Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the authors’.
By Progressive Voice Editors
Local news matters, and so do local opinions. Participating in local decision-making is a driver of democracy, to just stay aware, to advocate for or against a proposal.
Many of us might never know what the debate was about unless reputable, objective news outlets clued us in. Or unless a solid opinion columnist analyzed the issue, albeit briefly, to make readers aware.
This is the final Progressive Voice column, due to ARLnow’s decision to discontinue all current columns. Today, the editors of Progressive Voice reflect on some of our most well-received columns of the past four years, and offer a glimpse of issues and insights that still need to be heard.
Readers told us that they value seeing opinions on issues that directly affect them, such as tear-downs of single-family homes that are replaced by huge McMansions, being asked for input from the County when “the decision has already been made,” growth being “not an unbridled good,” and living in Arlington’s “blue bubble.” We know these issues struck a chord in part because of readership data (not “comments”), and from listening to a wide swath of Arlington citizens day after day.
Before the pandemic, our interactions at the coffee shop and gym let us hear people’s thoughts on what we’d just covered, or might be interested in covering. Because we consistently reached out, people never shied away from giving us feedback — good, bad or ugly.
Readers told us they liked hearing from different authors and points of view along the progressive spectrum. Over the past four years, Progressive Voice featured more than 70 different columnists, explaining why an issue mattered to Arlington or perhaps why they railed against a County decision. The need for quality childcare, the stormwater bond, what to do about the social isolation of senior adults, and much more.
Such issues are still out there, with earnest neighbors still caring about them. Given ARLnow’s decision to discontinue its current opinion columns, here are just three of the Progressive Voice columns that were in the works — yet now won’t be published:
- Falls Church — the New Arlington? Ouch! Some of this might just be “grass is greener” syndrome, but Arlingtonians who have moved to Falls Church keep telling us how much they love it — “more livable than Arlington,” they say. Or, “Quieter, calmer” or “You can still hear the birds sing here” or “I prefer the Northside Social in Falls Church… it’s just nicer.” And, important to many, “civic processes” just seem to move more quickly in Falls Church than in Arlington. True? It’s a local view that no news outlet or opinion columnist has dared touch, but gets quietly worried about in certain circles.
- Neighborhood and housing changes along Langston Blvd The old “Lee Highway” name has been replaced with Langston, and soon much of the 1960s-era commercial building or housing might be revamped as well, depending on what the Arlington County Board decides about land use and increasing density. Changes in the 4.6-mile Langston Blvd corridor will affect thousands of people who live, work and shop here. Implications for our schools, environmental and stormwater management issues, single-family neighborhoods? That’s why many people keep worrying as the saga winds along.
- Local News — Linchpin of Democracy Every day, decisions get made that affect the lives, finances, happiness and health of Arlingtonians. Yet coverage of such decision-making remains skimpy and erratic, especially during the early stages before decisions get baked. The Washington Post deigns to cover Arlington a few times a year, the Sun Gazette understands the behind-the-scenes but is short-staffed, and ARLnow has expanded but splits a lot of its time among restaurant openings, rehashing press releases and getting new reporters onboard.
Progressive Voice always started with the desire to air well-informed views on local issues that mattered. We thought it important to present a variety of voices — so we worked with dozens of writers instead of relying on just one person’s view, time and again. Young, old, newcomer, long-timer, Black, Brown, White or Asian, well-off or not so much, they chose topics that mattered to them and cared enough to put their thoughts out there for the community. Progressive Voice closes its chapter with the hope that these voices will persevere, and not grow weary.
Progressive Voice is edited by Elaine Furlow and Laura Saul Edwards.
Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Andrew Schneider
“I want to do a job, but I don’t have a babysitter. It’s too expensive.” That was the explanation from one mother about how the scarcity of affordable childcare affected her. In a recent survey conducted by Arlington Thrive, 41% of parents cited the lack of affordable childcare as a barrier to returning to work.
With barely half the capacity to serve children ages 0 to 5 years in Arlington, local childcare providers are simply not able to meet the needs of local families. This inability to access childcare can have a devastating impact on a parent’s ability to work. The resulting economic instability can lead to financial crisis, eviction and families being forced to leave Arlington to raise their families elsewhere.
