Arlington, VA

Three days after members of the Arlington County Board expressed support for changing the county’s logo, officials outlined a process for changing it, the county seal and, potentially, names of some local roads and places.

The logo change comes after a push from the Arlington branch of the NAACP, which earlier this summer called the illustration of Arlington House a “racist plantation symbol” that “divides, rather than unites us.”

At the Board’s Tuesday evening meeting, County Manager Mark Schwartz presented a plan to review county symbols and names over the next few months.

The review will include “gathering perspectives on race and equity in Arlington,” and examining county symbols, street names and facility names that may be associated with systemic racism or oppression. The review will “build on this fall’s community process to update the County’s Historic Preservation Master Plan,” according to a county press release.

Schwartz said he will present in December a summary of community feedback, as well as recommendations to the Board for next steps.

In introducing the topic, County Board Chair Libby Garvey said that equity and the county budget are “the two most important things we’re tackling as a Board.” She, along with the four other members of the Board, reiterated their support for changing the county logo.

While newly-elected Board member Takis Karantonis said he agreed with local NAACP leader Julius Spain, Sr.’s call to retire Arlington House as the county’s logo as soon as possible, he acknowledged that the overall process of choosing a new logo and replacing the old logo on most county equipment and properties would “probably take several years.”

Board member Katie Cristol said the logo and some names currently in use locally “have come to feel so out of step with our current values in Arlington County,” while Board member Matt de Ferranti said he wanted to ensure the process of evaluating and changing them was thoughtful and inclusive.

Christian Dorsey, the lone Black member of the Board, said his support for changing the logo came down to the 1972 renaming of Arlington House by Congress as “Arlington House: the Robert E. Lee Memorial,” in honor of the Confederate general and one-time occupant of the historic home on the grounds of what became Arlington National Cemetery.

While some may believe Arlington House to be a symbol of slavery, Dorsey said, others see it as a symbol of the repudiation of the Confederacy, given that it was seized during the Civil War in order to serve as a final resting place for Union war dead. The 1972 renaming, however, “takes all nuance out of the equation.”

“Should a national memorial to Robert E. Lee be the official symbol of Arlington County?” Dorsey asked. “For me it’s a clear no. Period, full stop.”

Dorsey said that the logo change and renaming process will need to find a way to try to unite people who are “in different places along the journey,” but names that honor people who “actively promoted systemic oppression” have to go.

The county should also consider naming some things that are currently unnamed in order “to elevate the contributions of women, people of color, indigenous peoples, that have been suppressed in the telling of our country’s and our community’s history,” according to Dorsey. At the same time, he said, the county should “make sure that fiscal and human resources are not diverted from doing the work to address systemic racism” by the logo change and renaming processes.

(The county, through a local nonprofit, is currently in the process of renaming Lee Highway.)

More on the logo change and renaming process, from a county press release, below.

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The School Board adopted Arlington Public Schools’ first ever equity policy during its meeting last week.

The policy, passed in a 5-0 vote, includes an overall equity belief statement and identifies governance, education, the workforce, and operations as key areas for APS to practice equity in.

“Equity is tied to everything that we do, and we are committed to eliminating inequitable practices in cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests of every student so that success and failure are no longer predictable by student identity such as race, culture, socioeconomics, gender, or any other social factor,” Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Arron Gregory said at the August 20 meeting, quoting the belief statement.

The School Board first directed APS to create an equity policy in August 2018. After two years of drafting and revisions based on APS and community feedback, the policy will now help guide APS action relating to inclusion, equity and diversity.

“Having this as an official policy is just part of the work that we need to do,” Superintendent Francisco Durán said in the meeting. “Moving forward to having an equity mindset, where we’re actually changing our practices and our actions and our thinking is really what we need to be moving forward with, and we are.”

The policy follows reported racial disparities in standardized testing results and student suspension rates within APS. The U.S. Department of Justice has previously alleged that APS provided inadequate help for students learning English.

