How citizens can revive civility in our political discourse
When the Boise City Club board decided to celebrate its 20th anniversary, we went back to our roots. We embraced the founding mission outlined by Dottie Stimpson, who organized City Club in 1995 as a place for people to gather for civil conversation. Our motto: “Things happen when people start talking.”
Our board decided to partner with the National Institute of Civil Discourse, which was created by friends and colleagues of Gabby Giffords after the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz. It’s hard to remember today just how shocked we all were by that shooting, which killed six and injured 13, including Giffords, then a Democratic member of Congress.
City Club approached Idaho legislative leaders to ask if they’d try the NICD’s Next Generation project. Its aim is to work with state legislators — the source of half of future members of Congress — in hopes of giving the next generation of men and women who go to Washington, D.C., the values and skills to cut through division and dysfunction.
Boise City Club started imagining its Civility Project before anyone was feeling the Bern, and well before “Dump Trump” and “Lock Her Up” entered our political lexicon.
Almost all 105 legislators participated in that successful NICD workshop in January 2016. At the same time, City Club launched a series of forums and related events around the civil discourse theme. We convened a March roundtable, where nearly 50 people from like-minded organizations came together for a conversation about what our community already is doing to nurture civil dialogue and civic collaboration, and what more we could all do.
Last week, City Club hosted its most ambitious project yet: a gathering we dubbed the Civility Summit, with more than 50 people from community, journalism and government organizations across the state.
The conference grew out of the January legislative workshop, when Republican and Democratic lawmakers reminded us that journalists, online commenters, letter writers and citizens also are players in keeping public life civil and constructive — or not.
So the NICD staff returned to Idaho for a three-day workshop on how we can contribute to more conversation and less shouting, name-calling and demonizing. Several goals emerged: Instill more civics and civility education early in our school curriculum; create more City Club-style organizations in Idaho; and commit to embracing these values in our personal lives, our organizations and our political campaigns.
For me, the most important accomplishment was the simplest: We started people talking. The conversation our board wanted to spark in 2016 has now welcomed more than 200 leaders at civility roundtables and workshops; hundreds more at our public civility events; and thousands who hear City Club broadcasts on Boise State Public Radio.
A university education should ... help build our character, and firmly establish our commitment to community. We expect our students and faculty to engage in intellectual inquiry and debate in a climate of respect and civility.
Boise State President Bob Kustra
We’ve got a long way to go, in our state and nation. We have to find ways to get more minority voices into this conversation, more of the unheard voices, the voices silenced by shouting, bullying, discrimination, ignorance and hopelessness.
Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the NICD’s executive director, says she used to be asked frequently to define civility and explain her organization. No more. My experience was similar. Every person I invited to our summit replied with some version of this: “What an important conversation. I want to be a part of it.”
Bonneville County Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Clark came from Idaho Falls to be part of it. “I spent the drive home yesterday thinking inward about what I can control and what I can do to move this concept forward,” he told me the next day. “I have committed to do what I can to up the dialogue in our state and region. What a great topic for reflection and insight.”
City Club is proud to have created that space where leaders and citizens can listen and reflect, to have helped spark a small flame of civility in our uncivil time.
Bill Manny is a Statesman editor. He just concluded his term as president of Boise City Club.
More on civil discourse
▪ If you’re interested in the City Club project, its series of forums or in getting involved in future events, visit cityclubofboise.org or send a note to 22 E. Front St., Suite 324H, Boise, 83702, or Julia@cityclubofboise.org.
▪ Boise State University and its School of Public Service, which co-sponsored last week’s summit, are launching a campus civility effort and will host New York Times columnist David Brooks on Sept. 27. His book, “The Road to Character,” is being featured in its Campus Read project. Find links at IdahoStatesman.com.