In Arlington, infant care at a childcare center is more than $24,000 per year — roughly 20% of the median household income of $120,000 in Arlington. For families earning less, childcare costs represent a bigger burden, often requiring them to make hard trade-offs to meet their basic needs. One local parent said that during pandemic-related school closures, some childcare centers were charging more for one day of care than she makes in a week.
Arlington and Prince William have the lowest availability of licensed care in Northern Virginia. A recent study from the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia showed the economic impact of preschool enrollment disparity across income levels and race. Building on their recommendations and others, here are several ideas that could work in Arlington to improve the situation:
- Help match families with openings through a clearinghouse or intermediary.
- Increase the number of licensed providers and spaces by revising restrictive codes in favor of simple regulations that prioritize child health and wellbeing, providing support to programs through the licensing process, working with the faith and business community to identify facilities, and waiving local licensing and permit fees in exchange for fee-reduced spots;
- Improve the overall quality and access to high-quality programs by subsidizing and expanding training and professional development for childcare workers; and
- Provide direct funding subsidies to childcare programs to increase workers’ wages.
Arlington has a long history of innovating to address social challenges. Arlington Public Schools’ Extended Day after-school program was created in the 1970s to help women enter the workforce without having to worry about their children being safe from 3-6 p.m.
More recently, Arlington demonstrated a desire to improve access to affordable, quality childcare. With leadership from County Board Member Katie Cristol, the Child Care Initiative was established in late 2017 and made some progress toward this goal. Earlier this month, under Cristol’s leadership, the County pledged $5 million to develop affordable childcare options in Arlington. This investment will be an essential element in building more childcare capacity with the same innovative spirit that has become emblematic of Arlington.
Because of what we are hearing from the people we serve, Thrive is committed to supporting this issue and developing more long-term solutions. We are identifying successful models from around the country that might have some applicability to Arlington.
The availability of affordable, safe and enriching childcare options is linked to the economic health of Arlington. Without more childcare options in Arlington, families will face harsh realities as to whether they can remain in our community. For these reasons, we hope to engage our neighbors, nonprofit partners, funders, county leaders and others in thinking about childcare solutions comprehensively for children ages birth through 14.
Won’t you join us in this work to expand access to high quality childcare and enrichment opportunities? Solving this problem will go a long way in reducing financial crisis, and improving opportunity for all in Arlington.
Andrew Schneider was born and raised in Arlington County and has served as the Executive Director of Arlington Thrive since March 2016. He is the incoming chair of Arlington’s Continuum of Care, Co-Chair of the Arlington Interfaith Network and host of Arlington Voices on WERA.
By William Mark Habeeb
The new Arlington County logo seems to announce that we are nothing but an appendage of D.C. Is that a sad admission of the truth, or the declaration of a rather uninspiring ambition? Either way, it’s a gross underestimation of what our county of nearly 240,000 could be.
Arlington enjoys a solid tax base, a geographic and population size conducive to the creation of community, and a diverse, well-educated — and generally liberal-minded — population. So, why are we so timid in exploring ways to use these assets to create a model progressive community, a place where new ideas are tested and refined, where we do more than wring our hands over problems like systemic inequality? In short, why aren’t we more bold?
Arlington has been bold in the past: Over 50 years ago, Arlington’s elected leaders insisted that the Metro be built underground, not above ground as originally planned. While this decision cost billions more, it allowed Arlington’s Rosslyn – Ballston corridor to develop as a compact urban community; the increased tax base must certainly have more than made up for the higher construction costs.
Contrast that decision with the issue of mass transit along Columbia Pike. The best solution would be bus rapid transit (BRT). But to be truly rapid, BRT needs dedicated bus-only lanes. That, however, would require removing street parking along Columbia Pike, which some would oppose. But being bold sometimes requires making decisions that meet resistance. Being bold requires a vision — in this case, the vision of a community dedicated to the reduction of vehicular traffic.