Gregory said APS, when developing the policy, accounted for such disparities.

“APS acknowledged the historical and current impact of bias, prejudice and discrimination, and is implementing this equity policy, and subsequent implementation procedures, to address the impact discrimination has had on students and staff,” he said.

Monique O’Grady, Chair of the School Board, said the equity policy can help solve such issues if it is followed.

“[The policy] will help us make decisions that can help all students reach their highest potential without placing opportunity gaps in their way,” O’Grady said. “This is necessary to continue addressing disparities that exist in our country, in our state, and, yes, even in our own system.”

Photo via Arlington Public Schools

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Morning Notes

County Launches COVID Dashboard — “Just launched: Arlington’s COVID Data Dashboard with comprehensive information on cases by age, race and zip code; trends in % pos testing; date of symptom onset; and more. Track the course of the pandemic with us, here. And stay safe and mask up!” [Twitter, Arlington County]

Shirlington Parking Challenges — “Shirlington has significant amounts of surface and garage parking, but much of it is restricted during working hours to ensure employees have a place to park. (Many, though not all, of those spaces become available to the general public after 5 p.m.) ‘There’s lots of parking – [but] what’s there isn’t allocated very well,’ County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said.” [InsideNova]

Justice Reform Discussion Tomorrow — “The Arlington County Democratic Committee (Arlington Dems) and Arlington Young Democrats will host a Facebook Live forum at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 23, in advance of a special session of the General Assembly set to begin Aug. 18 that will largely be devoted to criminal justice reform.” [Arlington Democrats]

New Chief Race and Equity Officer Discusses Role — “This position focuses on leading, coordinating and overseeing county organizations and partnering with the community to advance racial equity. To me, this entails focusing on systems and our organizational structure and really how racism presents itself — in our policies, our practices, how we interact and engage with the community.” [Arlington Magazine]

New Office Tenants in Ballston — “CropLife America, The Fertilizer Institute and the Agricultural Retailers Association have signed a 15-year lease for 25,564 square feet to co-locate in Ballston Exchange, a 776,000-square-foot mixed-use office and retail mixed-use project.” [Commercial Observer]

Other School Systems Go Online-Only — Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Montgomery County public schools are joining Arlington in going online-only to start the semester. [DCist, WJLA, Loudoun Times-Mirror, Bethesda Beat]

Flickr pool photo by Jim Webster

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Deputy County Manager Samia Byrd has been promoted to the new position of Chief Race and Equity Officer, Arlington County announced today.

Byrd, a long-time county employee who previously worked in the Department of Community Planning, Housing and a Development, will oversee work “to inform the County’s development of its plan for addressing race and equity issues.”

A University of Virginia graduate and Hampton, Va. native, Byrd said she is looking forward to the challenges ahead in the new role.

“The time is past due to dedicate and commit our time, resources and effort to advancing race and equity in achieving Arlington’s vision of a diverse and inclusive community,” she said in a statement. “It is an opportunity we should not take lightly or as a response to the moment, and one I approach with humility.”

More from a county press release, below.

As the Chief Race and Equity Officer for Arlington County, Samia Byrd will lead the County’s work to advance racial equity, diversity and inclusion both internal and external to the organization. This includes guiding and facilitating the development and implementation of important policies and practices through an equity lens.

“Samia will be instrumental to helping Arlington better understand the cracks in our foundation,” stated County Manager Mark Schwartz. “I am excited to have her in this new leadership role as we identify the solutions moving forward to ensure that everyone in Arlington has the same opportunities regardless of the color of their skin, their education level, their housing type, their job, or the Arlington ZIP code where they live. I am honored that she will take on this work.  She will bring a deep sense of commitment, faith, and insight to a subject that is profoundly, at its core, about what type of community we want to be.”

