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Progressive Voice: 2018 – Powered by the ‘Get It Done’ Spirit of 1787

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.

By Elaine Furlow

If we think national problems seem intractable, and national players so at odds that nothing positive will ever get done, let’s flash back to 1787 and the men who wrote the Constitution.

You think our problems today are complicated? Try creating a brand new system of government, when no colony had ever become independent. Try creating a presidency, when everyone else in the 18th century believed in monarchy. Try balancing a strong, unified national structure with prideful states large and small (“All use the same money? No way!”).

From May to September they kept at it, testing ideas, working compromises and concepts. After five months, still worried whether individual states would vote to ratify, they felt ready.

About now, the skeptics among you may be thinking, “Yes, but that was different. Those guys were hell-bent to work through the obstacles and somehow find a way. It’s not like that now.”

On a national level, perhaps not. But in Virginia and Arlington, we have an opportunity — an obligation, even — to lead in just that get-it-done way, despite the harmful policies some office-holders are pushing nationally. Democratic elected officials in Arlington hold the majority, Virginia’s new governor and newly-elected crop of state delegates have buoyed our spirits and options for problem-solving.

Our opportunity is listening to people on gut issues to help solve problems (in Arlington: transportation, housing costs, school space; in Virginia: health care, the economy and transportation, for starters). States and communities like ours can be a beacon of good governing right now.

One challenge is getting to answers more decisively – more like the five months for the Constitution instead of today’s five+ years deciding about lights at Williamsburg field. In 2018, when the interests of citizens or policy-makers diverge, can we somehow streamline the route to effective decisions?

Everybody can help on this – elected leaders, residents, professional staff. Parents and schools can look for ways to show students how constructive politics makes a difference.

I am recalling construction of the skateboard park on Wilson Blvd years ago, when fifth graders took an energetic part in debating regulations on wearing safety pads and helmets. (Students were dumbfounded when adults said it would take several more meetings to get that decided.) Can we keep people involved but find new ways to simplify decision-making?

Yes, “things are complicated, and take time.” So some Arlington activists and officials create more task forces, meetings and timelines that stretch patience thin. Instead, let’s innovate on encouraging more people to invest themselves in Arlington’s concerns, perhaps in simpler or different ways that make sense for them.

Lately national companies like Scotts (lawn care) and Home Depot have tried a new tack to reach millennials. The problem, they realized, was young people didn’t know the basics, like how to hang Christmas lights, or plant seedlings where the sun can reach them. Some companies developed simple online tutorials, like “how to use a tape measure.”

“Too condescending?” worried one Home Depot executive in a Wall Street Journal article. Apparently not. The short, basic messaging proved successful in attracting young people who had just grown up differently, much less familiar with gardening or home maintenance.

We civic leaders and politicians could take a cue. To attract people of all ages back to democracy on the ground, maybe we need to hew harder to the basics. Democrats believe democratic government is a good thing – we celebrate its role in ensuring clean air and water, good public education, health care, fairness, opportunity and more. Looking to 2018, we need to prove we can solve problems more resolutely, more quickly, while still respecting thoughts and cares from people on gut issues.

And for any who doubt big problems can be solved, and solved more quickly? Remember those determined people crafting the Constitution long ago. Five months of work, all day long, to slog through competing interests and find workable solutions, through even the dog days of August. And with no air conditioning.

Elaine Furlow served eight years as an Arlington School Board member. She was Director, Strategy and Planning for AARP until her recent retirement.

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