Addressing the “missing middle” housing crisis also requires boldness. Revised zoning laws to allow more small multi-family buildings and duplexes would make it possible for more people and families to live in Arlington’s neighborhoods while maintaining a neighborhood feel. Cities like Somerville, Massachusetts, maintain a neighborhood feel even though much of the housing stock is multi-family. Would this make everyone happy? Of course not. Being bold seldom makes everyone happy, especially when the bold actions are aimed at addressing inequalities or better sharing a community’s resources.
Bold ideas can be borrowed. For example, a way to provide lower-income Arlingtonians with more educational opportunities could be based on the “Birmingham Promise,” a public-private partnership in Birmingham, Alabama — which has a far lower tax-base than Arlington — that provides tuition assistance for graduates of Birmingham City Schools who attend public colleges in Alabama, and offers an internship and apprenticeship program where high school seniors gain work experience while earning money and academic credit.
Other ideas — such as community land trusts (CLTs) and participatory budgeting — have been successfully implemented in a number of communities. CLTs are publicly funded non-profits that purchase and hold property in trust in order to guarantee affordable rental rates. Participatory budgeting (PB), an idea that originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil — allows community members to decide how to spend a designated portion of the public budget. PB goes beyond Arlington’s Neighborhood Conservation Program by allowing community members to identify a wide range of community needs and allocating public budget funds to address them.
Not all bold ideas are realistic or cost-effective. But to find the ones that turn out to be real gems, we must be nimble-minded and willing to take a few calculated chances. If Arlington’s leaders — both elected officials and unelected community leaders — become so risk-averse, so afraid to arouse opposition, so scared of pushing the idea envelope, then we will be in danger of becoming what our new logo portrays: The missing corner of DC, a metro-area afterthought living in our just-good-enough community.
I would like to see Arlington become an urban “beta community,” where we test bold ideas even if they’re in the start-up phase. Let’s take advantage of our citizens’ innovative ideas and other resources — to see how successful we can become in creating a model 21st century urban community.
William Mark Habeeb first moved to Arlington in 1977 as a graduate student, and he and his wife bought their Arlington home in 1991. Their son attended Arlington Public Schools. Mark teaches in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the authors’.
The editors of Progressive Voice believe a core value of progressive government is for leaders to self-examine, strengthen and innovate to enhance opportunity for every person. In that vein, we explored Democratic candidates’ approaches to leadership and decision-making as we interviewed Mary Kadera, candidate for Arlington School Board, and Takis Karantonis, candidate for Arlington County Board. The two interviews have been edited and condensed.
PV: On the election trail, what have voters told you they want in a leader?
Kadera: Some of the messages I am getting loud and clear are these:
Accountability. There is a sense on the part of many, rightly or wrongly, that there’s not a tremendous amount of accountability in terms of the School Board asking hard questions, or taking ownership of hard problems. People want to see a School Board leader asking critical questions, not in the sense of setting fire to everything the staff is doing, but the injection of healthy skepticism.
Willingness to admit missteps. It has felt to some that we talked about our school system as our jewel, and that there were no flaws in this stone. For many people, their lived experience didn’t match that, and particularly families of our English-learners or students with disabilities… parents of gifted students…it runs across a range. …Being honest about the reality is the first step to improving.
PV: What would demonstrate effective leadership, in your view?
Kadera: On a micro level, that I have taken the time to engage with someone, and I voted in a way they didn’t like, and they said, ‘I don’t agree with the decision you made, but you explained why you did that, and you heard me, and handled this is a responsive and responsible manner.’ On the macro level, it would be people having a higher level of trust in the School Board. We’re in an environment now where …it’s kind of a gotcha moment, and ‘when you do wrong, I’m going to go on social media and blast you,’ and that’s not healthy. It’s essential that the public have healthy skepticism, but also that we feel that we’re partners in improvement, and that feeling is lacking right now.
PV: Hundreds of kids did not come back to APS this year. They had the choice, and the means, to do something else. How do you balance competing needs and priorities so that we have a school system that really does “work well for every single family”?
