In the downtown YMCA on Tuesday, about 50 people gathered to talk about the barriers to testing children for lead poisoning and come up with solutions.

One small group of five easily identified two barriers: residents lack insurance and primary care physicians.

The solutions flowed from there, too. They brainstormed ideas to revive a lead testing van that reaches residents directly, and discussed trying to reach residents at moms’ groups and public libraries.

For the third time in two months, approximately 50 residents committed two hours of their time to figuring out how to spend $150,000 to help prevent lead poisoning in Syracuse.

The meetings are part of a “participatory budgeting” program run by the Central New York Community Foundation. The program invites residents to come up with a solution that the foundation will then fund with $150,000.

One of the goals of the program was to get people in the city involved who have been affected by the lead poisoning crisis, said Qiana Williams, a program officer at the Community Foundation.

“We’ve had this top-down model for so long and never really engaged the people who are closest to the pain,” Williams said of programs that traditionally address lead poisoning.

The Community Foundation is hosting a total of six meetings at which residents can brainstorm solutions. During three more meetings, residents will hear the proposals that received the most support from their peers. At the last two of these events, residents vote on the best proposal.

The $150,000 will be put toward the chosen solution.

So far the meetings, which last two hours, have been well-attended, Williams said. More than 35 people have showed up to each meeting.

Oceanna Fair, a longtime advocate for preventing lead poisoning, said the events have made her hopeful. Fair has seen repeat attendees and said the events are “making people part of the solution.”

The meetings are supported by a wide group of community members.

Williams coordinates them. Representatives from city and county government attend to tell residents about grant programs and the rules their landlords must follow.

At the meeting Tuesday, Fair, a member of Families for Lead Freedom Now, circulated data on lead poisoning and told her personal story. She shared how her brother was poisoned by lead paint in a home about 40 years ago and she now takes care of him.

Paul Ciavarri, a lawyer at Legal Services of Central New York, passed out a booklet on the lead crisis created by Families for Lead Freedom Now.

CNY Community Foundation program officer Qiana Williams, middle, talks with Oceanna Fair, of Families for Lead Freedom Now!, left, and Paul Ciavarri, of Legal Services of Central New York.

Williams, government representatives, Fair and Ciavarri gave an overview of Syracuse’s struggle with lead paint in homes.

Once their portion of the meeting ended, the attendees jumped into discussion.

Tina Nabatchi, a Syracuse University professor in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, helped lead the dialogue.

All the attendees sat at small tables of about five people. Nabatchi explained each activity throughout the meeting.

Each table came up with its own list of barriers children face to getting tested for lead poisoning. Then, the groups listed solutions that would help eliminate those barriers. Each table voted on its top three solutions.

Women from Layla’s Got You, a women’s empowerment group created by Tiffany Lloyd, the director of women’s health at the Allyn Foundation, facilitated the conversations at each table.

Once the individual table discussions ended, facilitators took the top three solutions from each table and taped them up to a wall. Attendees then voted for the solutions they like the best using dot stickers.

The idea of reviving the lead screening van has emerged as one of most popular over the meetings held so far. It finished second on Tuesday. The top option Tuesday was to provide residents with a stipend for having a child tested for lead poisoning.

Williams said that philanthropic organizations have been moving toward participatory budgeting as a way to involve communities in decision-making to solve issues.

The turnout has been encouraging enough that the Community Foundation wants to replicate the process with other issues in the community.

“It’s a testament to the community wanting to do something about this issue,” Williams said.

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.