Celebrate civility in October

— Created September 30, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

It’s alright to disagree – but how we express those opposing viewpoints is at the heart of what local grassroots organization, Civility First, is all about. October is the third annual Civility Month on Whidbey Island, and the organization has a slate of activities scheduled to mark the occasion.

“Each year we have had an art contest, several workshops and at least one public forum, all focused on civility and its role in current times,” said Kate Bracey, Civility First board president.

The group’s message seems to come at an opportune moment in our history – divisions run deep, driving wedges between families and friends, and that’s just politics. Add in a pandemic, tough economic times and civil unrest, and fuses can run short. Civility can be left on the back burner.

“We are a nonprofit organization that strives to help people find ways to have uncomfortable conversations about things that matter to them most,” said Sandi Peterson, one of Civility First’s founders and current board member. “One thing I find is important to say is what Civility First is NOT about. We are not about asking people to learn how to be quiet or to not be passionate about things, or to just walk away. We truly desire to help people hear and be heard. It is important for people to be able to disagree agreeably.”

Civility First’s annual art contest is one way to illustrate how people can overcome difficulty in communicating opposing views while staying respectful.

 “The art contest was a way for the community to participate in defining the many versions of ‘civility’ that they see in the world, or would like to see in the world,” said Bracey. “It has been a highlight every year to see how artists have worked with a civility theme and made it come alive in visual ways that we couldn’t have dreamed of.”

“The art contest is an organized approach to fostering the conversation within families and smaller communities about what it means to be respectful, listen and be kind,” agreed Elizabeth Guss, a Civility First volunteer and chair of the art contest committee. “With the conversation can come means of expressing visually this powerful concept.  I recognize that many concepts are very hard to articulate clearly and definitely with words. Sometimes a picture moves us emotionally to insight that can help inform behavior toward being more helpful.”

This year’s theme was “Choose Civility – Be Respectful, Listen, and Be kind.” People of all ages were able to submit entries depicting that vision. In all, 18 entries were submitted from Island, Snohomish and King Counties as well as an entry from as far away as New Mexico. There were three age divisions – children 12 and under, youth 13-18, and adult (over 18). Cash prizes were awarded to those in first and second place, $100 and $50, respectively.

“The artwork is judged by our sponsor, the Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville,” said Debbie Batey, a Civility First volunteer. “This year the submissions, judging, and exhibition all had to be done online. The artwork from this contest illustrates the numerous ways that civility can be accomplished and opens our eyes to how we can work toward that goal.”

First place winners this year include Anna Paul in the children’s division; Elektra Caffrey in the youth division; and Mark Orth in the adult division. There will be a virtual gallery show opening with a Zoom conversation Oct. 23 at 5 p.m. Those interested will be able to hear from participating artists about what inspired them and what the experience has been like. Register to attend at civilityfirst.org.

“Art is a powerful way to convey a message,” said volunteer Danielle Bishop. “I hope the artwork provokes conversation that results in new perspectives and points of view.”

 Other virtual events throughout the month include three workshops entitled “Bridging Our Differences,” which gives attendees an opportunity to learn how to have a conversation with someone with a differing viewpoint. Dates and times for the workshops will be announced online. Authors William Keith and Robert Danisch will discuss their new book, “Beyond Civility: The Competing Obligations of Citizenship,” Oct. 14. The month will wrap up Oct. 28 with a panel discussion including a faith leader, a political figure, a communications professional and a Civility First founder. 

“We are really excited about the events we’ve lined up, and are hoping for a good virtual turnout, despite all the competing priorities that people are juggling,” Bracey said.

As there is no seasonal limit to practicing civility, the organization works throughout the year, holding workshops and giving presentations all over Whidbey Island to not only explain what Civility First is all about, but how, with some basic concepts, one can improve communication with others, giving people the ability to not only speak their mind respectfully, but to listen to others and appreciate a differing perspective.

“We offer tried and true ideas, like actively listening to learn about the other person’s point of view, asking questions to help understand how they arrived there, being interested without having to agree,” explained Peterson. “We also teach people ways to share their point of view, so people want to hear about it. And, of course, we always remind people that relationships are important.”

“Our approach is decidedly non-partisan,” said Bracey. “We are promoting the practice and skills of talking to one another across political lines, but we know that these skills and that practice works across any lines of difference. We understand that progress and solutions for our important issues depend on us talking to each other.  As it becomes more difficult to have discussions because of uncivil behavior, it becomes more difficult to get anything done.”

  “I appreciate that Civility First seeks to engage the community in open dialogue about our differences in a respectful way,” said Bishop. “I believe doing so allows us better opportunities to find common ground.” 

“Civility First can help, beginning with each of us looking at our own lives, behaviors, and attitudes,” Guss said.  “Then, [we must] ask ourselves whether this reflects who we want to be. Finally, [we can] learn new skills of listening and responding that allows [respectful] dialogue, so that we can learn more and make better decisions.”

To learn more about Civility First and Civility Month activities, visit civilityfirst.org.

“I hope, and our board hopes, that people will take a moment sometime in October and consider the value of civility in their lives,” said Bracey. “We know that people are occupied and busy, but we also know that people are suffering with some of the disconnection that has occurred on the political front but also in other areas of our lives. We hope people will think about how to incorporate civility into their everyday communications, and why that might be important for bridging the gaps and disconnections they might be experiencing.  It’s an opportunity to pause for a moment and remember that kindness and respect go a long way toward keeping us connected.”

Civility Month Activities:
Workshops: “Bridging our Differences”
Saturday, Oct. 10, 2 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2 p.m.
Monday, Oct. 26, 6:30 p.m.
Author Event
Wednesday, Oct. 14, 6:30 p.m.
William Keith and Robert Danisch discuss their new book,
“Beyond Civility: The Competing Obligations of Citizenship”
Artist Conversation
Friday, Oct. 23, 5 p.m.
Panel Discussion
Wednesday, Oct. 28, 6:30 p.m.
Register for these online/Zoom events at www.civilityfirst.org.