by Guy Oron
Seattle’s Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) — the largest Black-led community research project in the world — released its nearly 1,300-page final report on Friday, Feb. 26. The project was born out of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Due to pressure from the Defund SPD campaign organized by Black, Brown, and Indigenous community leaders and activists, the Seattle City Council set aside funds, including diverting some money away from the police department, to fund the research project. This research will inform the creation of a participatory budgeting process which would allow all Seattle community members over 10 years old to have a say in how almost $30 million is allocated to communities in the city.
The BBRP involved over 100 paid researchers and another 100 volunteers, consisting of a number of different teams working with different communities. Some of the organizations involved include Black Trans Prayer Book, East African Community Services, Freedom Project, and The Silent Task Force. The research project asked community members three questions: What creates true community health? What creates true community safety? And what do they need to thrive?
The research project followed a model called participatory action research, in which both researchers and participants from the community being researched actively shape the process and come up with solutions. In addition to traditional quantitative and academic methodologies, the project employed methods such as interviews, podcasts, social media posts, videos, and artwork to reach out to community members, get their responses, and communicate updates about the research process and findings.
In a typical week, research teams not only conducted the field research but also held teach-ins, office hours, check-in meetings, workshops, and time to hang out and get to know each other. According to BBRP co-lead LéTania Severe, this relational approach was crucial to the success of the project.
“The difference between having this research done out in community versus within the city is the amount of time and care that was taken to really build relationships with each of the researchers, and then with the communities that they are researching, and then the community which is watching us do this research,” said Severe.
BBRP co-lead Shaun Glaze said the participatory research process helped recognize and uplift community members’ leadership and expertise, which might be otherwise ignored.
“It has been such a treasure to create spaces together where people can try new things, can test out their ideas and can learn that they have always had the expertise, wisdom, and leadership necessary to do it and [that] they just haven’t been recognized for it. And just see what happens when you are able to support shining that light on someone else’s brilliance and just see them really shine and bloom has been really cool,” said Glaze.
However, the project didn’t go forward without challenges. Kevin Schofield, writing at the blog Seattle City Council Insight, questioned the process behind the City Council’s awarding of a $3 million research contract. And a split between some of the original leaders of the research project has stirred controversy. But despite the setback, BBRP moved forward to complete its critical work. Glaze and Severe said that misleading news reporting on the BBRP and subsequent City Councilmembers’ decisions to create additional requirements in response to that reporting slowed down the research progress.
“We had a couple of examples where there were a few reporters who have put out stories talking about the report that we put together and have said things like ‘it doesn’t contain details,’ or ‘it’s too vague or not detailed enough.’ Meanwhile, it’s like are you kidding me? We have produced something that is orders of magnitude more detailed than is typically required of literally any research consultant who has ever done research for the City,” said Glaze.
Glaze and Severe also said that they faced double standards which Black people and People of Color often face in professional settings. “As a Person of Color, as a Black person, I’m very used to what happens when people move the goalpost. They’ll say, ‘Alright, you just have to do this and you’re good.’ And so you not only do that, but you go a little bit farther above and beyond, so you’re definitely good, and then they’ll move the goalpost again,” said Glaze. Glaze and Severe say this repeated addition of new requirements caused a lot of frustration for the research team. “Honestly, the goalpost was moved no less than four times in the beginning,” said Severe.
Severe said that these added obstacles were also a result of the political context of the research project. “The project was very politicized from the beginning,” said Severe, “coming out of the uprising in defence of Black lives and a call for defunding the police, having folks in the streets.”
The BBRP final report suggests that the participatory budgeting process allocate investments to five focus areas: housing and physical space, mental health, youth and children, crisis response and wellness, and economic development.
In addition, the report recommends five principles for policy making. These include stopping state violence and harm from police and other institutions; creating inclusive policies which value the lived experiences of community members; following Black leadership and expertise; paying community members fairly for their knowledge, labor and creativity; and investing in solutions which address root causes of violence and oppression.
Now that the final BBRP report has been released, the next step in the participatory budgeting process will be to assign a steering committee and working groups that will manage the process. The working groups, operating under the steering committee, are designed to make sure all communities have an opportunity to engage with the budgeting process and that voices from people who are most likely to be harmed or killed by systemic racism and violence are centered.
According to the report, the City will be collecting ideas between March 7 and April 24 on projects to be funded. These ideas will then be finalized and voted on between July 12 and August 16, with project funding and implementation happening in the final third of the year. The report also suggests that eligible voters include not just Seattle residents but “anyone who lives, works, worships, studies, accesses services, or plays in Seattle.”
District 2 Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, a key supporter of the project and chair of the Community Economic Development Committee that received the report, says that there is precedent of the city government facilitating participatory budgeting processes but never at such a large scale.
“We already do participatory budgeting as a city. It’s been relatively small. What we’re trying to do with this project is really scale that up,” said Morales.
Morales is hopeful that the participatory budgeting process has real potential to shift power dynamics in the city. “It’s also a really exciting opportunity to increase civic engagement and really shift power,” she said. “This is about shifting decision making, shifting access to resources to [the] community, which is what repairing the harm to Black and Brown communities needs.”
Guy Oron is a Seattle-based writer and journalist. His writing has been featured in the Nation, South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.
Featured Image: Five focus areas in the Black Brilliance Research Project report released on Friday, Feb. 26. Image courtesy of BBRP.
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