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Progressive Voice: Lessons From the Sorensen Institute

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

MaxBurnsThis has been a year marked by a constant stream of contested political campaigns in Arlington that resulted in the election of new members of the School Board, County Board, House of Delegates and Congress.

During that time of intense internal political focus in Arlington, I also had a chance to participate in the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership — a program that promotes the values of trust, civility and respect in its graduates through direct engagement with communities around Virginia.

Over the course of 2014, as it has for 20 years, the Sorensen Political Leaders Program brought together each month professional, civic and political leaders and future leaders — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — from every region of the Commonwealth. The Sorensen Institute has long worked to provide meaningful conversation and consideration of the issues facing our localities and our Commonwealth. It stresses open dialogue, looking beyond surface and party/ideological differences, and clear, fact-based thinking about policy challenges we face.

My Sorensen experience has given me a broader perspective in which to view the eventful 2014 in Arlington. As we near the end of the year, it may also be worthwhile for our progressive community to step back and analyze the current political situation in our county.

It’s been a challenging year for the Arlington County Democratic Committee. We faced an unexpectedly strong challenge with John Vihstadt’s candidacy for the County Board. We struggled against the image of a local party so used to victory that no other outcome was possible.

Also, few political groups have to contend with normally dry discussions about membership bylaws and steering committee procedures becoming front-page news. Yet, ACDC found itself in that place this year when senior party officials decided to endorse and campaign for a non-Democrat contrary to national, state and local party rules. That difficult situation played out in a very public way.

While the rules were clear, we fell short in building understanding in the community about the way that party rules and ACDC procedures work, why those rules exist, and how few people they affect directly.

We now know that Arlington — like other parts of the country in 2014 — faced a shake up and increased skepticism about politics, elected officials and institutions generally.

Regrettably, this led to instances when civility broke down within ACDC and also within broader community conversations about the County Board, its policies and the 2014 election.

One of Sorensen’s most valuable lessons for me is that, difficult as it can seem, we are better served moving past our knee-jerk responses and exploring issues more deeply — even if the end result isn’t as self-validating as we’d hoped.

That is why I believe “The Arlington Way” deserves better than increasing derision in the community. While criticized as an empty buzzword, it does have the benefit of urging us to approach disagreements with civility and respect as we strive to make Arlington a better community.  Those core principles underpin good government regardless of party or candidate.

It’s time we reinvigorated the phrase and recommitted to building a community that takes seriously the input of a broader range of Arlingtonians, whether they are political activists or choose to spend their time contributing in other ways. How we conduct ourselves as we strive to build better schools and more responsive public services is every bit as important as the quality of schools and services we provide. So let’s set an example.

We’re not always going to agree on issues. That’s politics. But no one is well served when public discourse can be mistaken for attacks and over-the-top rhetoric common to online comments sections.

Moreover, it is time for all of our County Board members to recommit to an engagement with the community that reflects The Arlington Way.

That may take the form of listening sessions in neighborhoods or attending more Civic Association meetings. It may mean a rethinking of how the Board communicates with the broader Arlington community. The important thing is that both the Board and the community take the process seriously, and approach it with the same civility, trust and respect that have marked not only the ideals of the Sorensen Institute, but the ideals of our own community.

Max Burns is a graduate of the 2014 Sorensen Political Leaders Program, a member of the 8th Congressional District Democratic Committee and the past President of the Arlington Young Democrats.

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