How to flip top-down budgeting: A Q&A with Shaquan Smith

Shaquan Smith

Shaquan Smith knows a thing or two about community engagement. Growing up in Flint, Mich., Shaquan moved to Seattle earlier this year from Detroit, where he worked to educate low-income residents about energy efficiency and build neighborhood resiliency.

In April, he joined the city’s Department of Neighborhoods and coordinate its Your Voice, Your Choice participatory budgeting program. It’s an annual effort to give residents a say in how the city spends $2 million on street and park improvements.

Including a representative mix of Seattleites in the process hasn’t been an easy task. Last year, the program drew criticism over the lack of diversity among the participants who showed up to planning meetings. 

Shaquan’s tackled that problem by appointing volunteer vote champions who encourage their neighbors to cast ballots for their preferred projects. He’s also thinking critically about the balance between online and in-person engagement.

We recently sat down with Shaquan to hear more about his work and how equity-focused community engagement efforts here in Seattle compare with his experiences in Detroit. (This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: How did Your Voice, Your Choice and participatory budgeting come to be with the City of Seattle?

Shaquan: The previous version was the Youth Voice, Youth Choice, which was a pilot of participatory budgeting focused on youth engagement within schools and neighborhoods. That was the start of it, and then from the progress with that it was developed to be a broader program open to the public in 2017: Your Voice, Your Choice.

Anyone 11 years of age or older can participate in this process. The budget is around $2 million, and next year we expected it to be $2.5 million.

Q: Where did the idea for voting champions come from?

Shaquan: It was created last year but revamped this year to increase engagement. If we’re going to call it participatory budgeting and try to flip the top-down narrative about how we do government work in communities, I want residents to be involved every step along the way. So why not have them more focused on the outreach piece?

It shouldn’t always be us that’s going to the communities and telling them, “do this and do that.” I feel like people will gravitate more toward this process if the outreach is done by people they know already. 

It’s been a lot more successful than I thought. I was expecting maybe 10 or 15 people to sign up, but we actually got responses from over 30 people who wanted to be vote champions. It’s been pretty amazing. We have vote champions in each district, and the most have come from our equity-focused districts: 1, 2, and 5. 

Q: You have extensive experience doing community engagement in Detroit. How do the challenges there inform the equity and inclusion work you’re doing here in Seattle?

Shaquan: It is a bit different. Coming from Detroit, it’s a predominantly black city whereas Seattle is predominantly white. Detroit is a city that’s had a lot of economic disadvantages over the years with the struggles of the auto industry, so it’s been at an extreme low for awhile. But in recent years, there’s been a lot of empowerment and grassroots movements within the residents to take ownership of the city.

It’s sort of a flip here. With communities filled with white or caucasian people, the work is more around educating people on their privileges. Seattle is seen as a city that’s very progressive, but there are a lot of issues concerned with race or social equity here. It’s been a learning experience for me because it’s very different from what I’ve been used to.

At the same time, I feel like there is a lot of progress to be made here and there’s a lot of opportunity. More and more people are moving to the city, which is great but also bad at the same time because of gentrification and displacement. So there’s an opportunity to find a solution, not just for Seattle but for other cities around the country.

In Detroit, we all kind of come together. So my focus in Seattle is on finding ways to unite different communities and reach common ground on the issues that affect us all. It doesn’t matter what color or background you’re coming from; if someone’s speeding on your street by a school — anyone’s kids can get hurt by that, no matter what color you are. 

Voting for this round of Your Voice, Your Choice is open until Sept. 30. Find out more and cast your ballot here

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.