Children, Undocumented to Vote in Participatory Budgeting Program

Gabriela Lazo and her mother, Ana Sumba. Queens residents prepare to vote in the participatory budgeting process in New York City. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

At only 14, Gabriela Lazo is still way too young to vote in a presidential or legislative election, but this year she will be able to help decide in what projects her community will use $1 million assigned by the City Council to 27 New York City districts. This is thanks to participatory budgeting, a program that since 2011 has allowed residents of the five boroughs to be part of the decision-making process in their neighborhoods, regardless of their immigration status.

The novelty in this year’s ballot, from April 7 to 15, is that kids from 11 years of age, or those who reached at least the sixth grade, are allowed to vote. They only need to fill a form in the electoral centers without having to show documents.

“I think it’s an excellent idea because many people don’t have a voice in their neighborhoods and it is important that we get an opportunity to decide from a young age,” said Gabriela, who lives in Queens, which is promoting participatory budgeting in six districts, including Astoria, Sunnyside and Forest Hills.

The 8th grade student said that the area in most need of investment in her community is education. “This must be the priority, and we all must unite to make this a reality not only here in Queens but in the whole city.”

Her mother, Ana Sumba, agreed with her, and although she admitted that she didn’t know that she had the right to vote, she vowed to stop by and participate.

Jeffrey Cortes (in the red sweater) (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“I love that they give us that option and my vote will go to schools, so they have more resources,” she said, adding that this program helps foster political education from infancy. “It’s really good that little kids learn early on about the power we can have.”

Jeffrey Cortés, 13, who also admitted that he didn’t know about participatory budgeting, said that voting for the first time to decide about his neighborhood’s future is an act that must be taken with a sense of responsibility.

“We schoolchildren must understand that with our decision we can put to work projects that will serve everyone,” said the young kid.

Manuel Lazo, 72, who works handing out flyers, said he will vote for a District 26 project to create a senior home. “At my age, any help that the elderly can get is important, and I think everyone should support any initiative that is good for us,” said the Ecuadorean.

Another district preparing for its democratic process is the 17th, in the Bronx, where Council member Rafael Salamanca invited his constituents to head to the polls.

“The community’s input is vital for any district to prosper (…) and residents must be able to give their opinion about what improvements and investments they want to see in their schools, parks, facilities and neighborhoods. To encourage them to vote and make their voices heard is very important to me,” said Salamanca.

Manuel Lazo (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Council member Ydanis Rodríguez, from Manhattan’s District 10, emphasized that with these elections New York is setting an example in empowering communities.

“I call on our people to participate in this democratic exercise in which communities demonstrate that they can take control of the investments made with the resources generated with their taxes,” said the Dominican politician, adding that opening the polls to children starting at the age of 11 is a way of including minors in the decision-making process.

“Children are active agents in the communities, and their vote must be counted, as it happened last year when they made their voices heard and helped create a playground on Audubon Avenue,” he added.

Rodríguez, who is the chairman of the Council’s Transportation Committee, also stressed that the program opens the door to all New Yorkers regardless of their immigration status.

“Undocumented people are also an active part of this city’s economy, to which they contribute billions of dollars,” he said. “By lifting barriers and inviting them to join the participatory budgeting [process] we are sending a strong message to the federal government, saying that in New York we all have the same rights and everyone counts.”

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