Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.
A recent posting on the Governing website noted:
There is a wave of new innovation at the local level of government, and much of it is coming not from government but from citizens. This is happening through a rapidly proliferating ecosystem of civic innovation labs — platforms that connect citizens with each other and with government to share ideas, define community problems and find solutions.
For the past two years, I have been a part of one such citizen-created platform: Arlington Women Educating & Empowering, also known as AWE2 (“AWE Squared”).
The AWE2 organizing group brought together women with a variety of job-related and volunteer expertise. Our forming the group was motivated by what we saw as challenges facing Arlington, including such issues as a growing school enrollment, a higher-than-normal commercial vacancy rate, transportation options, and an affordability crisis.
A guiding question for the group was “Wouldn’t it be great for a group of women who already take an active interest in Arlington to come together to ask questions and educate themselves on issues?” We also viewed the effort as a great way for women to socialize and network with one another.
As a group, we wanted to:
- Connect the dots among our issues: affordable housing, schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and more
- Break down silos
- Look at the big picture
- Be nonpartisan and avoid taking group positions on particular projects or policies
- Help spread information, and
- Have fun!
About 50 women first met at the beginning of February 2014. We identified issues of common concern and made lots of introductions and connections. Since then, we have covered a lot of ground, figuratively and literally.
We have explored County and Arlington Public School planning processes and followed that up with a letter to the School Board, signed by 109 Arlingtonians, calling for greater transparency and other changes in the APS Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).
We have also explored how pieces of Arlington’s transportation network link up (or can be linked up) and how those in attendance use the network.
In a session hosted by the Crystal City BID, we gained a better understanding of the role of Business Improvement Districts and followed that up with a tour of Tech Shop.
We took a walking tour of the Clarendon area to examine how well “smart growth” has aged.
And we learned about the importance of community flexibility in enhancing Arlington’s economic growth.
We also run a list serve and regularly circulate notices of important meetings, informative websites, and good summary documents. We steer folks to County and APS information portals.
Along the way we have encountered some challenges, with the most significant being picking dates and times for events that fit into the busy schedules that most of us keep.
We also have to work to find venues that can accommodate our interaction without breaking the bank.
Innovative and informal groups need to provide value to survive. Based on attendance at our events and feedback we’ve received, the AWE2 organizers believe we are providing value.
Personally, through AWE2 I have had the opportunity to get to know women I would likely have not had a chance to interact with while attending larger County-sponsored meetings.
My experiences with AWE2 have given me new perspectives and created fresh energy on issues, and allowed me to help inform others on issues where I have particular expertise or knowledge.
We also have developed something very important to Arlington’s ability to move forward. As we get to know each other, we are able to build trust and find ways to make progress even if we don’t always agree.
In this way, we see AWE2 as a supplement to The Arlington Way. The County and APS can make such efforts by AWE2 and other groups easier by:
- Keeping Arlingtonians informed of dates of events well in advance;
- Providing good information and educational tools that can be shared across list serves;
- Attending informal group events to gather perspectives and help inform attendees; and
- Hosting occasional informal feedback sessions with AWE2 and similar groups.
To join our list serve, please contact us via: [email protected].
Mary Rouleau is a 25-year resident of Arlington. She is the Executive Director of The Alliance for Housing Solutions. This column reflects her personal views.