Ms. Byrd will continue to oversee and manage the County’s coordinated work with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government (COG) Racial Equity Cohort comprised of Senior County and Arlington Public Schools staff, to inform the County’s development of its plan for addressing race and equity issues. This includes working closely with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national network of governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all, to help guide the development of a racial equity tool later this year.

Once developed, the racial equity tool will be used in guiding policy, practice, program and budget decisions and offer new strategies for achieving racial equity outcomes in Arlington. Ms. Byrd will also have a pivotal role in developing and implementing a Countywide Racial Equity Action Plan.

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Speakers at an Arlington County Board meeting on the county’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan hammered the plan’s perceived failure to live up to earlier talk of promoting equity.

The main target of most of the ire was the allegation that single-family home owners in North Arlington would receive outsized investment in stormwater protections under the plan, compared to proposed capital spending in the rest of the county.

Rather than the usual 10-year CIP cycle, County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed a one-year CIP focused on pausing and focusing on what the county describes as funding the bare necessities. Given the dramatic storms that wreaked major flooding across Arlington last year, Schwartz recommended a $50.8 million stormwater bond and millions in funding for initial projects.

“This year’s CIP also begins the County’s increased investment in stormwater infrastructure,” the County said in a press release. “The $14.6 million included in the FY 2021 plan will advance several current key projects and lays the foundation of what is expected to be a $189 million investment over 10 years.”

“For the first time, there will be a bond referendum for investments ($50.8 million) in stormwater infrastructure,” the County said. “The County is undertaking a comprehensive review to mitigate flood risks and design work is underway for significant investments in watershed-scale solutions in high-risk areas prone to flooding.”

Several speakers at last week’s online hearing, however, said that the stormwater projects disproportionately aim to protect higher-income areas of the county. Speaker Benjamin Nichols particularly targeted investments made in the Spout Run and Lubber Run watersheds.

“Making huge investments in affluent, low-density areas seems like a step in the wrong direction and seems perverse, given that single-family home development is the majority contributor to the growth of impermeable surface in Arlington County,” Nichols said. “If we’re going to make large investments in these areas on the idea that flooding is unacceptable anywhere in Arlington, we should make sure the benefits should be accrued to a broad constituency beyond the privileged few that can afford to buy a single-family house in North Arlington. Perhaps a significant upzoning would be in order.”

Nichols and other Arlingtonians have argued for funding to be restored to bicycle and pedestrian improvements cut as part of scaled-back CIP.

The criticism of the stormwater investment contrasts with sentiment in the aftermath of the flooding, which caused significant damage to homes and businesses in parts of the county like Westover.

“Do not let Arlington government off hook on flooding,” was the headline of one letter to the editor in the Sun Gazette newspaper. Another letter to the editor from last July similarly called for more county action:

“After years of study and inaction about what to do about the inadequate stormwater system, board members have been spinning rather than trying to assure residents that the problems will be solved,” the letter said. “The time to wait and sit on your hands is over — it is past time to take action.”

The CIP dedicates $26.89 million of the $50.8 million bond to the Spout Run watershed — an area north of Wilson Blvd. centered around Lee Highway communities. The first major investment in the stormwater plan is $1.2 million towards “relining of a 3,000-foot section of 33-inch Spout Run sewer main, which runs under the North Highlands neighborhood.”

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In a special work session with the Arlington County Board, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the board that achieving racial equity will involve restructuring the budget.

The former mayor spoke to the County Board at a work session yesterday morning (Monday) as the County’s budget process kicks into high gear.

Landrieu, author of In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, spoke briefly about the history of racism in America. He said changes had to go beyond just removing Confederate names from streets and schools, or taking statues down and calling it a day. He said southern localities need to do more to address the roots of institutionalized racism.

“I understand Elizabeth Warren and Bernie [Sanders] are mad at the people who have [wealth], but it’s not just the institutions today that created the wealth gap between African Americans and white people,” Landrieu said. “Those discrepancies have been baked in over time.”

