My Experience with Community Building Efforts
I have spent a major part of my life on projects to create community. My most successful project was in Mount Vernon Virginia where I lived a walking distance from the supervisor’s office. Supervisor Hyland announced a special community gathering to obtain input on whatever was on the mind of residents. This was a very unusual opportunity. Citizens were offered three minutes to present their views. I enrolled.
I spent the four weeks preceding the event preparing my case. Our area had several notable organizations: an organization that dealt with poverty, a chamber of commerce, a historical organization, an athletic league. I wanted to see a community newspaper that could present the views of all parts of our community. I also wanted to see a community umbrella organization where citizens could plan community events and identify other issues that could lead to a stronger community.
When the time came, I was ready. The event was held at Mount Vernon High School. About 100 citizens were in attendance. About 20 citizens had enrolled to present their views. I can remember how I concluded my presentation. I said, “All I want is a newspaper and an umbrella.” The response was a standing ovation.
I thought that surely someone would come forward to implement this program. After six months had passed without anyone offering to take up any part of my vision, I became aware that I had succeeded in formulating my own agenda.
The newspaper was the easier of the two objectives to get started. I identified Record Printing Company in Silver Spring as my printer. I had two persons who had agreed to distribute the paper. I had a name for the paper, The Mount Vernon-Lee Vantage Monthly. I had a major information source, the Mount Vernon Civic Federation which met monthly. Since I was president of my civic association I attended every month.
I started the newspaper in September of 1988. At the start, I had no other writers. Later, architect and Lee District planing appointee Jack Kelso and Mount Vernon District Education appointee Kristine Amundson wrote monthly articles. A highlight was the resurrection of civic life in Hollin Hall, a large neighborhood in the center of Mount Vernon district. The newspaper continued until September 1999.
The Umbrella Organization
The umbrella organization was a greater challenge. After searching for an idea of how to launch a large organization without success, I learned about Lorton’s plan to host a Fourth of July parade. Mount Vernon had never held such an event.
I sent letters to about 40 community leaders asking for cosponsors for a Mount Vernon Fourth of July parade. About 20 responded affirmatively. In my flyer listing the cosponsors, I announced the coming event. I also asked for volunteers. I thought the volunteers might be interested in becoming the board members of the Mount Vernon Community Coalition. The newspaper served well in announcing this event. The event was held at the Whitman Middle School athletic field.
The two high schools of the Mount Vernon District provided bands to march in the parade. The General from Fort Belvoir attended and was on the speaker’s list. Community associations occupied vending booths around the large field. There were pony rides for the children.
From the stage, after the last speaker, I read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and concluded with this question to attendees, And now Mount Vernon how do we stand? Are we in support of this declaration, what say you? The response from the 50 attendees was a strong affirmative roar.
How did the umbrella organization result from the Fourth of July event? My hunch proved right. Many of the volunteers at this event were eager to participate in the Mount Vernon Community Coalition. The coalition also gained the membership of 60 local organizations.
After two years, I moved to Franconia a community neighboring Mount Vernon. Franconia is at the heart of the Lee District. I was close enough to Mount Vernon to continue with the coalition.
Mount Vernon, as a civic area, is the best I have found in my lifetime. The Mount Vernon Council has a paid membership of about 50 civic organizations. The president or a representative of each organization attends the monthly meetings. The council has eight committees. Each committee gives a report. The Mount Vernon Supervisor does not speak until the end of the meeting when he or she gives a report. The website for the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations is MVCCA.org.
Where is the Mount Vernon umbrella organization today? It is dust. It lasted four years. I moved to the Lee District. Jack Knowles was a New England phenomenon. He was chairman of the education committee of the Mt Vernon Council. He was president of his small Home Owner Association. He took over the annual civic dinner, that I started. He was civic perfection until he died.
My limitation as a community builder is that I conceive great ideas and implement them but I fail to stick with them through the long haul. What do I draw from this experience? I draw that it is very difficult for an individual or a small group to create an institution. What they create is very fragile and likely to fail. This is held up by all the other community building projects I have participated in. There are no lasting results that I can identify.
This is why I have been impressed by municipal corporations and homeowner associations. They have a much greater permanence. They have the power of taxation. The larger ones at least can pay the salaries of elected officials. The residents have a bounded area for organizing interest groups and a help group for assisting those in critical need. They have elected officials whom they can question or to whom they can direct suggestions and proposals.
David C Shaw
What is your view?