Public art project is reimagining Philly’s budget, one poster at a time

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Municipal budgets are often dense and inaccessible. A new project in Philadelphia, however, uses art to engage residents on the full potential of city funds.

Small yellow and green posters have been popping up across Philadelphia over the past year. Stuck on the walls and grouped together, they call for change, with messages such as: “Care not cops”, “Fund PHL Arts”, “Invest in Communities” or “Fund Safe and Clean Parks”.

The posters are part of a public art installation, “A People’s Budget,” produced by Mural Arts Philadelphia and framed around a simple question: how can art be used to engage community members in reimagining the way the city spends its money?

Phoebe Bachman, artist and host of this project, says it was born out of conversations sparked by police protests in 2020.

“We started talking about what this negotiation process looks like, she says. “Do you fund, develop, or invest more money in the community in other ways for public libraries or educational programs?”

A People’s Budget was created to invite community members to contribute their requests and ideas for a city budget that more accurately reflects the needs of Philadelphians. In 2021, the project installed its first piece of public art and held a series of city budget workshops. For the second year of the project, however, the group decided to expand.

They tapped four local artists in early 2022 – Blanche Brown, Maio Chao, Samantha Rise and Eugenio Salas – to rethink the city budget through five main themes: how we trade relationships; protect our city; learn and grow; living in shared spaces; and to govern and administer.

The artists then worked collectively to research different sections of the budget through these different perspectives. They learned about the budget process and worked with several local organizations and city departments such as the Amistad Law Project, Council Member Kendra Brooks’ office, and the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability.

Written in English and Spanish, the more than 30 posters were distributed at events, demonstrations and other gatherings throughout the year. Residents are also encouraged to submit their own dreams for the city budget that may appear in future printouts. The posters are also pasted up in more than six neighborhoods – including Kensington, Nicetown and West Philly – still presented as a collective mural, rather than focusing on a single cause.

“No request is isolated from the others, says Rise, whose posters focus on the public school system. “A thorough reinvestment in the community will strengthen.”

“We recognize that there are many neighborhoods with historic divestment in Philadelphia that we need to prioritize for city funding,” adds Bachman, “but this needs to be a citywide advocacy effort. to work.”

Rise says the posters help break down the isolation individuals may feel due to their lack of participation in the budget process and offer some hope in seeing that others also feel detached but have solutions. possible.

“What we tried to do was take advantage of the striking visuals and spaces to stop and savor,” says Rise. “Let’s not draw our attention only to the problems, because we can often shut down, feel overwhelmed or helpless when confronted with the magnitude of the problem.”

The posters also highlighted how many resources already exist within Philadelphia communities. “I think we underestimate so much of the infrastructure and the relationships and the kinds of experts that we have in our communities,” she says.

On May 14, A People’s Budget held a festival at the Kingsessing Rec Center where people came to discuss their concerns. Local group Mercado de Latinas provided live translation and free lunches which were served on interactive mats where people could write their demands for the city budget, play a word-scanning game to understand how the budget, or even write their own tax receipt. what the city owes them for what they pay in taxes.

The project comes as a number of cities are having conversations about participatory budgeting. New York City recently expanded a participatory budgeting pilot program, and Philadelphia launched its own pilot in late 2020 with plans to spend $1 million on capital projects. Mayor Jim Kenny said in the press release issued at the time that “our budgets must reflect a commitment to creating a more equitable Philadelphia, where race, ethnicity, disability, gender, identity gender, sexual orientation, income or neighborhood are not a determinant of success or life outcome.

However, Bachman thinks a million dollars isn’t enough to make a significant impact. “They would have to do a lot of work to get this off the ground and put a lot more money into it,” she says.

Although the People’s Budget has focused on education and community engagement, Bachman hopes this will affect the budget. She says some city council members were very supportive and other city officials were surprised but receptive to the ideas reflected in the posters.

“Will be [the ideas] to be actually incorporated? I don’t know,” she said. “The budget process is always a negotiation. We are hopeful, and the work is to continue to grow year after year. And I hope someone is listening.

At least Rise says the campaign is sparking important conversations and raising awareness. It was also encouraging for her to see people taking pictures of the public murals and to see the posters on people’s windows all over town.

“I think part of encouraging people inside the participatory process is the goal of empowerment,” Rise says. “We wanted to provide a framework where people could engage with the budget from a place where it felt accessible and where they felt they had the agency to not just say what we need to survive , but more than we deserve to live life richly and fully.”

Connie Aitcheson is a freelance writer based between Florida and Kingston, Jamaica. She worked for many years at Sports Illustrated and has been published in Essence, PTSD Journal, Cosmopolitan and espnw.com.

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