Candidates for Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman listen to faith leaders, students, and other community members speak at a forum hosted by Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement.

The Gum Springs Community Center is a second home to Elias Anwar.

The West Potomac High School student visits the community center in Alexandria on a daily basis and has spent summers working there.

One of 10 centers currently overseen by Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services, the Gum Springs Community Center provides recreational facilities, event space, programs, and support services to area residents. The center even paid for the suit that Anwar wore to prom.

However, the high school senior has become frustrated by the lack of upkeep for the community center.

According to Anwar, lights around the center’s outdoor basketball court have not functioned properly in three years, and the natural-grass field only gets trimmed once a year. The center still does not have a ramp to make its entrance accessible to people with mobility challenges.

“They take the time to look out for me. We don’t see that same kind of consideration for our community center,” Anwar said. “…The way I was raised was that you take care of the things that are important to you.”

Anwar’s advocacy for the Gum Springs Community Center is just one of many issues raised by local students, faith leaders, and community members at a candidate forum held on May 19 at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Alexandria.

Hosted by the citizens’ advocacy organization Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, the forum brought Fairfax County Board of Supervisors candidates face-to-face with about 600 of their constituents, a crowd that included public housing tenants, immigrants, students, and other oft-underserved populations.

All four Democratic candidates for Board of Supervisors chairman attended the event. While the forum was nonpartisan, the one Republican candidate for chairman, former Defense Department analyst Joseph Galdo, did not come, since VOICE says it opted to focus on candidates facing a contested primary.

Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay, Fairfax County School Board member-at-large Ryan McElveen, developer Tim Chapman, and Georgetown University law professor Alicia Plerhoples will compete for the Democratic nomination during a countywide primary on June 11.

With half the members of the board that governs Virginia’s largest municipality set to step down at the end of 2019, this year’s Board of Supervisors elections will be pivotal to determining the county’s future, and the battle for board chair is perhaps the most hotly contested race.

Founded in 2008, VOICE represents 52 different institutions from Fairfax, Prince William, and Arlington Counties as well as the City of Alexandria and organizes members for advocacy on issues such as criminal justice reform, affordable housing, and immigration.

Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Michael Holzman, who serves on VOICE’s strategy team, says the organization decided to host a candidate forum in the hopes of drawing attention to low-income and minority community members whose concerns might otherwise get overlooked.

“All the candidates had an opportunity to speak to our issues and respond to our solutions,” Holzman said. “We want them to know that we’re going to vote based on what we heard, and then we’re going to hold accountable whoever gets elected.”

Pledging to mobilize at least 3,000 voters to turn out for the June 11 primaries, VOICE presented a list of demands at the forum that it believes county officials need to address in order to fulfill their commitment to One Fairfax, a policy adopted in 2017 by both the Board of Supervisors and school board requiring that racial and social equity issues be considered in all decision-making.

Among the group’s demands is a call for funding to ensure that all children in Fairfax County have equitable access to resources in the early years of their life.

In addition to investing in the Gum Springs Community Center as requested by Anwar, VOICE’s proposal involves expanding pre-kindergarten education, establishing quality after-school and summer programming at schools with high poverty rates, and increasing the availability of mental health workers and services in schools.

A Mission: Readiness study found that 56 percent of the low-income children in Fairfax County who are eligible for its pre-kindergarten programs are unable to get in because the county loses money by not matching state funds, NBC4 reported in April 2013.

More recently, a report from the Nation Institute for Early Education Research found that pre-school enrollment in Virginia as a whole is below the national rate with Fairfax County serving just under two-thirds of eligible children, according to a May 2017 article by The Washington Post.

The Board of Supervisors chairman candidates agreed about the importance of pre-kindergarten education.

“I fully, fully support expanding pre-K slots,” said Plerhoples, who volunteered for a Head Start program when she was in high school. “This is an issue that we need to make sure we’re not leaving those funds on the table, an issue near and dear to my heart because of the equity issue.”

VOICE also called on the candidates to help keep families and communities together by putting more money toward affordable housing and expanding a newly created legal representation fund for immigrants.

The Board of Supervisors approved a Fiscal Year 2020 budget on May 7 that included $200,000 for a pilot program that will provide legal support to immigrant residents who are in detention or who face deportation proceedings.

VOICE argues that the funding for the program should be increased to $875,000 per year to give access to legal representation for more immigrants.

According to the Fairfax County Communitywide Strategic Housing Plan published in June 2018, the county will need more than 18,000 new housing units in the next 15 years to accommodate households that earn less than 80 percent of the area median income, which is around $70,300 annually for a family of four.

However, residents worry that existing low-income housing may be a casualty of the county’s efforts to promote development, particularly on Richmond Highway.

VOICE asked the Board of Supervisors candidates to preserve three mobile home parks in the Route 1 corridor.

“For many people, mobile homes are looked down upon. For us, our mobile homes represent our community and 1,500 families,” a resident of Audubon Mobile Home Park identified as Valeria said. “…Our homes may not be glamorous on the outside, but the warmth and love they provide to us is unmatched.”

VOICE’s final policy proposal was for the county’s new supervisors to support programs that help integrate incarcerated individuals back into the community once they get out of jail.

“We applaud the county for making One Fairfax their priority, but we also wonder if the county is going to be committed enough to really function based on an equity agenda,” Holzman said. “…We intend to hold our elected officials accountable to their own aspirations.”

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