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Change Agent: Natasha Soto

The Clean Air Coalition organizer talks about participatory budgeting and its impacts on the Tonawanda Coke settlement and the Peace Bridge expansion project

Natasha Soto is a community organizer with the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, where she works on campaigns that address public health concerns, specifically in low-income communities and communities of color. She has been acknowledged both locally and nationally for bringing greater transparency and equity around the Peace Bridge expansion project and for helping to facilitate Western New York’s first participatory budgeting process.

As you’ll soon learn, Natasha is uncompromising and unrelenting, straightforward and direct, all the best qualities in someone trying to bring about systemic change. And, she exhibits the most empowering quality of all: She leads by example.

AV: Tell us about the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.

Soto: We are a small environmental and public health nonprofit. Our work is focused in neighborhoods across Erie County. The scope of our work is quite extensive. We work with residents in a number of capacities. Our primary focuses are leadership development, air monitoring, and, when it’s fitting, we try to influence policies that will protect people’s health.

AV: What is participatory budgeting and can you contextualize its use? Where else has it been used?

Soto: Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It started in the late ’80s in Brazil. It has only been used in United States for the past two years. New York City is the most notable example of a large-scale metropolitan making use of the process. In New York, a number of council members have dedicated a portion of their discretionary funds to this process. And, most recently, Vallejo, California has begun a process after the city filed for bankruptcy. Officials there decided that participatory budgeting could be used as a tool to help foster a sense of community, collective action, and make better use of the city’s money. This effort is the first citywide participatory budgeting process in the United States.

AV: What do you think the advantages of participatory budgeting as opposed to the current City of Buffalo budgeting process?

Soto: I love the concept of participatory budgeting. It’s democracy at its best. I think we’ve lost that, especially in the City of Buffalo. It gives the power to the residents as opposed to one person in an office in City Hall.

The advantages of participatory budgeting as opposed to the framework we now have is that it far more inclusive. It’s such an amazing opportunity to engage with citizens that normally don’t engage because they have lost faith in the democratic process. Citizens that don’t normally vote now feel compelled to get involved—and with Buffalo’s low voter turnout rate, I think that it’s critical to find new ways to get the community involved. It’s also a way to engage youth and a way for elected officials to stay in touch with residents that may not voice their concerns through more traditional channels.

AV: Can you explain how CACWNY used participatory budgeting to engage with residents in the Tonawanda Coke Corporation settlement?

Soto: CACWNY was proactive in utilizing a participatory budgeting process in order to advocate for some of the settlement money staying in the neighborhood that has been most adversely affected through Tonawanda Coke’s actions. Residents have been fighting this fight for a long time. Some of them have lost their lives fighting it. They deserve to not have to fight it at all anymore, let alone every 10 years. Participatory budgeting is one way of making that a reality.

AV: What does the actual process consist of?

Soto: After we decided that we wanted to undertake a participatory budgeting process in connection with the Tonawanda Coke settlement, we held a general assembly to introduce the concept to the residents of Tonawanda. We told them to make believe that we could solve all of the problems in the neighborhood with $200 million. What would that look like? We had a brainstorming session in which almost 100 people attended. Ideas ranged from recycling programs to educating people on pesticides to shutting the [Tonawanda Coke] plant down to increasing worker safety and knowledge.

After the assembly, we had the task of looking through all of these projects and trying to whittle them down into general projects—fundable, feasible projects. The next step was to get all of the budget delegates together. These individuals were in charge of putting together a proposal for specific projects, including the title and project descriptions.

Then voting began. The final ballots had approximately 25 projects on them. We asked residents to vote for their five favorites. That process took about a week. We counted all of the tallies and had an official announcement of the top five projects. Lastly, Erin [Heaney, CACWNY’s executive director] wrote a memorandum to the Department of Justice, the EPA, and the judge on behalf of the Clean Air Coalition.

Sentencing has been scheduled for October 22. At that time, we will know how much, if any, money will stay in the neighborhood. The recommendations sent to the judge by the DoJ directly reflect the participatory budgeting process. In this way, the process undertaken was monumental. Without such, there is no way of knowing if the DoJ’s recommendations would have been based on the needs and wants of the community.

AV: What were the reactions of the residents of Tonawanda with regard to the participatory budgeting process?

Soto: It was overwhelming at times. I don’t know whether or not people were able to react to it when it was occurring, but I do know that they have been fighting this battle for a very long time, and it’s hard for someone who is in that neighborhood, who is constantly bombarded with smells and smoke and noises from those facilities, to say, “Maybe this time it will work.” But that’s starting to happen. The fact that this is only the second time in the history of the United States that an indictment has been brought under the Clean Air Act is incredibly hopeful. And, if we do get money allocated from participatory budgeting, it will be the first time in history that any civil case has ever been used to decide how to spend that money. That will be monumental, and residents in Tonawanda will be unstoppable.

AV: You primarily organize around the advancement of environmental justice on Buffalo’s West Side, including the Peace Bridge. For those of us unfamiliar with the term environmental justice, can you define it?

Soto: Environmental justice is the fact that you won’t discriminate based on people’s national origin or race. And that people who are disenfranchised or part of this marginalized community defined as people of color and low-income people shouldn’t face an unfair burden of pollution because of those factors.

That is exactly what is being done on the West Side. It’s one of three international border crossings, but it receives two-thirds of the truck traffic.

SB:How can a participatory budgeting process be integrated into future plans surrounding the Peace Bridge?

Soto: Peace Bridge expansion talks have been happening for the past 20 years, which has led to uncertainty and stagnation in the neighborhood: Residents are not sure what will happen to the neighborhood or their homes, which fuels the disinterest some residents feel towards the community.

There also hasn’t been much infrastructure development on the West Side—in fact, there has been an increase in empty lots, boarded homes, and destruction of historically significant landmarks.

Participatory budgeting would be a way for residents to see the changes they are hoping for in their neighborhood. A way to bring development and life to their community that is people-minded rather than truck-minded. Residents want their community to be as vibrant as the Elmwood Village and Allentown, not as a pass-through for trucks. They have the answers and they want to execute them. Participatory budgeting would empower residents to make those visions a reality.

AV: What would you say to those that would call you obstructionists?

Soto: We are not against progress. We are against continuously excluding people who live in that community from the decision-making process. If you want to talk about progress, then include people that live in the neighborhood—incorporate what they want to see in their neighborhood, which looks like places to shop, it looks like more green buffers and green spaces for them to recreate in. It looks like safer routes for their kids to get to school.

Development does not look like a Duty Free Plaza. It looks like investment in where you live. It looks like pride in your neighborhood. And it looks like maintaining the culture of your neighborhood.

AV: What would you have us take away from all of this?

Soto: Don’t do for people what they can do for themselves. People who live in these neighborhoods have the answers, they are just never allowed to utilize them. They are continuously taken out of the decision-making process and people do things for them in “their best interest” without regard to them and without asking them what they would like in the first place. Participatory budgeting is a way for people in the neighborhood to have a say-so.

In the clip above: Soto discusses participatory budgeting with William Yelder and Tangia Delk. For more local video, visit Artvoice TV.

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