As a long time Arlington resident, I have seen citizen engagement from several angles.
I remember my first interactions with Arlingtonians upon moving here, and I definitely felt there was a reluctance to accept me immediately. Compared with my experiences with meeting new people in Alexandria, it felt like our Alexandria neighbors were more open to facilitate engagement and new perspectives with new members of their community.
One of my goals is to seek out community members who may not be engaged and encourage them to find their niche in Arlington. I also try to help organizations find ways to engage more residents at a systemic level.
One of the hallmarks of an inclusive community which fosters belonging is how we accept new ideas. As we emerge post COVID, after reflecting on what worked and what did not work in the “before times,” we should consider how we can encourage even more innovative ways to make our community stronger.
The origin of our ideas. We are often encouraged to funnel ideas through the Civic Federation and the County Board. While these can be effective, we should analyze whether there are other recommendations which come through other channels which do not make it to these bodies. We should be very clear to all residents about how to recommend new ideas.
Comfort in recommending new ideas. We should analyze how people feel about their opportunities to engage when they arrive in Arlington, and determine how those who have been here longer can connect with our new residents to make them feel welcome and involved. We should look at what methods work, and which do not. While I refer people to our existing institutions, I would like to have more confidence that they will be encouraged to stay active and engaged after joining, and that their ideas are heard.
Build on our current work. I have heard rave reviews of the Neighborhood College program. According to the Arlington County website, “Neighborhood College is a free civic leadership development program for Arlingtonians that helps participants become more effective community activists and leaders. Since its inception in 2000, nearly 400 Arlingtonians have graduated from the program, and many have gone on to become neighborhood leaders, members of advisory groups and commissions, officers in their civic associations, County Board members, volunteers at nonprofit organizations, local activists, and more.” We should continue to develop this program to encourage and grow the pipeline of engaged residents.
Provide training for community organizations. Arlington County has a great track record with diversity outreach. I was on the Diversity Dialogues Task Force several years ago, and we have made a concerted effort to engage organizations and individuals with Dialogues on Race and Equity. I would posit that there is an opportunity to provide similar general organizational outreach training. If the County government does not take the lead, we should provide a forum for organizations to share best practices on recruiting new ideas.
It is easy to say that information is accessible on a webpage, or that those who really want to be involved will find a way. This is not the best way to ensure that we have a consistent flow of new ideas and the structures to support them. We never know where the next big idea will come from that will revolutionize Arlington. When we push ourselves to constantly innovate and support new ideas, we become a better community.
Krysta Jones has lived in Arlington since 2004 and is active in local politics and civic life. This column is in no way associated with or represents any person, government, organization or body — except Krysta herself.