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NEXT PUBLIC MEETING: May 1 , 7:30 p.m. at Pohick Regional Library. All are welcome.
  • Writer's pictureDavid Martosko

Fenton Project update: the first public meeting

So ... that happened.

I hosted the Fenton Project's first public meeting on March 21, and opponents outnumbered supporters roughly 3-to-1. But that's okay: Anger and outrage have always been more acute motivators than compassion and justice. I've watched social movements a lot in the last quarter-century, and the successful ones are like public-persuasion slow cookers.

First, an apology: I intended to write this and publish my presentation slides 10 days ago. My tardiness should be ample proof that (1) I'm a "one man band" so far, (2) there's no money behind the Fenton Project, and (3) there's no political organization quietly pulling my strings. It's just me, I'm not a professional community organizer, and I'm definitely human.

The audience of about 50 people listened patiently on the 21st and asked smart questions about local history, my research methods, why I chose Silas Burke as my "target," and how we might go about updating mortgage papers, deeds, wills, utility bills, checkbooks and driver's licenses. I don't have answers for some of those items, but I'm working to get them. Yes, some of this is bound to be challenging. My view is that doing the right thing is often messy, and we don't want our children to see us walking away for sheer convenience.

Consider how industrialized nations have shifted how half the world's economies work, citing a need to account for global warming. It affects the cost of everything from lumber to lettuce, and Walmart's shipping expenses as well — and therefore everything they sell). There's a strong argument to be made that it's made most of us poorer. But whether or not you or I believe the dire projections of climate scientists, most of the world has decided the sacrifices are worth the hassle. What I'm proposing is a tiny nuisance by comparison.

One thing I shared with the audience was that at least 345 U.S. cities and towns have changed their names. No one died as a consequence. I assume everyone had plenty of notice about the changes, from news coverage and backyard fence chats, and that government agencies greased the skids for things within their power. If someone can show me that there was a crisis with wills, trusts, deeds, driver's licenses, or anything along those lines, I'll be very interested to learn about it.

The DMV tells me they don't care about the address on your physical license card unless you are "moving to a new Virginia residence." You do, however, have to update the address with the DMV itself. That takes about 3 minutes and it's online. You can update your voter registration at the same time. Of course, when you go to renew your license, it will show your updated address. I think it would be reasonable to ask the DMV to bulk-update Burke addresses internally.

I'm confident the U.S. Postal Service has a way to streamline this, automatically processing the equivalent of thousands of change-of-address cards at once. It's also true that if you use the right street address and nine-digit "ZIP+4" postal code, you could substitute Taylor Swift's name for your town's name — and the mail will get delivered correctly. I know of two people who are already asking friends to write to them in "Fenton, VA 22015-xxxx" (insert the last 4 digits for "xxxx"). The mail gets there.

The March 21 meeting was, in some ways, a contest to determine who has lived here the longest — as though that were a good proxy for moral authority. I heard from neighbors who have been in Burke for more than the 20 years my wife and I have owned a home here. All of their voices are valid and welcome, but older habits die harder. A member of the Virginia legislature told me in February that most people in Burke "are from somewhere else," and that a minority of long-timers would make more noise than all of them combined. This legislator also observed that "the younger homeowners are also the ones still setting an example for children who live with them."

The meeting wasn't 100 percent cordial. I thought about asking one opponent to leave because of his biting response to an Asian-American woman who supports my proposal. She asked why it was a bad idea to honor a Black child instead of a glorified slave auctioneer. He replied with a bit of a sneer: "I hear your accent, but I'm sure you've been here many years."

I won't name him, and most of the people I know in Burke don't talk like that. They're kind, welcoming and thoughtful. Perhaps more of them will come to the next public meeting on May 1. At that meeting, I'll announce the one after that. And if I can raise some money, I'll find a creative way to make that one hard to avoid.

People have asked me how long it will take for the Fenton Project to succeed. I have no idea, but I do suspect a one-year horizon is a reasonable place to start. I don't plan to abandon it. If you want to support the Fenton Project, please consider making a small donation, signing the online petition, or chatting up your neighbors about it.

And as always, if you hate this idea, please send me an email and tell me why. Challenge me to think about this in a different way. Convince me I'm wrong. I'll listen. That's what good neighbors do.

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