Education scholar at Brown sparks civic engagement in Central Falls and Providence

News from Brown

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — American voters have the power to set town and school budgets, support or strike down major improvement projects and choose the representatives who control local purse strings. But they rarely get to weigh in on the finer details — whether a year’s town budget increase will fund road improvements or expanded public transit, for example, or whether a new school bond will support higher teacher salaries or additional teachers.

In recent years, an education scholar at Brown University began to wonder: If Americans could weigh in on the minutiae of town and school budgets, instead of letting elected officials speak for them, what would they say?

Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor within Brown’s Department of Education and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, has spent the last two years working with Providence-area schools and governments to answer that question. Through a series of projects launched in collaboration with local representatives and school leaders, Collins is demonstrating the power of “participatory budgeting” — a democratic process that asks community members to decide via conversations and deliberations how to spend part of a public budget.

“As a society, we’ve gotten very good at expressing our individual needs, but we’re not as adept at identifying our collective needs,” Collins said. “That’s leading people to pursue their own interests ahead of what’s good for everyone. But democracy isn’t about one person being loud — it’s about how we, as a collective, can bring our diverse ideas, experiences and backgrounds to the table, combine them and use them to solve problems we’re all experiencing.”


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