Municipal budgets are often dense and difficult to obtain. However, a new project in Philadelphia is using art to educate residents about the full potential of city funds.
Over the past year, small yellow and green posters have popped up all over Philadelphia. They’re posted on walls and grouped together calling for change, with messages like “Be careful not to police,” “Fund PHL art,” “Invest in communities,” or “Fund safe and clean parks.”
The posters, part of the People’s Budget, a public art installation produced by Mural Arts of Philadelphia, revolve around a simple question: How can art be used to engage community members to reimagine how cities spend their money?
Artist and promoter of the project, Phoebe Bachman, said it grew out of conversations sparked by policing protests in 2020.
“We started discussing what the negotiation process was like,” she said. “Are you funding public libraries or educational programs in other ways, developing or investing more community funds?”
The People’s Budget was created to invite community members to contribute their needs and ideas to a city budget that more accurately reflects the needs of Phillies. In 2021, the project installed its first public artwork and hosted a series of lectures on city budgets. However, for the second year of the project, the team decided to expand.
They hired four local artists in early 2022 — Blanche Brown, Maio Chao, Samantha Rise and Eugenio Salas — to reimagine urban budgets through five main themes: how we communicate relationships; protect our cities; learn and grow; live in shared spaces; and governance and management.
Artists then work together to study different parts of the budget through these different perspectives. They are familiar with the budgeting process and work with several grassroots organizations and city departments, such as the Amistad Law Project, Council Member Kendra Brooks Office, and the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability.
More than 30 posters, written in English and Spanish, have been distributed at events, protests and other gatherings throughout the year. Residents are also invited to submit their own city budget dreams, which may appear in future prints. The posters are also posted in more than half a dozen neighborhoods – including Kensington, Nicetown and West Philadelphia – always as group murals rather than focusing on any one cause.
“No single need is insulated from any other,” said Rise, whose poster focuses on the public school system. “A thorough reinvestment in the community will be strengthened.”
Bachman added, “We recognize that there are many historic divestment neighborhoods in Philadelphia that we have to prioritize when it comes to city funding, but it has to be a citywide advocacy effort.”
Rice said the posters help remove the sense of isolation that individuals may feel due to a lack of involvement in the budgeting process, and offer some hope by seeing other people feel aloof too but they have possible solutions.
“What we’re trying to do is take advantage of striking visuals and spaces to stop and savor,” Rise said. “Don’t just focus on the problem, because when we’re faced with a huge problem, we often shut ourselves off and feel overwhelmed or helpless.”
The posters also highlight how many resources already exist in the Philadelphia community. “I think we underestimate a lot of infrastructure, relationships and experts in our community,” she said.
On May 14, the People’s Budget Office hosted a festival at the Kingsessing Recreation Centre where people came out to discuss their concerns. The local group Mercado de Latinas offers live translations and free lunches, and on interactive mats where people can write down their city budget requirements, do a word deciphering game to understand how the budget works, and even write their own tax receipts Cities owe them taxes.
The project comes at a time when many cities are having conversations about participatory budgeting. New York City recently expanded its participatory budgeting pilot program, and Philadelphia launched its own pilot program in late 2020, intending to spend $1 million on capital projects. “Our budget must reflect a commitment to creating a fairer Philadelphia where race, ethnicity, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, income Or community is not success or life outcome.”
However, Bachmann believes that $1 million is not enough to have a significant impact. “They have to do a lot of work to really get there and put more money into it,” she said.
While the People’s Budget has been focused on community education and engagement, Bachman hopes it will indeed impact the budget. She said some city council members were very supportive, while other city officials were surprised by the idea reflected in the poster, but accepted.
“will [the ideas] actually included? I don’t know,” she said. “The budget process is always negotiating. We are hopeful that the work will continue to move forward year after year. Hope someone is listening. “
If nothing else, Rise said the campaign is sparking important conversations and raising awareness. Seeing people taking pictures of public murals and seeing posters in people’s windows across the city also inspires her.
“I think part of encouraging people in the engagement process is the goal of empowerment,” Rise said. “We wanted to provide a framework where people can participate in the budget from a place that feels accessible, and where they feel they have agency, not only to say what we need to survive, but more to show that we should live fulfilled and Fulfilling life. “
Connie Aitcheson is a freelance writer between Florida and Kingston, Jamaica. She has worked for Sports Illustrated for many years and has been featured in Essence, PTSD Magazine, Cosmopolitan and espnw.com.