Kadera: I’ve talked with families that made the decision to pull their kids… one category was students with disabilities, either there were medical/safety concerns, or they felt interventions their kids were getting in private school worked better than when they were in APS. The second was parents of kids who were identified as gifted, or academically high performing, and they were worried that APS would be so necessarily focused on addressing learning loss that the more advanced students wouldn’t have enough of a challenge, enough attention paid to them. To me, equity is about making sure every student has the right level of support and challenge…it has to be everybody. We are in a dangerous situation if we communicate, either intentionally or unintentionally, that public education only works for certain ‘kinds’ of students; then that’s a slippery slope to a situation where we find ourselves in the land of vouchers and privatization of education.
By Cheryl Moore
Like many people, I was deeply moved by the racial justice protests that marked the summer of 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t feel comfortable marching in large groups, but I knew there had to be a way for me to make a difference. What could I do, using the experience and resources that I already had?
The answer began to emerge as I was preparing for a meeting of the Mount Olivet Foundation, which has a more than 50-year history of providing grants and loans to students pursuing higher education. The foundation president and I discussed the tumultuous events of the summer, both expressing our wish to do something that would promote equity in our own community. Then we had an idea: maybe the foundation could establish scholarships exclusively for Black or Latinx students. Perhaps this could be a tangible way to address unequal access to post-secondary education that restricts career choices and earning power for many young people of color.
We then convened a group of board members to develop the scholarship parameters and begin raising funds for the Mount Olivet Foundation Equity Scholarship. This was a new venture because preference for receiving foundation grants had usually been given to applicants with financial need who had a connection to Mount Olivet UMC or to those committed to serving the United Methodist Church.
For the new scholarship, however, we planned to reach out into the wider community. We discussed the difference between “equality” — treating everyone the same way — and “equity” — recognizing that many young people of color often encounter unique obstacles to obtaining higher education and need different opportunities and resources.
With a goal of providing substantive support for students who demonstrated significant financial need, particularly if they were the first in their family to attend college, we came up with an award of $5,000 per year, renewable for four years. A generous foundation board member offered to match contributions up to $50,000. Donations arrived, and we soon had almost $100,000.
Dotty and Jim Dake, who for many years had supported the work of the Mount Olivet Foundation, were early donors. Jim said, “The murder of George Floyd jolted us out of our complacency, and our study of the effects of systemic racism in Arlington led us to want to do more.”
The foundation made its first award in June 2021 to a young Black woman from Arlington who now attends Northern Virginia Community College. The plan is to continue fundraising so the fund will become an endowment that will benefit her and other students well into the future. “We see the Mount Olivet Foundation’s equity scholarship as a small but tangible step toward racial justice in our community,” said Jim Dake.
With this action, we hope to begin to remedy some of the effects of racism and, more recently, of the pandemic. The loss of lives and livelihoods during the pandemic has been felt profoundly. Some Black and Latinx families have had to choose between paying for rent and food and writing a check for college tuition. Some students saw their grades decline when they were forced to balance their own academics with supporting the schooling of younger siblings, thereby missing opportunities for merit-based aid.
By Alice Hogan
For the past few years, there have been ongoing, serious problems with property management, resident services, and health and safety at the Serrano Apartments on Columbia Pike, which finally came to the public eye this spring.
We are witnessing the real-world consequences of poor management and poor accountability with the Serrano case. At stake are the well-being of our neighbors, the public perception of the county as it responds, the reputation of the Serrano owner, and, indeed, the community’s support of Arlington’s affordable housing programming.
My hope is that this situation will not adversely impact our county’s response to the growing need for housing that is affordable for low/medium-wage earners, seniors and residents with disabilities. The data show many Arlingtonians are in desperate need of affordable housing options.
- How can we use the Serrano experience as an opportunity to improve owner management and property maintenance?
Property maintenance is the responsibility of building owners and their management staff, not the county, which is one of the lenders. However, the county has an interest in living conditions being adequate and appropriate at every property that receives any type of county funding. Indeed, it has a moral and fiduciary responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are well invested so that all CAF residents are living in safe and decent housing.
The 2013 purchase of the Serrano was atypical because the financing package did not include federal tax credits to which substantial oversight and reporting requirements are attached and its acquisition did not budget for an immediate rehabilitation, leaving the property vulnerable to many of the problems that have emerged in the interim.
