I have been the coordinator of the grassroots student Participatory Budgeting process at Queens College (PBQC) since the fall of 2017. All of my knowledge of community organizing has come through doing work on the ground, and it all started with joining this student movement. When I started writing for QC Voices I struggled with how to write about my own work with PBQC. I had too much to say about it all at once I didn’t want to write something self-indulgent, and I wanted use the blog as an opportunity to research and learn about other students who mobilized for change on their campuses. This semester, I would like to shift toward writing about more current events, and disclose my own ongoing experiences in the world of student activism.
Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to present at the Library Association of the City University of New York (LACUNY) Dialogues because of my work with PBQC in creating a Town Hall event in the Rosenthal Library last fall. The format of our presentation was a Q & A about the history of PB at our school, with questions asked by Rosenthal’s Outreach Communication Librarian, Jeremy Czerw.
Our dialogue went as follows:
Jeremy Czerw: What got you interested in PB in the first place?
Salvatore Asaro: The accessibility. I didn’t start the PB process at Queens College, in fact, I was just an average student walking on the quad in Spring 2016, where I came across a group of students outside at a table, with signs and clipboards. I stopped to check it out. They asked me to vote for where I wanted to spend my tuition.
I was given a choice, and it didn’t come to me because I was special. It came to me because I was regular. It didn’t come from the administration It came from the students themselves organizing around a belief—a better kind of democracy, something direct and tangible. I’ll never forget two of the signs that I saw at that table, one said, “Vote Projects, Not People,” and the other said “Make Shit Better.” The whole thing made too much sense for me to just leave it at voting. I asked if I could pick up a clipboard and get other students to vote, and ever since they said yes to me, I have kind of just been doing that ever since.
Jeremy: Can you talk about that first PB ballot, the response to it, and the suggestions students had?
Me: The first ballot, in 2016, was actually a pretty radical thing. The student body was by and large very receptive to it. Not only did 1,400 students participate, the whole vote week process really made the campus feel like a community to me. That being said, we were otherwise met with opposition. We had been promised $5,000 dollars by our elected student government, and we ran the vote with that in mind. The top projects that year were: fixing Wifi, more printing in the library, and charging stations.
But when all of the ballots had been counted, and it came time to fund the projects, that promise was rescinded. We tried several times to appeal to the student government, the college president, student life, and the QCA board to no avail. So we didn’t get that ballot funded, and couldn’t get funding for a whole year after that.
Jeremy: What PB initiative(s) are you most excited about?
Me: The projects that I find myself getting most excited about are the ones that seem so intuitive that you say to yourself how is it that we don’t already we have this? Two really good proposals that came out of our idea collection last fall that I was as basic needs are: feminine hygiene products available in women’s restrooms, and a furniture upgrade in high-needs spaces
And then we sometimes look at big picture problems with student volunteers and design projects that are really creative solutions. So for that we are looking at ways to better increase communication around campus, because the system right now is not really efficient and a lot of students simply never hear about events, or opportunities on campus.
Jeremy: What’s the funniest or weirdest student suggestion you’ve read?
Me: Pineapple trees (but pineapples don’t even grow on trees).
Jeremy: Can you talk about how the project is funded? I understand PB is viewed as an “experiential learning initiative” here at QC.
Me: So in 2017 when we as students thought we were stuck with no funding and no cooperation from our own student government we decided we should put together a formal document about our work to appeal to any administrators willing to listen.
We got eventually lucky and came across a department called Experiential Learning, and the woman who would soon become the Assistant Provost of QC, Dr. Eva Fernandez. She was avid about our work and said that she would pilot the program with a line item of $3,000 dollars.
We took that budget and ran with it—the promise of support from the college breathed new life into our group of volunteers. We didn’t have to spend our energy lobbying for money. We could actually focus on the process again. And though it was a small budget, we realized that if we showed what we could accomplish with that budget, it could be really impactful and inspire more support from administrators, faculty, and the students.
And it was a success. We had legitimization from the college—a name and a department we could drop and be taken more seriously when asking professors if we could have some of their class time, and when talking to Buildings and Grounds, or IT about project implementation. And at the Rosenthal Library with the new Chief Librarian Kristin Hart, we found overwhelming support so much so that for this year she has also contributed another $3,000 dollars to our budget in addition to the $3,000 that Experiential Learning has given us again. Last spring we distributed (and counted) over 2,100 paper ballots, getting votes from 11% of the student body at QC- this year we are hoping for even more. And like last year, we plan to use every dollar of our budget towards funding these projects that the student body will vote upon.
Jeremy: A lot of the projects involve technology. Can you talk about how you work with Information Technology and other departments to figure out what projects to take on, and who pays for what?
Me: I believe that every CUNY school has a Technology Fee, a significant portion of student tuition ($62.50 for part time, $125.00 for full time students) that goes directly into a pool of money to be spent on Student Learning through Technology. At QC, after a little digging, we found that students could join the Tech Fee Committee, along with Faculty reps from each division, and a number of administrators. Not only that, but anyone can submit project proposals to this committee for review, and the committee then votes on funding them.
As most of these technology projects are way outside of our budget, every year we submit about a dozen projects from our idea collections directly to Tech Fee. And so (in part) due to us joining the voting committee, for the first time at QC, all 12 of the student positions on Tech Fee Committee are filled.
And though these projects are not voted upon directly on our campus-wide ballot, we have gotten several high-cost projects funded through this process since we started PB, and in fact this is how we were able to get projects funded when we otherwise had no budget, and in some ways sustain the momentum of the movement.
Jeremy: What advice would you have for other schools interested in doing PB?
Me: There are really two answers to that question.
One is for the administrators, the faculty, and the staff: and that is when you ask yourself how can we better serve students? Realize that the answer to that question can actually come from the students! They just need to be asked. They are the ones who circulate the school, use its facilities and its resources, and if you can give them the platform from which to voice constructive criticisms, they will tell you what they love about their college, what they hate about it, and how it could be better.
Then there’s the answer for the students, which is simple: Participate. Get involved. Realize that you can make a difference if you are persistent, creative, committed, and resilient. And most importantly, work together and reach out to everyone. We are trying to build a truly empowered and connected community, and you never know if that one random person you give a ballot to could end up taking the whole process to the next level.