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A Community-Led Recovery Panel on Building Trust, Growing Democracy, Centering Equity

Trust is the bedrock of a healthy democracy. In recent years, we have seen this connective tissue erode in a sea of divisive politics, social and economic upheaval, 24/7 sensationalist news, and real attacks on voting rights. Yet, as much as these forces have worked to divide us, we share so much more in common.

As we join together in new ways to drive community-led decision making and cultivate a robust participatory democracy, trust is central to our collaborative work to build back better and put equity at the center.

Trust was a theme we heard come up again and again from our panelists at our recent Community-Led Recovery: PB with ARPA Funds Panel Discussion. They shared how participatory budgeting (PB) worked as a tool to rebuild and strengthen trust – between communities, their elected officials, public staff, and individuals.

Our panel discussed how they are using participatory budgeting for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to decide with their communities how these COVID and economic relief dollars are spent to address community needs. With billions of dollars flowing into local government budgeting processes from this historic act, the ARPA is an unprecedented opportunity for communities to wield real decision-making power about how budget decisions that impact them are made.

Dr. Clarence Wardell III, Chief Data and Equity Officer with the White House American Rescue Plan Team, and a Senior Advisor for Policy Implementation and Delivery with the Domestic Policy Council, kicked us off by sharing the Biden administration’s commitment to advancing equity through the American Rescue Plan Act. He detailed their drive to “address racial disparities and transform communities” through this “once in a generation investment” and celebrated participatory budgeting as a framework that strongly aligned with the administration’s equity implementation principles.

Next, we dove into a rich and insightful conversation with our panelists representing Grand Rapids, MI, Marin County, CA, and Oregon State Legislature District 24. Democracy Beyond Elections Director Elizabeth Crews facilitated the discussion and drew connections between our speakers, each of which was currently working through their unique PB process. 

In Oregon, a youth-led PB process “Youth Voice, Youth Vote”  will allocate ARPA dollars committed by State Legislators Kayse Jama, Chris Gorsek, and Ricki Ruiz. “It was an easy decision for us to use these funds for PB” shared Kien Truong, Chief of Staff for Rep. Kayse Jama. They described why their office chose PB: “We believe that communities should have a say in how to spend the money…And we trust organizations that already have success working in the community.”

Jamillah Jordan, Equity Director for Marin County, laid out how her county has integrated accessibility throughout the PB process in order to foster trust with communities that had historically been left out. “It’s about inclusive design,” she shared, “we really wanted to center those most impacted. We made sure our outreach materials were in multiple languages, and we built in equity criteria to our evaluation proposals from beginning to end.”

While PB processes in both Oregon and Marin County, CA are underway and currently in their idea collection phases, Grand Rapids, MI recently announced their winning projects. Assistant City Manager Doug Matthews spoke to what he, his colleagues, and his community learned: “This is a leap of faith for a lot of bureaucratic institutions, and you have to build to that trust. You’ve got to be prepared to navigate uncertainty on both sides.” He explained how that leap paid off too: “Community members came away with a stronger sense of community and what their neighbors want. They learned what it takes to get some of these things done, and how much it costs to get these things done.”

Check out the recording

Hear more of the discussion with our panelists as they share their insights and answer questions from the audience!

PB presents a transformative way to directly center and share power with communities most often left out of the decisions that impact their lives. Using PB to distribute ARPA funds drives a community-led recovery and strengthens trust and democracy in communities across the country. Read on to learn more from our partners in Oregon, Marin County, and Grand Rapids!


PB in Oregon is kicking off in 2022 for the first time ever after years of advocacy. Community organizations such as PBOregon pushed for community-led decision making and ARPA presented a unique opportunity to disrupt business as usual, tap into youth power, and center equity. This youth-led process – Youth Voice, Youth Vote – will allocate roughly $500,000 in ARPA dollars.  They have convened a steering committee and are now in the Idea Collection phase of their process.

Marin County, CA

Marin County is also currently in the Idea Collection phase of their process. They have allocated $2.5 million dollars of ARPA funds for PB. Ideas will focus on areas in the county that have significant racial disparities. The effort is being led by the County’s Office of Equity in collaboration with community organizations. Explore their process to learn more.

City of Grand Rapids, MI

The city recently finished their process and is in the implementation phase now. The process awarded a combined $2 million dollars in ARPA funds to twelve projects across three wards, including projects for affordable housing and lead pipe mitigation. Over 2,000 residents participated in the voting process. Read more about the overall process on their webpage.

