In the most contentious of election years, it often seems as though we as a nation have hit a new low in our ability to speak civilly about controversial issues and, in Rodney King’s famous words, “just get along.” But for the City Club of Boise, which was founded on the notion of civil discourse, 2016 has been a pivotal year in which the civic organization planted the seeds of how to talk through difficult issues and facilitate problem-solving. The group embarked on a year-long Civility Project which embraces the club’s motto of “Nothing Happens Until People Start Talking.”
“The City Club mission has always been about getting people to talk and listen to each other in informed ways,” commented Richard Newman, the organization’s president. “We’d like City Club to be a community resource to bring meaningful discussion into heated topics such as gun control and immigration. People don’t want to talk about these things—it’s almost taboo—but it’s the exact thing we need to talk about and not talk past each other.”
The Civility Project grew out of the club’s desire to celebrate its 20th anniversary with something that would reflect their mission and have a lasting impact. In her research for the event, Jane Suggs, City Club secretary and co-chair of the Civility Project, came across The National Institute for Civil Discourse.
NICD, a nonpartisan organization that promotes civil political debate, is headquartered in Tuscon, Ariz., under the auspices of the University of Arizona. It was founded by community members in 2011 in response to the tragic shooting in which six people were killed and 13 wounded, including then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Since then, NICD has conducted seminars on civil discourse throughout the country.
With the support of Idaho Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill and House Speaker Scott Bedke, City Club invited NICD to Idaho. The Civility Project kicked off in January 2016 with a five-hour workshop attended by 100 Idaho legislators on the second day of the legislative session.
“Sen. Chuck Winder and Rep. Melissa Wintrow volunteered to go through facilitator training at NICD in order to present legislator-to-legislator,” said Bill Manny, City Club past president and board member who helped spearhead the project. “The goal was to focus on problemsolving and find common ground.” (He hastened to add that the Idaho Legislature’s rules of decorum discourage name-calling and other forms of incivility.)
The legislators separated into breakout groups and talked about their personal beliefs—why they ran for office and what experiences motivated them to serve. The idea was that if you understand the other person’s point of view and core beliefs, then together you could focus your disagreement on the issues instead of the personalities involved.
“We all behave pretty good in church,” Hill told the Lewiston Tribune, “but true religion goes beyond church. It’s how you treat someone in a town hall meeting or how you act when meeting with constituents.”
Religion and politics are two subjects people are encouraged not to talk about in polite society, added Bedke, “because our beliefs in those areas are heartfelt. Legislators often have to discuss those topics but can do so in a way that still respects the views and beliefs of people on the other side. We’re trying to raise our collective comportment.”
Manny, who is also managing editor of the Idaho Statesman, said the club hoped the Civility Project would raise the community’s awareness of the value of thinking past polarization. “What we all have in common is that we want our society to work,” he said. “We don’t want the political process to be broken so that voters become indifferent, turned off by dysfunction and nastiness. Being nice isn’t the solution. We have to find a way to get people to sit down and talk. We need to give them the tools to work through intractable problems.”
City Club’s founders Ed and Dottie Stimpson believed that no problem was so great that people with open minds, using civil discourse, couldn’t solve it. The club’s Stimpson Award is bestowed on individuals or groups that put that belief into action. In 2011, the Owyhee Initiative earned the award after eight years of negotiating between diverse and often passionately opposed groups. Their problem-solving led to the federal designation of the 517,000-acre Owyhee Wilderness. In 2012, City Club presented the award to the second Idaho Citizens Reapportionment Committee for rising above partisan politics to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries for the state. (The first committee dissolved in a puddle of partisan disagreement.)
Throughout the year, City Club has presented luncheon forums and events on topics that are designed to instigate conversation. Forum topics include Civility on the Trails (recreation and environment), Civility in Social Media, Civility in Faith, Civility in Public Policy and Civility in the Courts.
In late July, City Club, Boise State University’s School of Public Service and NICD held a Civility Summit patterned after a similar gathering that NICD organized in Ohio. Journalists, citizens and public servants (not just elected officials) from southern and eastern Idaho were invited to sit down and really listen to each other.
“The idea was that if we bring together these groups that interact with each other on a daily basis, we can have a civil discourse in a way that we learn from each other,” said Civility Summit co-chair Jane Suggs. “The government officials say to the journalists, ‘you never quote me correctly’; the citizens say to the government, ‘you only talk to lobbyists, you never talk to me’; and journalists say to the citizens, ‘you are unengaged and apathetic.’ When we have a better understanding of what the other party is dealing with, then we can start to find a solution. The real basis of collaboration is having people share their stories and listen.”
City Club’s manifesto declares, “We want Idaho and its cities to be national examples of communities that address differences civilly. The goal of the Civility Project is not to make everyone agree; rather, we hope to help people learn how to disagree while remaining agreeable.
“It’s about listening to and incorporating dissenting voices so that everyone is heard, moving civility from an abstract notion to an expected code of conduct.”