Landrieu was in Arlington at the invitation of the County Board, which is embarking on a year-long push to continue building equity into its budgetary and policy decision-making.

“The more you get into it and look at things, it’s clear there’s more we need to do to ensure equity and that the government’s working for everyone,” Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey told ARLnow, prior to the meeting. “Arlington reached out to Mitch, after seeing some of the work he did… it’s part of the budget process. We’re trying to infuse equity into all of our budget discussions.”

Much of the discussion was generalized, with Landrieu noting that he didn’t know how some of the specific mechanisms functioned within Arlington, and County Board members admitting they hadn’t read Landrieu’s book.

Landrieu noted that it was going to take considerable effort to rebalance after generations of families building generational wealth under an unequal system. Part of the solution, he said, is focusing on equity rather than equality in public services — a concept previously endorsed at the County Board.

“Budgets reflect whether you mean what you say,” Landrieu said. “[It shows] who pays and who gets what — that’s critically important.”

Two of Landrieu’s colleagues told the County Board that part of the process is going to various department heads to educate them and work on restructuring the budgets within the department. Changes included adding documentation in multiple languages, making accessibility improvements for people who were visually impaired, and holding meetings in places more accessible to public transit.

“You have to say ‘show me how we’re using the funding to close the gap’ and bake that into the way we do the budget,” Landrieu said. “When department heads know that, the budgets look vastly different.”

Landrieu’s staff noted, however, that as Arlington continues to grow it needs to look at how that growth is managed to ensure it doesn’t negatively impact vulnerable communities.

“You’ve given me comfort that despite the fact that our equity initiatives are in their infancy, that’s where we need to be in our early stages if we’re going to institutionalize this and not have it be just a periodic occurrence,” County Board member Christian Dorsey said. “You’ve given us practical advice for taking it to the next level in the months to come.”

Garvey said residents should expect more equity-focused changes in the coming months.

“Should be more than just removal of library fines,” as called for in the County Manager’s proposed budget, Garvey said. “Each department should have something… I expect to see a lot more items going forward.”

“It’s all about good government,” Garvey added. “It helps government work better for everyone, not just a certain group.”

Photo via Arlington County

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The word “equity” derives from the Latin aequus, meaning “equal,” or “fair.”

Arlington Public Schools’ (APS) strategic plan refers to “equity” this way: Eliminate opportunity gaps and achieve excellence by providing access to schools, resources, and learning opportunities according to each student’s unique needs.”

Arlington County defines “equity” as “…all populations having access to community conditions and opportunities needed to reach their full potential and to experience optimal well-being.”

APS’ reference implies an individual approach to equity, whereas the County’s definition suggests a systemic approach. Indeed, APS consistently employs a non-systemic approach to matters: targeting programs and community partnerships at individual schools; relying on principals and PTAs to identify and fulfill each school’s needs, instituting exemplary projects to create a unique focus for each neighborhood elementary school, and supporting diversity through option schools rather than promoting diversity in all schools.

This approach has resulted in strikingly different academic experiences from school to school, notable disparities in perceived school quality and student achievement, exaggerated anxieties about potential boundary changes, and divided communities.

Whereas, with a systemic approach to equity:

  • Every school should be able to meet the needs of any student at any time;
  • No middle or high school teacher would know which elementary or middle school a student attended based on their academic preparedness in any given subject; and
  • Boundary discussions would be void of phrases like “lesser than,” “worse,” or “less desirable.”

Any student should be able to transfer from any neighborhood school to another for any reason – moving, boundary change – and pick-up right where they left off. No student should find themselves notably behind their new classmates academically, or conspicuously ahead and repeating instruction. No student should be obliged to live within a particular school’s attendance zone in order to receive the educational or social support they need, or struggle because they live where those supports are not readily available in their assigned school.

Instructional consistency across the district helps ensure students from every school are similarly prepared for middle and high school coursework so that there is no distinguishable correlation of students’ preparedness in math, or level of achievement in a world language, with the school they previously attended.