Learn more about the panelists:

We were joined by a set of outstanding panelists from across the country:

  • Dr. Clarence Wardell III, Chief Data and Equity Officer, Office of Management and Budget, the White House

Dr. Clarence Wardell III is the Chief Data and Equity Officer with the White House American Rescue Plan Team, and a Senior Advisor for Policy Implementation and Delivery with the Domestic Policy Council. Clarence most recently served on the Biden-Harris Transition leading tech strategy & delivery across the domestic and economic policy team. Prior to working on transition, he was the Vice President of Solutions at Results for America, where he supported Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities Initiative along with other local, state, and federal efforts to scale evidenced-based solutions to address a wide range of challenges. 

Clarence was previously a Presidential Innovation Fellow and member of the U.S. Digital Service during the Obama Administration, where he co-led the White House Police Data Initiative. He holds a BSE in Computer Engineering from the University of Michigan and a PhD from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.


  • Doug Matthews, Assistant City Manager, Grand Rapids, MI

Doug has served local government for 25 years, focused on enhancing government effectiveness through open and active community engagement, partnerships and organizational transformation. He currently oversees Enterprise Operations (refuse, water, wastewater), Public Works, HR, IT, Innovation, Equity and Engagement, Events, Communications, Sustainability and Performance Management at the City of Grand Rapids. He’s particularly interested in innovation leadership, cultural transformation, development of strategic public/private/nonprofit partnerships to solve wicked problems, neighborhood-based engagement and problem-solving, and human-centered design for service and process improvement.

Doug has a BA in Journalism from the University of Central Florida and an MPA from the University of South Florida. He’s a credentialed manager with the International City/County Managers Association and a former board member for the Alliance for Innovation.


  • Jamillah Jordan, Equity Director, Marin County, CA

Jamillah Jordan is Marin County’s Equity Director. She is a multi-disciplinary strategist, urban planner, and social justice leader with over 10 years of experience catalyzing systems change. Jamillah has worked with a wide range of public and private sector partners to apply an equity lens to community visioning projects and public health, education and transportation initiatives, among many others. 

Jamillah leads Marin County’s Office of Equity working across 22 agencies and departments to develop, implement and evaluate innovative strategies that dismantle systemic barriers to enrich the lives of those served by the County. She recently led the development of the County’s 2022 Race Equity Action Plan. Jamillah is also a Culture of Health Leader and focused on building an intentional and healing-centered Community of Practice for equity directors of color across the Bay Area. 

Her diverse leadership experience is rooted in forging collaborative partnerships among community-based organizations, local government, and elected officials to advance institutional change that creates better outcomes for everyone, particularly marginalized communities.

  • Kien Truong, Chief of Staff for Representative Kayse Jama, Oregon State Legislature District 24


We must ensure that the decisions reached by community-led decision-making processes are taken seriously, honored, and implemented transparently. Community-led decision-making processes should hold real tangible value — not be relegated to trivial and theoretical exercises. They should have power over significant budgets or policies. True participatory democracy requires that committees or councils are not just “surveys” to gauge attitudes and views – followed by a business as usual process where people already in power go behind closed doors to make the final decision. In order to be transformational, community-led decision-making processes must have teeth and transparency — from beginning to end, including implementation.


We must equip community members with the tools, knowledge, and information they need to meaningfully participate. It is not enough to say that everyone can participate. We must create the conditions in our processes that make it so everyone can participate. This means community-led decision making processes that provide and center access needs including but not limited to language access, disability access, and economic access. This requires us to ensure that processes are built with community so that they take into account the access to technology, meeting times and locations, and even modes of communication that work for the particular community. Barriers to participation like age, citizenship, registering to vote, location, should be directly addressed and removed.


We must ensure that if you live in the community, you have a role and a voice in how decisions are made – and in making them. Unlike traditional elections, which are filled with barriers to participation, community-led decision making centers directly impacted community members.

Participatory democracy requires that folks left out of traditional election-centered democracy, including but not limited to Black communities, immigrants, and formerly and currently incarcerated folks, are centered in both the leadership of participatory practices and their outcomes.

We must ensure that community-led decision-making processes center and serve the needs of most impacted communities — from outreach, participation, and voice, through to implementation.