On Valentine’s Day, we bring you a story of love and democracy. Catherine Zinnel used to be the coordinator for participatory budgeting (PB) in New York City Council Member Brad Lander's office. She met her now-husband Neil Reilly when he got involved as a PB volunteer.
PB brings people together. For Catherine and Neil, PB created an opportunity for strangers to meet, learn about each other, work together...and fall in love! In New York City alone, PB engages 100,000 people each year, weaving together communities and building new relationships.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and the phone rings. I’m greeted by a cheery voice, “Ashley, it’s Catherine! Neil is here too.” I hear Neil say hello, and instantly start to feel the distance between strangers shrinking. I begin our conversation only knowing that this love story began with PB.
Tell me about yourselves. How did you get involved in PB, and why?
I began working for Council Member Brad Lander in 2011, the same year Participatory Budgeting began in New York City (PBNYC). I wasn’t directly coordinating PB, but I spoke about it in community meetings and loved learning about it from other staff. It was exciting to be in Brad’s office the year PB was kicking off.
And that’s when Neil got involved…
I must have been on the email distribution list for the City Council. I was living in District 39 (still do), and got an email from Brad’s office.
I had just started grad school and was learning about “civility quotients” related to community involvement. I read the email from Brad and skipped class to go to the first community meeting. I opted to get involved in my community in place of learning about getting involved in my classroom.
And I was interested! I signed up to volunteer with PBNYC - not realizing I had signed up to volunteer for the whole year. I served as a budget delegate for two years, and then facilitated the committee that I had been a budget delegate for. I was then on the district committee for District 39 through 2016.
So, how did you meet?
I think Neil and I were both at that first assembly in Kensington, but we didn’t meet there. We actually didn’t meet until PBNYC’s first vote week.
It was PBNYC’s first vote results party.
I had just worked the whole weekend at vote sites. It was so early in the process that we were still counting the votes in our office - there wasn’t citywide infrastructure yet. After lots of counting, our staff walked over to the bar where the delegates and volunteers were gathering.
Neil was there - eager to hear which projects won. While my colleagues distributed news of winning projects, I distributed celebratory drink tickets. I stopped to talk with the volunteers there, and was catching up with some of Neil’s committee members when we had our first conversation.
And we went on our first date a few weeks after we met.
That’s right! So, before we got married, our anniversary basically aligned with the PBNYC vote week. I remember when we got engaged - Do you remember this?
Yes, I remember proposing...
Neil proposed after we’d been dating for four years, and it just so happened to be a couple days before the vote results party for PBNYC in 2016. It was so sweet when folks brought out champagne for us.
What most surprised you about your experiences with PB?
I love the creative, innovative ideas that people bring to it. And the process of negotiating with the different entities who would implement projects and bring innovative ideas to fruition.
I very much joined it knowing it would be a learning experience for me. I didn’t know about the city capital process beforehand. I think city staff and PBP did a great job of framing PB as a way to get involved in the community.
I was surprised by how much detail was necessary from the delegates and how seriously some of the city agencies took it. There were a lot of delegates there the first year who also learned A LOT like me - even just how much things cost when it’s related to subways. It was shocking to see how expensive things were when they go underground.
I still believe PB is an amazing window into how money gets allocated.
When we explained to people that volunteers had created the proposals, they were willing to take a few minutes and vote for their favorite projects.
What are the biggest impacts of PB on your community? Or, on you as a person?
The impacts of PB are visible on a regular basis. I pass by many PB projects regularly - like safer corners (at the intersection of Church Avenue & Ocean Parkway, for example).
It’s been exciting to see the growth of PB through more innovative voting. The first couple years, voting happened at the poll sites. Then, we started bringing the vote to people. We evolved into doing popup sites, extended voting to a week, lowered the voting age to 14 (and even lower later). Now you can vote online. I’m excited to see youth in particular get so energized by PB.
For me, one of the important impacts was understanding how volunteers, who are giving their time and ideas, have an impact in their neighborhood. Staff and volunteers do really good work to keep the collaborative, creative process growing.
And as the collaborative process of PB continues to grow, so too does the collaborative relationship between Catherine and Neil - the one that began while celebrating a revolutionary kind of democracy.
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