In the wake of the Serrano fiasco, county housing staff is conducting a capital needs assessment of its entire CAF portfolio to provide recommendations for major maintenance projects at the many aging properties that house our 8,000+ CAFs.
The county can also protect its affordable housing investments by requiring all future CAF purchase agreements to include adequate budgeting for anticipated building needs, regardless of funding sources. Furthermore, to protect our investments and ensure decent housing, all county affordable housing loans should require annual, third-party inspections for public review of the physical property and financial performance of CAFs.
- What can we learn from the Serrano tenants’ experience that can strengthen county oversight of Arlington’s growing portfolio of Committed Affordable Units?
Does Arlington’s growing affordable housing program have sufficient and appropriate staff? Currently, the responsibility for overseeing Arlington’s housing programs is dispersed among several government departments, including Housing, Planning and Human Services. Since housing affordability is a priority for the County Board, should this collaboration be streamlined into a single Housing Team that reports to the County Manager? And/or should certain oversight tasks be contracted out to specialized consultants? The county might benefit from studying how comparable jurisdictions operate their housing programs.
- How do we ensure the burden doesn’t fall on tenants to advocate for the services they expect and are paying for?
At the Serrano, regular work sessions with participation from the County Board and staff, residents, advocates and Serrano owner and management representatives, should continue until property issues are resolved.
The county should also assess the organizational governance of its affordable housing partners to determine how they listen to tenants’ voices. It should ensure our partners effectively take tenants’ needs and concerns into account when conducting business and delivering services through annual and public tenant satisfaction surveys at each CAF property.
Let’s ask these and more questions, listen carefully and move forward, using the lessons learned from the Serrano crisis, to make Arlington’s affordable housing program as efficient, accountable and resident-centered as possible.
Alice Hogan holds a Master’s in Social Work, with a focus on affordable housing and social justice and is a member of Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing. She is a native Arlingtonian who resides in Westover with her husband and their two teenagers.
By Nancy White
Despite Arlington’s prosperity, not everyone is thriving.
Tremendous health disparities exist in our community as evidenced by data showing a 10-year difference in life expectancy between neighboring census tracts. And more than six percent of Arlington residents — about 11,000 — have no access to health insurance due to immigration status or incomes that are too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low to afford subsidized Obamacare plans.
How does an organization effectively address health disparities in a community? Health disparities are variations in the rates of disease between groups of people, often because of factors such as race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status and access to nutritious food and safe, affordable housing.
For 27 years, Arlington Free Clinic (AFC) has had a clear mission of providing free, comprehensive healthcare to low-income, uninsured Arlington adults through the generosity of volunteers and donors. As we emerge from the pandemic and consider our new-normal, I’ve given thought to what has made AFC successful and how our strategic focus will help us continue.
Disciplined focus on mission: Providing healthcare is what we do best, and this focus has allowed the organization to resist the seduction of funding opportunities that would take us off-mission or duplicate services already available.
We considered but said no to opportunities including:
- Medicaid Funding. When Virginia expanded Medicaid in 2019, AFC had an option to become a provider for low-income, Medicaid recipients. After much communication with health safety net partners, county leaders and AFC board members, we decided to refer our Medicaid-eligible patients to local providers and open our doors to accept even more patients who had no options for insurance.
- Social Services. Today, significant funding is available to address “upstream” causes of poor health like homelessness, unemployment and food insecurity. Instead of shifting to provide these services onsite, we’ve opted for a case manager to refer patients to our community partners who are experts in these areas.
We debated and ultimately said yes to others:
- Dental. When a donor shared her dream of funding a dental clinic to honor her father who died of a dental infection he couldn’t afford to treat, AFC carefully considered the need for dental care and the impact on the clinic. After a year-long pilot program in county-donated space and many discussions with AFC board, staff and community partners helped us move forward. This program matched our mission and met community needs because of the important link between oral health and overall health, and because community dental care was inaccessible to our low-income patients.
- Advocacy. As healthcare providers, we are aware of the community conditions impacting our patients’ health. This has given us confidence to be at the table as their advocate for issues ranging from improved digital broadband to easier access to groceries during the pandemic.
