The Seattle City Council's $3 million research project that will ultimately establish a participatory budget process and decide how $30 million in city funds are spent encountered another speed bump today.
The Black Brilliance Research Project (BBR), which is nearing the end of its months-long research endeavor, announced that researchers "decided to part ways with King County Equity Now (KCEN)," according to a Medium post written by Shaun Glaze, the co-lead researcher for BBR, formerly the lead researcher for KCEN.
The split is a result of long-simmering issues with KCEN leadership, Glaze wrote. Now, BBR will contract under the Freedom Project. Ironically, the council originally contracted with the Freedom Project, but KCEN remained in charge.
As Seattle City Council Insight's Kevin Schofield pointed out late last year, the council used a loophole to award KCEN the $3 million project in the first place.
In his analysis, Schofield noted that city contracts over $54,000 must be open to competing bids unless the council is contracting with a nonprofit. Since KCEN wasn't a certified nonprofit at contract time (though it is now), the council "officially" awarded the contract to the Freedom Project, a nonprofit that would run the money through to KCEN as a "fiscal agent." However, KCEN listed the Freedom Project as a subcontractor for its own project, which raised eyebrows over at the Washington State Auditor's office, according to Crosscut.
In any event, according to Glaze's post, once KCEN "began to move away from the coalition model" and became a nonprofit "the community partnership dynamic changed, and this created obstacles and barriers to the research." Glaze elaborated on the issues BBR researchers faced while working with KCEN's three-person leadership team, which included president and CEO Isaac Joy, chief of staff Emijah Smith, and media director TraeAnna Holiday.
This environment has included the following actions by KCEN leadership: locking research leads out of their KCEN e-mail accounts without warning during a key moment for the research; locking research leads out of access to the relevant online research files; unilaterally making major decisions that impact researchers — including decisions about contract renewal and decisions about hosting major public events — without consulting researchers in advance; cutting off communication when requests for transparency and accountability were made; abusive communication from KCEN leadership; unacceptable delays in paying people for their work that has seriously impacted researchers’ mental health and our ability to economically sustain; and dismissing the lived experiences of some Black community members, including Black people who live in but were not born in Seattle and trans and queer people.
We have repeatedly sought to address these concerns with KCEN leadership, and we wish that these attempts had been met with repair. However, at this point, we find it necessary to separate from KCEN in order to complete this research.
Glaze told The Stranger that the issues with KCEN "slowed things down a bit, but we were able to still keep moving forward."
In response to an inquiry about Glaze's letter, KCEN's press team supplied a statement:
"As we move from a volunteer initiative to a formal non-profit, we're taking necessary time to slow down, create and implement expanded, improved structures and processes with many more community members in the conversation to ensure community-oriented stewardship in all aspects of research including project review, funding allocation, etc," the statement read.
When asked about the separation, Councilmember Tammy Morales, who liaisons with the BBR project, said:
My office was made aware of a letter circulating from the Black Brilliance project. I haven’t yet been briefed by my staff but I intend to get up-to-speed immediately and make contact with the stakeholders as we ensure that this vital research work is seen to completion to inform the upcoming participatory budgeting process. While I learn more about the detailed grievances, the work itself remains critically important to inform policies that impact Black and Brown communities.
Morales said she will provide an updated statement to the The Stranger when she finds out more information.
Glaze told The Stranger that "very little has changed in terms of research and how it's facilitated other than that the organizations that were previously subcontracted under KCEN are now subcontracted under the Freedom project."
The final report on BBR's participatory budgeting research is due in Morale's Community Economic Development Committee on Feb. 26. Glaze wrote that despite these internal struggles the report will be on time.