” Thus, today I am striking. I will not be going into the office, I have arranged to Skype in for an important meeting. I will wear red for the call/ meeting. I will not buy anything today, but I will organize the massive amount of Girl Scout cookies that will be dispersed to my troop tomorrow. I will cook. I will read to my kids at night (maybe from their new book: Rad American Women A-Z) I will use this time to write letters to my elected officials. I finish a paper on feminist activism (ok, this is working…). I will make a donation. I will use my privilege on this day to call attention to the important, yet undervalued, role of women in our economy and in our society through my absence, my spending choices, and my writing. I will use my privilege to challenge systems that perpetuate my privilege. But, as many have noted, striking looks different to different people. Some women–including women business owners–have vowed to work today at their women-owned places of employment open as their own form of protest. Some women work in...