By Gabe and Dolores Rubalcava
The editors of Progressive Voice recently talked with long-time Arlington residents Gabe and Dolores Rubalcava to hear their opinions on how Arlington has changed over the past decades, and what strategic decisions are most important now for county decision-makers.
PV: As an Army family, you moved to Arlington from Ft. Hood, Texas in 1991. Since then, you’ve both worked and raised a family, with all four children now college graduates in their careers. Over time, what have you seen as the most significant changes in Arlington?
Dolores: All the development has been the biggest change. When we first drove up, I thought, “No way this is close to Washington D.C.”…this was a cute little sleepy town…there were one-story houses in Ballston…the miniature golf course there had just been taken down.
Gabe: I was working at the Pentagon and a friend had told us to “find a house inside the Beltway” if we could [to avoid a long commute], so we squeezed ourselves into a smaller place close to Carlin Springs, even though we paid more than we would have farther away. Then later we moved [to the Bluemont area] to a bigger house.
Demographics have changed. When we got here, there were a lot of Vietnamese, Salvadorans. We were one of the few Mexican families. When the Vietnamese got more money they moved to Fairfax. Now we’re seeing Eritreans, lots of Mongolians.
PV: What county decisions and trends have concerned you or pleased you?
Dolores: The development has attracted new people, visitors . . . on the flip side, I wish the south side would get better. For one, the streetcar on Columbia Pike being nixed was so sad. Businesses were looking forward to it, restaurants were so hyped up about it.
Gabe: So instead of the streetcar, people were talking about what buses could do. But . . . that hasn’t happened. In the end, what did we get? Nada. So that was a promise not kept.
PV: How do you think Arlington County should change moving forward?
Gabe: Today it seems in Arlington we have people ’til they are about 30-35 years old, then they move out, whether because of children, or need a bigger house. So a big question is: what could Arlington do to keep people after that point? And then there are older people like us. I want to stay here until we kick off.
PV: What are your ideas to address such needs?
Gabe: On housing, we have to get more creative with solutions. What does it take to change the dynamic? Like recently they approved an apartment building with 228 apartments, and of those, you know how many committed affordable housing units? 12! Just one was set aside for [people with] disabilities! It’s well within our power to fix that. We’re a county with a $1 billion budget.
The county makes decisions on land use. Let the market decide the price point. But, do we want people to stay in Arlington? Let’s look at the duplex idea, other housing ideas so more people could stay here when they want to start families. Most of all, do not be afraid to try something. Sometimes we overthink solutions until we are overcome by events, or we fail to take advantage of the committee recommendation . . . we really do have an educated populace — let’s take advantage of it!
Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the authors’.
By Anne deLeon and Mary Byrne
Last year, Americans were inundated with millions of political calls. Texting technologies added to the deluge: 2.72 billion political text messages were sent in September 2020 alone. Voters like long-time Arlington resident Donna Bierlein were drained by the onslaught, “It’s annoying to get called over and over again.”
Yet, the Arlington Democrats’ effort to get out the vote has been successful because it relies not just on calls to solicit support, but on building genuine connections with voters. Last year, our volunteers found a new way to be of service.
The Rides to the Polls team has provided transportation assistance to voters since 2008. Our group expected the emergence of Covid-19 and the intensities of the presidential election would impact our operation in 2020. Voting became more complicated, leaving seniors unsure about their voting options.
Seeking to correct our state’s reputation for being a difficult place to vote, the Virginia General Assembly passed bills to make it easier. Drop boxes for collecting absentee ballots were approved, funding for postage for mail-in ballots was provided and rules for becoming a permanent absentee voter were eased. Because of Covid-19, the witness requirement for absentee ballots was waived.
To help voters absorb the changes, our team decided to reach as many people as possible in advance of the election. Volunteers made thousands of calls, answering questions about voting rules, providing assistance with online ballot applications and offering rides.
As coronavirus vaccines became available in January 2021, we saw a similar need among seniors. Why not turn our Rides to the Polls operation into a Rides to Vaccines program?
More than 90 volunteers joined up — twice the number who usually volunteer for the Rides to the Polls effort. Our newcomers ranged from college students to 80-year-olds and included Democrats as well as Republicans.
