Shari Davis

Democracy Cohort
Participatory Budgeting Advocate

Shari Davis is using the powerful tool of participatory budgeting to invite more people to transform the democratic process.

Shari Davis’ systems change career began in high school, when they served on the Mayor's Youth Council in Boston. This led to a simple question: “How do we get young people the services they need?” In 2014, Mayor Thomas Menino asked Shari to launch the country's first youth-focused “participatory budgeting” effort. They brought in young people from marginalized neighborhoods and communities, and over pizza, designed a process called “Youth Lead the Change," which allowed thousands of youth to decide how one million dollars in public funds would be distributed. To this day, the initiative continues – and is, in fact, expanding.

For the past five years, Shari has led the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), a nonprofit seeding the idea of participatory budgeting in the US and Canada. It has empowered more than 400,000 people to directly decide how to spend $300 million in public funds, across 29 cities and counting. A proud Black, Native American, and non-binary person, Shari also recently moving PBP to a “sociocratic” leadership model where decisions are collectively made.

Government mistrust is at an all-time high. And yet, the status quo seems remarkably resistant to change. With their experience in participatory budgeting, or PB, Shari has seen what happens when governments open up and let community members make decisions that shape their lives. Research shows that PB increases government trust, inspires civic engagement, and directs resources to communities with greater needs. Yet, while PB is in use in more than 7,000 cities across the globe, not enough are benefitting from this powerful tool.

As an Emerson Collective Fellow, Shari will develop a virtual, interactive guide to participatory budgeting. Through graphics, interviews, videos, and other media of participants in PB projects around the world, the guide will engage audiences with powerful world-building — while creating a space where community members can share their experiences and visions to build toward action. The goal: to redistribute power in more cities, with community members having real voice in the budget process.