Pressed for a single word to describe Arlingtonians, I might choose “joiners.”
Whether in politics, organized religion, neighborhood activism, charities or hobby sharing, our citizenry has long proved that many heads beat one.
How to extend such engagement to the younger generation was the conundrum confronted by engaged attendees June 12 at the Committee of 100.
They led a 21st-century discussion of how to communicate in a world of bombardment by impersonal social media while drawing on deep traditions in Arlington’s history.
Former 1980s-era County Board member John Milliken, still going as a transportation official, acted as the silver-haired historian, explaining how “the more things change” in Arlington, the more “the fundamentals do not.”
The driver of Arlington’s citizen activism has not been County Board issues but the desire for quality schools, Milliken said. With World War II, Arlington’s population ballooned from 57,040 in 1940 to 135,449 in 1950, and “live births hit new highs at Arlington Hospital.”
Activists formed the Citizens Committee for School Improvement in 1947, and Arlington became first in Virginia to elect its school board. That privilege was revoked by Richmond’s powerbrokers in 1956 after Arlington got uppity in seeking school desegregation. The resulting “polarization” formed the climate, Milliken said, in which both the Committee of 100 and Arlingtonians for a Better County were founded.
The “fundamentals” that endure, he added, are that Arlingtonians are “comfortable with government.” Our well-acquainted citizens are “relatively homogenous,” educated and ready to provide “resources, time and money.” And they run an electoral system “conducive to moderation through at-large, staggered elections.”
Speakers representing the Millennials described their personal journeys to involvement. Krysta Jones, founder of the Vote Lead Impact group that trains African-American candidates, arrived on Columbia Pike in 2004 after a realtor promised an Arlington soon to be transformed by a streetcar. (Not). A veteran of Democratic congressional campaigns, Jones praised Arlington’s “progressive firsts” — Freedman’s Village, pioneering school integration and planning for Metro’s impact. But one can “peel back to things you might not want to see” — the Hall’s Hill segregation wall, the “North-South divide,” poverty in certain schools and pricey housing.
But Jones, active with the Arlington Community Foundation and the Junior League, was impressed that County Board member Chris Zimmerman responded to her first email, though a stranger. “Everybody can get involved,” even if the Arlington Way “takes a new form.”
Arlington-bred Hannah Dannenfelser, the Community Involvement Ambassador at the Arlington Community Federal Credit Union, recalled the Clarendon Day in 2014 when she wandered to the Jaycees booth. “That led me to giving back in my own way” to being “part of the fabric of the next generation of Arlington leaders.”
The challenge, Dannenfelser said, is that young people in $2,500-a-month rentals on the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor have high salaries, competitive contracting careers and a bar scene. “They are hard to engage because they have limited free time and aren’t necessarily planning to stay long.”
The way to make them aware of Arlington’s charitable needs is to “create moments of connection” on social media and “where they work and play,” she said. Private companies can form partnerships for “volunteer management” to build a “shared commitment to Arlington’s future.” With 230,000 people, “it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.”
The key, said Milliken, is not “the Snapchatters and Facebookers” but “sitting down for actual conversations.”
Well-regulated food trucks have earned their place on Arlington’s menu. I partake, but I experienced a downside.
I recently met a friend for lunch at the old-fashioned dine-in restaurant Summers near Courthouse.
I could barely make my way to its entrance because of the crowds on the Wilson Blvd. sidewalk ordering from a fleet of food trucks.
Inside the restaurant, I was practically the only customer.