For five months our tireless volunteers called more than 4,000 seniors, regardless of political party, helping with online vaccine registration as well as scheduling and driving to appointments. By the time our program wrapped up in June, our outreach expanded to non-English speakers. Victoria Virasingh reached out to Spanish-speaking neighbors, organizing information drops at homes and setting up registration tables at markets. Another volunteer organized and paid for rides for those needing disability-adapted transportation. Mesky Bhrane helped Amharic speakers, collecting multiple blessings along the way.
Seniors were reassured by our safety protocols, which included mask requirements for drivers and passengers, surface-cleaning between rides and open windows during travel. Our volunteers built trust, checking in before and after appointments and offering their personal phone numbers for follow-up calls. Colleen Boles had multiple conversations with more than one vaccine-hesitant resident, providing the information and support they needed to become comfortable making an appointment.
Our project succeeded because it was rooted in connection and concern. We concentrated on those who “fell between the cracks,” helping those who lacked computer access, were confused about conflicting information provided by the media or needed safe transportation. Some seniors expressed surprise to know a neighbor cared enough to find and call them. Turney Tse said, had we not called, her 100-year-old mother would not have been vaccinated.
Retired California Congressman Vic Fazio, who now lives in Arlington, also appreciated the call. “I thought it was a great effort showing empathy, interest and concern.” Fazio suggested the impact of efforts like ours might have lasting impact. People learn “there’s more to a political party than platform and issues,” when people feel “recognized, noticed, cared for.”
If pivoting a small but effective effort like the Arlington Democrats’ Rides to the Polls program toward non-political community service can build goodwill in times of crisis, why not apply the model more broadly in normal times? “In a period when cynicism reigns and people are mistrustful,” DeFazio says, outreach rooted in common interest, concern for the individual and care for community can be key to engaging people one by one, neighbor to neighbor.
Long-time Arlington residents Anne deLeon and Mary Byrne are both former Capitol Hill staffers. They lead the Arlington, Va. Democrats’ Rides to the Polls team, which has provided transportation assistance to voters since 2008.
Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Keith Willis
Arlington County residents can be proud of our world class public services and of living in a county that values government’s role in making our county a great place to live. In July the Arlington County Board will have the opportunity to make our county services even better by giving our county employees a real voice on the job.
The County Board will consider a proposal allowing county employees to engage in collective bargaining, presenting an opportunity for employees and management to negotiate on things such as wages, benefits, and working conditions.
When public employees, including first responders and county employees, have a union contract, it can improve public services by reducing employee turnover and giving workers a voice in areas such as cost savings and efficiencies. As a county employee said last month before the County Board, county workers want to “offer our expert opinions on our workplace concerns.”
For Virginia, collective bargaining could help alleviate wage disparities that public employees have with their private sector counterparts, while also addressing racial and gender pay equity problems. In our community, unionized county employees could also raise wages for all workers by setting a standard for fair and equitable pay.
Over the past year, county workers have been setting the stage by joining unions and engaging in discussions with county management about what a collective bargaining ordinance could look like. Last month, the County Manager submitted his proposal to the County Board. While this proposal is strong in many respects, I believe it could be improved in three key areas.
- The new ordinance should be broadly inclusive to maximize the number of County employees that can join their unions. Obviously, there is a group of managers and supervisors that cannot be part of the union but including lead workers such as fire station Battalion Chiefs would expand access to the benefits of collective bargaining to more employees.
- The County Manager should lay out a policy of management neutrality. To be clear, I’m not implying the county has engaged in the anti-union activity we see from corporations like Amazon and Walmart. Furthermore, the County Manager has expressed the County management team’s neutrality on county employee organizing. However, I believe he could go further by ordering managers to allow employees the freedom to organize their unions without any management involvement or interference.
- The County Manager has opposed allowing disciplinary actions to be a subject of negotiation. A fundamental part of a union contract is a formalized procedure in which employees have a clear and fair process for addressing grievances that balances the power between workers and management. Leaving this core element out would be a glaring omission in the collective bargaining agreements made possible by the proposal.
