As part of Grammy-winning band Arcade Fire, Will Butler is serious about his craft. A proud Brooklyn resident, he’s also committed to community and democracy.
While on tour, Will hosts civic engagement after-parties called Disco Town Halls. Wherever the show, he partners with community groups and officials to hold a discussion on a key public issue. Fans learn from local leaders about topics from felon disenfranchisement to democratic participation, and talk about what they can do.
Will is also a big fan of participatory budgeting, and one of his tweets this Spring caught our eye. He works with his neighbors to make real decisions about real money through New York’s participatory budgeting program (PBNYC). Residents propose thousands of ideas for improvements to their schools, parks, streets, and communities. Then, they collaborate with government staff to turn the top ideas into project proposals for a ballot. Everyone in the community over age 11 casts their votes, and the winning projects become reality. Like Arcade Fire, PBNYC has grown big, with 100,000 people each year deciding how to spend around $40 million.
I sat down with Will to learn more about his experiences and his ideas for civic engagement. I found out that we’re neighbors, we have similar style (see pictures below), and we’re both working towards a democracy where everyone counts. Below is an edited version of the interview.
Josh: I’d love to hear more about what you’ve been working on recently. I read about the disco town halls, and was curious about how that’s going, what you’ve been learning...
Will: I was going city to city… particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, asking, “What the heck can I do?” I wanted to do something because we had a room full of 10,000 people... What do you do with a room of 10,000 humans?
I decided to put together after shows; I ended up calling them disco town halls—kind of a cross between disco fries, a disco nap, and an after the show meeting. The dream would always be to have a local official who was doing something meaningful there.
In Chicago, we talked about the opioid crisis; we had someone from the city department of health. In Tampa, we talked about felon disenfranchisement; we had one of the members of the Tampa City Council who’s been working on organizing. They have a great campaign there to re-enfranchise people who’ve been convicted. So a local official and a local activist group.
Sometimes it could be the wing of a national organization, but we tried to really make it local people talking about local things with an eye towards city or state law. Because I also found that after the election everyone was like, “We’re all very nationally focused, we know who the president is, we care who the president is, we all vote for the president every 4 years, and then we kind of know who congresspeople are, we kind of know who senators are, and then maybe you know who the governor is and then it just disappears under that level, but a lot of the stuff that’s wrong in this world is city and state policy.
The sum of these parts was thinking of our community and how you integrate community involvement. And that’s not the end all-be-all, but solving that will make solving the other ills easier.
Josh: When do you see “ah-ha moments” when people get what government does or how much things cost, or when they make that connection between something that’s wrong in the world and wanting to take action?
Will: The clearest night on the disco town hall trail was talking about the felon disenfranchisement in Florida. A couple hundred people came out, it was midnight. We had people from this group Organize Florida and the ACLU... and there were 4 or 5 people who had been directly affected who had just been arrested.
[One of the organizers] said, “I just want to be a full citizen. I have kids. I just don’t want to feel like I’m less of a human because I got arrested twice in my life... I did my time and now I just want to come home to my children and have them see me as a full citizen.”
This is a form of civic death. It’s pretty horrifying. You saw people just registering that. It’s very easy for people to think it doesn’t affect them, or think of it as how life is, but when you actually talk to people who’ve been convicted you’re like, “Oh, you’re a human being who is my neighbor.”
When you start to meet people for whom policy matters, then you realize how voting matters, and how [PB] matters. Getting in a room with people and talking about what’s important in your community and seeing that a lot of what’s important in the community is other people and how they’ve been either hurt or helped by what’s going on.
Josh: What have you heard about PB so far, and what do you think?
Will: I went to the PB brainstorming session in my neighborhood... It was really lovely because all the high school kids were there as notetakers and making all the displays for people as people brainstormed.
You got to hear, “Oh Avenue C, there’s all these giant sinkholes opening up underneath it.” And then a woman who’d lived there in Kensington whose family had been the first family to live in Kensington was like, “Oh, there’s a river that runs under Avenue C, and that’s why it keeps opening up, and there’s no way that anyone can ever fix it.”
Good to know. I’ll keep my eyes open for that. And, oh right. I should go visit the Borough Park Library because it’s different from the Windsor Terrace Branch, and all those things had me buzzing.
"To me, the really beautiful part [about PB] is that it’s citizen and non-citizen alike. It’s everyone who’s living there. It’s everyone who should have a voice."
Josh: Yeah, for a lot of folks, it’s about having that meaningful interaction with neighbors and learning about your community and things that you wouldn’t know otherwise.
"We’re getting to a spot where people who are impacted by policy get to have a voice, and I’m inspired by that."
Will: And it’s not that PTA meetings or City meetings aren’t fun, but it was also a little bit more fun.
Josh: Oh, good. We try for that.
You’ve been in New York for a few years now - what kind of projects would you want funded through PB?
Will: That’s a good question. To be honest, I’m super into hearing what my neighbors are saying. Like I know what my son thinks about things, and I’m like, you’ll be fine... you don’t want to just make things better for rich people that have the voice. Like, it would be nice to plant trees in this neck of the woods but actually, it’d be really nice to plant trees in that neck of the woods, but I don’t live over there.
There’s always quality of life things that matter. Some of that does feel less important, but if it’s engaged with the community and the people are saying let’s do it, and it gets done and you get a little of that morphine hit, like “woah it worked!” and you start to think things can actually happen. That I think really matters.
I'm curious about future possibilities of PB. I think if we really grappled with our prison budgets, it would be really horrifying. We’d be like, "What are you talking about? That’s how much money we’re spending and that’s how we’re spending it?!"
Josh: That’s a really great response. A lot of affluent people come in wanting things for their neighborhood, which is totally fine, but then also seeing what other neighborhoods need, and shifting their position.
What gives you hope about the future of democracy?
Will: I see our next generations are smarter and we’re getting slightly better about helping people abroad, and about listening to other voices in our world, and figuring out how to give credit to people outside ourselves. I see that culture growing and I think maybe young people are better at it than I am. I’ve seen lots of people say, ‘I’m going to step back and let someone else talk,’ and that as a movement in itself gives me hope. We’re getting to a spot where people who are impacted by policy get to have a voice, and I’m inspired by that.
To help more people have a voice in their government, sign up as an PB Amplifier and spread the inspiration.
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