An annual survey that tracks civility in the United States recently found the vast majority of people believe civility continues to be a problem in the country.
But a project to revive civility is hoping to make a difference, by visiting several cities in Iowa to encourage people to have more civil conversations with each other.
As more than 70 people trickle into the Sioux City Public Museum for a workshop, they’re greeted by staff from Revive Civility Iowa who hand them a name tag and their first assignment: Write down an issue they believe triggers incivility in the community.
“Try to limit it just to one,” a staff member said to Sioux City Community School District board of education member Mike McTaggart, after he picked up his nametag.
McTaggart is attending the workshop because he wants to be able to better address the aftermath of school board decisions. He said sometimes a decision makes people in the district upset or disrespectful.
“I believe it’s very important for us to learn and practice good solid citizenship and being able to listen to people disagree with us and at the same time be civil to people,” McTaggart said.
Inside a large multipurpose room in the museum, workshop attendees sit in groups of six or more and discuss different prompts about civility. The consensus among the group is that politics, communication issues and racism fuel disrespect in their community.
Throughout the afternoon, participants are asked to partner up and discuss different questions about civility with someone else in the room: What’s the best part of living in their community? How has incivility impacted their life? And, if they want to see a difference. McTaggart said he does.
“We’re not going to be perfect at it, but we need to find ways that we can disagree and listen to each other and accept the fact that other people don’t agree with us in things, ponder their view and give a consideration,” McTaggart said.
Jeff Kluever, the assistant director of programs at the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center in Drake University, leads the workshop. He throws out a couple of questions to the group on how to have community conversations on race while being respectful of others. Sioux City resident LaShonda Schwarz says she wants to eliminate what she calls “disillusion of race.”
“There is only one race and it’s the human race,” Schwarz said. “What we all have are cultural differences and subcultures within our own cultures. If we all lay the ignorance aside that there are different races, then we’ll be able to understand our cultures and with that, our cultural differences.”
She says everything from the political arena to check boxes on job applications fuel the mindset that there are racial differences.
“So how do we as a community come together and overcome the ignorance that has been bred in us in all these various centuries, in all these decades?” she asked.
Kluever tells Schwarz it’s a slow process driven by conversations about civility. After the workshop, he says what they’re teaching around the state in Sioux City, Des Moines and elsewhere is not going to change people’s perceptions overnight.
“You could put the entire Sioux City metro area in here and we’re not going to get that done,” he said. “Those conversations have to be ongoing and perpetuated for a long period of time. All we want to do is give people strategies that help them do that well.”
Improving civility is about building the right mindset, forming relationships and listening to others, Kluever said.
Shortly after the workshop, Schwartz stood on the sidewalk outside the museum, reflecting on the discussion. She said civility can change if people have an open mind, but she feels there is a lot of ignorance in Sioux City.
“I told my daughter about ignorance. It has no cure. And there are a lot of ignorant people,” Schwarz said. “And with people being ignorant and not having an open mind to change and or conversation as to what is correct - politically, religiously or just a humane perspective - there is never going to be a change.”
McTaggart from the school board, on the other hand, says he has gained some tools to use in the future.
He is working up the courage to complete one of the post-workshop assignments: Engaging in a conversation with someone who might challenge him to be uncivil.
Real civil discourse, he said, starts with himself.