As for APS employees, School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen noted that “staff compensation and a plan for collective bargaining will be key areas of focus for us this coming school year. It is vital that we ensure that all staff are fairly and consistently rewarded for their great work.” The School Board is a separate governing body with oversight and management of our public school system’s approximately 6,794 full-time, part-time and hourly employees.
As a 30-year Arlington resident, I’m thrilled our County Board is leading the way on labor issues in our state. Arlington County workers had union contracts until 1977, when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Arlington needed permission from the state legislature to enter into a collective bargaining arrangement. In 1993, the legislature reinforced this ruling by passing legislation banning the practice altogether.
This ban put us at odds with the United Nations, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Catholic Church and an array of organizations across the world that recognize collective bargaining as a human right. In 2019, the Virginia legislature overturned this ban and left it up to local governments as to whether their employees could unionize and engage in collective bargaining
I’m hopeful that the ultimate ordinance passed by the County Board will be a robust progressive bill that reflects our community values and shows that we value the voices of our county workers.
Keith Willis is a union organizer, former SEIU member, and chair of the Arlington Democrats’ Labor Caucus.
Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Rev. Jonathan Linman
I moved to Arlington a year ago after 18 years in the concrete jungle of New York City where the only contact I had with nature in my apartment was a view of a mimosa tree from my fifth-floor kitchen window. Thus, I now relish my occasions outdoors at my Arlington home where I spend all the time I can on my porch, deck or brick patio in the yard.
While we live amidst the fifth largest metropolitan area in the nation, nature is all around us — the cacophony of the once-every-17-years cicadas noisily asserted nature’s presence this year. Our suburban context cannot ultimately overshadow nature’s claims on us. Yet our species tries to “fill the earth and subdue it” as the mythic creation account in Genesis in the Bible puts it. Our stewardship of mother earth has been anything but exemplary.
I notice this in subtle ways, like the scarcity of fireflies on summer nights, a foreboding sign of the collapse of many insect populations due to human practices. I also notice, in not-so-subtle ways, the human effects of seeking to control the natural world.
On April 30, an army of workers descended on our usually quiet neighborhood wielding lawnmowers, weed whackers, leaf blowers and chainsaws, all in the name of imposing “order.” The irony of this intrusive, un-natural cacophony was that it occurred on National Arbor Day, a day dedicated to planting and caring for trees, not cutting them down!
The point of these musings? We as a species are beckoned to promote environmental justice right here at home in Arlington.
The congregation I serve as pastor has worshiped outdoors for several months because of the coronavirus. This has been a silver lining amidst the overbearing clouds of our pandemic-induced truncated routines. The songs of the birds accompany our communal singing. Even the cicadas offered their strange sounds to the proceedings, enhancing our connection with nature.
Outdoor worship forces us to admit in humility that we are subservient to nature’s elements with weather — too hot or cold or wet — that we cannot control. All of this is an exhortation for our congregation to get serious about working for environmental justice.
One such effort that seeks to be environmentally friendly and to serve human need is our community garden, our “Plot Against Hunger.” Our garden is lovingly nurtured by our volunteer gardeners who practice sustainable agriculture in microcosm to raise wholesome, healthy produce to benefit the hungry and food insecure in our community.
But there is more to be done. As we anticipate a return soon to congregational programming as the pandemic subsides, our congregation’s leaders will begin to discern ways we can practically promote environmental justice locally while also adding our voice of advocacy to more global concerns. Our national church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, had the foresight in 1993, before climate change was front-page news, to adopt a social statement: “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice.” This statement will ground and guide our conversations and decision-making.
While I cannot predict our specific course of action, we as a congregation aim to be among many local organizations that add leaven to the loaf to nurture a more sustainable and harmonious blend between humanity and the natural world.
Even in our suburban context, the global struggle between nature and the human species is unavoidable. We cannot escape this conflicted reality even here in our pristine neighborhoods. Thus, I welcome hearing from other organizations who also share a passion for environmental justice. The synergies of partnerships will take us further than if we act alone.
Linman is pastor of the Resurrection Lutheran Church in Arlington’s Westover neighborhood.