PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 3: BeCville: Arts-based Participatory Budgeting

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the second in a series of blogs profiling the USDAC’s Policy Prototype projects, seven projects across the U.S. receiving micro-grants to document their work related to the proposals in “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform.”

Speaking to three different platform points, Matthew Slaats—an artist, producer, Creative Director of PauseLab, and PhD candidate in Civic innovation at the University of Virginia—submitted a Policy Prototype proposal for BeCville. The Charlottesville, VA-based proposal focused on “an arts-based participatory budgeting project that pairs artists and community members together to use the arts as a means to make neighborhood investments based on resident needs.” The proposal explained the relevance of all three platform points:

Platform point 2: Support a culture of Justice and Equity. BeCville is focusing its work on engaging youth, people of color, and low-income neighborhoods that are rich with culture, yet need further investment and support for greater presence.

Platform point 3: Redeem Democracy with Creativity. BeCville is inspired by the international Participatory Budgeting initiative. This not only puts public funds in the hands of residents, but improves civic education to further spur residents’ ability to participate.

Platform point 5: Invest in Belonging and Cultural Citizenship. BeCville creates a mechanism to push back against modes of urban redevelopment that are exclusive and gentrify our neighborhoods. We are placing our investment in community needs and assets to further strengthen the social fabric, all the while building the ability of residents to have a place at the table in all decision-making processes.

Across the U.S., “participatory budgeting” projects are spreading, offering community members a meaningful opportunity to state their own priorities as part of the process of allocating public funds. Artists have played significant roles in local participatory budgeting, notably the Arts & Democracy Project in New York, a USDAC Affiliate. To have participatory budgeting, you need a public entity willing to open the budgeting process to ordinary community members. In the case of BeCville, this first project was supported by matching funds from a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant with the City of Charlottesville, and also the Thomas Jefferson Planning District. As Matthew explained to me, “the project originated as a relationship between the Bridge (a residency project), the Piedmont Arts Council, and the City,” but things changed. After Matthew moved on from the Bridge he continued to oversee the project; and in September 2017, the Piedmont Arts Council closed its doors after 38 years.

Initially the project went door to door to engage residents about community needs.  This was followed by a call for projects that responded to those needs, attracting a slew of ideas and 16 complete proposals. BeCville then conducted a community voting process that garnered 300-plus participants out of about 3,000 residents. In spring 2017, community members who live where the Belmont, Ridge St. and Fifeville neighborhoods converge selected four projects to receive $18,500 in funding (projects are described at greater length on the BeCville site). Two were implemented:

South 1st Garden, supporting a series of creative events and programs based in a new community garden, using the arts to engage local residents.

Memorial to the Unknown, a project to design a memorial to those buried in the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, but whose graves are now unmarked.

Hope remains that the others will be implemented in future, but the demise of the Arts Council and the challenges of getting community-based initiatives through City bureaucracy meant they were postponed. Matthew hopes they can pursue them in the next round:

Imagine Cherry Street with Cherry Trees, a project to plant cherry trees along Cherry and Elliot Avenues to connect the neighborhoods, culminating in a community celebration.

Luminarea, a project to place solar-powered LEDs on power poles along S. 6th St., featuring words collected by residents to address safety and traffic concerns.

I asked Matthew to share something revealed by the final selections from among the 16 proposals. “The neighborhood we're working in,” he told me, “is the last neighborhood in Charlottesville that is under-served, under-realized—which is all a lot of code words for targeted for gentrification. They did a master planning process that focused on economics, and didn't engage the question of what assets and resources were already there. Like many cities, always looking forward and not really understanding what’s present. Our whole project was about trying to find those resources and understand them, and then provide some infrastructure to realize them. The projects that got selected—the garden and especially the monument—those are really rooted in the community, coming from people who were working there or lived there. I was happy about that.”

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Matthew explained that BeCville invested a huge amount of energy in engaging community members. “We reached a lot of people and got the word out to the point where I was walking through this one neighborhood one night and these guys came around the corner and they were like, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I'm handing out these cards and we're trying to get you guys engaged in this project.’ And they knew all about it already. They were "Oh, we’ve seen them.’ We saturated the neighborhood!”

The South 1st Garden project was spearheaded by Janet Mitchel. “There are many nights where we'd sit out on her front porch and talk. And to see the excitement—to see how she was not only rallying kids to get engaged in the project, which they're working on still now, but her engagement beyond her immediate neighborhood was expansive. She waves everybody down and talks to everybody. BeCville expanded her ability to connect with others; it was exciting to hear her talk about how she walked through a different neighborhood and engaged people. BeCville was an opportunity to think about how you activate and give agency to people in a way that they can really run with it. Janet’s resourcefulness, her dedication, she didn't hold back. She would give ballots to people and say, ‘Fill this out now. Vote for me, and then you need to vote for these other people.’ Her ability to do that and to engage the community was really amazing.”

But community engagement is only one-half of the equation, Matthew learned. “In the work that I'm doing now, the next process, I'm really trying to build up and provide infrastructure both at the neighborhood level and within the City, building larger understanding of what's going on and some better buy-in. I'm engaging in a bigger conversation around participatory budgeting around the country. It's not just about handing out money, then seeing projects happen. It's about building capacity in neighborhoods. That's what's exciting.”

The Policy Prototype project helped to clarify the work ahead, Matthew explained. “On the community side you have to build the visibility and understanding of how an idea functions and how it becomes reality, but then at the City level you have to open up the possibility of listening and letting go of some of their power so that real relationship can happen. It's a lot easier to walk into a neighborhood and do a quick survey and then walk out saying, ‘Oh, we know everything now.’”

It also clarified Matthew’s own understanding of his role: “For a long time, pursing a series of creative placemaking projects, I always thought of myself as an intermediary, trying to negotiate or connect these two sides. More and more I see myself as an artist. My role as an artist is to creatively think about those relationships and how they come together.”

Matthew shared a gratifying moment. “On a really warm afternoon,  all the artists that had submitted proposals were sitting out under the sun. I was trying to be very honest and forthright about how BeCville would move forward, how it was an experiment, no guarantees. And there was this moment where the artists were just like, ‘Hey, we're dedicated to this. We believe in this. We know we might not win.’ They were so thoughtful not only about their projects but really caring about how the community would respond to them, how they would connect with them. That was an amazing moment. To me, that's the core of it, to shift this conversation from artists producing, ego preceding them, to really thinking what are the needs of the community and how do they align their practice with those needs and be thoughtful about that?”

Memorial to the Unknown at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA

Memorial to the Unknown at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA

Matthew is hopeful of more City buy-in following the success of the first BeCville participatory budgeting process. “After August (the August 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville), the city’s been traumatized,” he told me. “I went to a City Council meeting and signed up for a three-minute speaking slot. I shared the successes of the BeCville project and asked, ‘Could we think about doing something on a larger scale?’ I didn’t expect anything, but one of the Council members got up and said, ‘Hey, we should do this.’ Then another one seconded that and it started a conversation. Now there are other people starting to talk about it, so it's not just me anymore."

“At a meeting with the new Mayor and Vice Mayor, I advocated for a citywide process, asking them to set aside one percent of the City budget, about $1.7 million to do this. That was whittled down to doing a $100,000 neighborhood-based process, which was allocated in the latest budget. It will be a single neighborhood, focused on building capacity within that neighborhood and engaging other residents to invest directly in the community’s vision. The overarching goal is to create the desire and the interest in this type of process so that it becomes an important part of the culture of Charlottesville. My hope is that a broad group of people agree, and we continue to build momentum so that it keeps growing over time.”

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world, so call on us.