PROJECTS

Inequalities & Participatory Governance

 

Participatory governance experiments, like participatory budgeting (PB)— a process in which community members, rather than elected officials, decide how to allocate public funds— have received tremendous attention in recent decades. Since it first began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, PB has spread to over three thousand cities worldwide. Still, while advocates claim that citizen participation in these processes will lead to greater legitimacy, ownership, and more efficient outcomes, these processes can sometimes remain exclusionary, or give citizens just the pretense of substantive participation. This project focuses on how such attempts to democratize policy-making work to simultaneously disrupt and reify racial and class inequalities, in specific ways. 

 

Drawing upon case studies (most significantly New York City, where I serve on the city-wide participatory budgeting steering committee), I examine the political configurations in which these new participatory democratic spaces are embedded, and work to articulate the conditions that might lead to more meaningful outcomes. Who participates? Who benefits? I especially examine whether and how democratic experiments can enable newly enfranchised constituents to problematize larger logics of neoliberal governance, budgeting, and a racial capitalist administrative state.

Critical Pedagogy & Models of Empowerment

 

Much of my research from the past decade examines how youth in spatially segregated, racially and/or linguistically marginalized communities in the US attempt to inform what their local built and natural environments should look like—i.e., while tackling education reform in the Bronx in New York, informing urban planning in Manhattan’s Chinatown, or operating a school-based urban farm amidst a Lower Ninth Ward “food desert” in New Orleans. 

 

Public forums often exclude certain groups—the elderly, women, youth, etc.—in different ways, and they often conscribe pre-set roles for politicians, technical experts, and different constituent groups. Thus, in order to present their arguments in the first place, youth must develop political analytical lenses, viable strategic plans, and creative ways to “perform” and grab attention as activists. My work examines the critical pedagogical methods used by youth organizations to achieve these goals. I'm particularly interested in how community groups emphasize not only reason-giving and persuasion, but also performative and discursive politics in their work. 

Kwah Dao/ Burmese Refugee Project (2000-2016)

 

In 2000, I co-founded the Kwah Dao/ the Burmese Refugee Project, served as Executive Director until 2012, and served as a board member until 2016. Using participatory models to foster community development among Shan Burmese refugees living in northwest Thailand, Kwah Dao pursues initiatives in education, mental and reproductive health, water, and legal rights. I am especially proud that, as of 2020, some of the original Burmese refugee "kids" served by Kwah Dao now serve as Executive Director, Treasurer, and Lead Teacher.

 

With an annual budget of just $10,000 for the first decade, we helped over 60 refugee students who would not be attending school otherwise. Approximately 90% of the community's adults are illiterate; yet, the children all read and write at grade level. Stunting from malnutrition fell dramatically, at statistically significant rates. 

All projects come from needs assessments and strategic planning with the refugees. We then research different means to achieve co-designed goals and discuss possible designs with the social workers and community members themselves.  

 

 

© ​CELINA SU

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