An equitable school system offers fewer reasons for pushback against boundary changes and, therefore, more civil discourse. All APS schools are good, but they are not equal. Academic and social experiences and opportunities differ widely, fueling divisive rhetoric and pitting neighborhoods against each other.

What is the pathway to equity? De-segregation.

The most effective way APS can ensure equity is to create a reasonable balance in socioeconomic demographics across schools.  Economic diversity facilitates equality in available resources such as PTA funding, parent and community volunteers, and other community assets. This in turn enables each school to sufficiently support its teachers and students and vastly narrows the range of disparities between schools.

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Libby Garvey was selected by her colleagues as Arlington County Board Chair for 2020, following a tradition of the Board member up for reelection serving as chair.

Garvey, who’s facing another primary challenge this year, outlined her priorities at the County Board’s annual organizational meeting last night, calling for a focus on “equity, innovation and resilience,” amid the growth of Amazon’s HQ2 and a continued challenges with affordable housing.

More from Garvey’s speech:

We’ve been managing change and growth for some time, and doing it well, but the arrival of Amazon has made the scope of our current challenge large and clear. We need to change a paradigm: the paradigm that the most vulnerable in a society are the first to suffer from change and the last to gain from it — if they ever gain at all. Economic change tends not to be equitable. That’s the old paradigm. We want a new one.

We want to be a model of progress and growth with equity. That’s a tall order. I think focusing on three areas in 2020 will help.

First, Equity. We must commit to an Arlington where progress benefits everyone, not just some. That especially includes our older residents, the people who built the Arlington we have today.

Second, Innovation. We need to double down on innovative thinking. We can’t always keep using the same solutions.

Third, Resilience. The solutions we find must not only be equitable, but they need to last over time.

So, as Board Chair, I will continue to focus on equity in 2020 like our Chair did in 2019. We have a lot of work to do. It is outlined in the resolution we adopted and includes 4 simple questions: Who benefits? Who is burdened? Who is missing? How do we know?

Specific policy focuses for 2020 include affordable housing, cooperation with neighboring jurisdictions, and stormwater management.

“Our July 8 storm showed clearly that our 20th-century infrastructure and approaches will not work well for 21st-century storms,” Garvey said. “When we begin work on our Capital Improvement Plan budget this spring we should see some very different solutions to stormwater management.”

Garvey, who faced a backlash from the local Democratic party after her vocal opposition to the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar and support for independent County Board member John Vihstadt, took a moment after her selection as chair to support another embattled County Board member: Christian Dorsey.

“Christian is a real asset to this board, to this community — we’re lucky to have you,” Garvey said of Dorsey, who last month told ARLnow that he regrets not informing the community that he had declared bankruptcy before the November election.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, Erik Gutshall — who is up for reelection in 2021 and is next year’s presumed chair — was selected as Vice Chair. The priorities Gutshall outlined include making changes to Arlington’s zoning ordinance so as to encourage the creation of additional homes.

More from a county press release:

Amazon’s arrival requires an increased focus, or “leveling up” by the County “how we grow matters.” Arlington’s next level of managed growth, he said, “will focus beyond first-order urban design principles of sidewalk widths, building heights, and traffic circulation, and instead level up to an essential focus on equity, infrastructure like schools and stormwater, and a broader definition of quality of life and livability.”

To achieve that sort of managed growing, Gutshall said, “will require new tools and a modernized zoning ordinance to expand our housing supply in a way that enhances the livability of our existing neighborhoods.” It also requires the development of a long-range, comprehensive Public Facilities Plan “to guide the collaborative, creative, timely and efficient siting and development of County and Schools facilities.” Gutshall said he looks forward to continuing to work with County and APS staff, and the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission to begin drafting the plan by July 2020 and looks forward to working with County staff to achieve the ambitious goals of the County’s updated Community Energy Plan and to conduct a campaign to highlight and profile small businesses.

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