I live in Arlington, Virginia
“Arlington will be a diverse and inclusive world-class urban community with secure, attractive residential and commercial neighborhoods where people unite to form a caring, learning, participating, sustainable community in which each person is important.” This is our county’s mission statement. The vision for the kind of community we want to be.
Like so many countries, states, counties, towns and yes, people, Arlington is not the county it means to be.
The Northern Virginia region is home to 4 of the 10 wealthiest counties in the US. Arlington itself is ranked 8th and that score was awarded a couple years ago, before Amazon decided to set up camp last year.
Arlington is led by privileged, white people.
Take a deep breath with me. We can just let this fact be true. It’s not an accusation. It’s not an admonition. It’s the truth. And it’s a problem.
As a troublemaker and faculty member with The Leadership Center for Excellence, an organization that endeavors to transform Arlington’s civic leaders into authentic changemakers who can create sustainable, systemic change in this aspirational county and beyond, I will be causing some trouble next month with and for a room full of civic leaders.
In preparation for leading what I hope to make a very uncomfortable experience for 50 local leaders, I have spoken with the directors and clinical managers of many of the local non-profits addressing the major health and human services issues facing Arlington. It may not surprise you to know that the leaders of the non-profits that will address the class are all well-known to each other. They know each other because the issues they address overlap in inextricable ways and many of the people they serve benefit from services offered by multiple organizations. Each of these conversations has been heartening and deeply sad and then empowering and then overwhelming.
These problems of homelessness, food insecurity, intimate partner violence and substance use disorders are massive problems without easy solutions. They hide out of sight. Hidden behind bureaucracy, behind the myth of meritocracy, behind the selfish guilt of privileged people who want to protect their own power and comfort more than they want to do the work of creating a truly just and equitable community.
The people of Arlington, by and large, are good people. Probably like the people wherever you live. They love. They do “what they can.” They simply don’t know what they don’t know. They think they’re helping by doing the things they’re doing now. The real roots and their role in the problems in our community are invisible to them.
In a conversation with one of these non-profit leaders this morning, a woman who has worked in the Arlington non-profit sector in health and human services for more than 20 years, something became crystal clear. She shared what she has seen and what she has learned over the years and then she said, so simply, that Arlington needs to “Change its values or live them.”
It’s that simple. If the values espoused in the mission of our county are truly our values, it’s time to put up or shut up.
Most humans live this way. It’s not unique to Arlington. We say that we stand for things, but when circumstances ask us to truly stand, we don’t. We honestly believe in things like equity and diversity, but we assume those things will get handled or that they already exist with no stewardship from us or people we know. These are our so-called inalienable rights. Right?
If you ask any Arlingtonian what their values are, what makes them proud to live in Arlington, they will say things like “diversity” and “multi-cultural” and “good education” and “community.” But as this same wise woman who suggested a hard look at whether or not we’re living our values also said, “If you cover your eyes and look for a problem, you won’t see it.”
I have called Arlington my home for over 20 years. It is a place I have loved to live and still love to live. And also? It is a place, like so many others, that has been unwilling to be honest with itself for too long.
So, in a world full of New Years’-inspired resolutions to “detox,” to “lose 10 pounds,” and “drink less wine,” I resolve to choose willful awareness over willful ignorance. I resolve to make the invisible visible.
This coming year and for all the years that it takes, I will continue to lean into the sharp points and resist the temptation to be immobilized by white guilt and privilege. I will engage directly with communities and do with them instead of to them. I will ask my questions out loud and no longer let “that’s the way it’s done” explain systemic racism, ageism, ableism or anything else that makes some powerful at the expense of making others weak.
What will you resolve to do?