April 1, 2018 marked twenty years since we launched the Institute on Capitol Hill. We thought it was going to be easy. We thought that the essential nature of civility in public (and private) discourse was obvious. We thought thousands of people would join our organization and within a few years we would be working for the Institute full time. For many reasons, we were wrong.
In the first place, we were way ahead of the curve. The larger population would not become aware that civility within our larger culture was seriously declining for at least another ten years. When we first brought it up, people wondered why we were concerned. What were we talking about? What was civility anyway?
So we defined it. We say that civility is “claiming and caring for one’s identity and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” That definition is now quoted far and wide.
Then people wondered if civility EVER happens in the governing process, and if it did, would it work? So we wrote a book with ten rules we had learned through our experiences on Capitol Hill, along with true life stories from the Hill illustrating each rule. It’s called Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square – Ten Rules That Work. They do.
Then people asked us how to maintain civility when we truly disagree with someone else. So we developed Civility Training. We have now done Civility Training with schools, faith communities, public libraries, businesses, non-profits, state legislators, and surgeons. Demand is only growing, and we travel all over the U.S. and Canada.
In 2006 a high school principal asked us to take her students to Washington, DC and teach them civility and civic engagement. Now our small group Student Legislative Seminars are among our most popular programs.
People are now beginning to understand that civility is essential to a healthy democracy, but they seem uncertain we can bring it back and/or do not even know how to start. We can bring it back. But it will take all of us.
There are now hundreds of local initiatives to build civility at the community level. We celebrate that. But to bring it back to the national conversation is going to take more. That is why the Institute has always been a membership based organization.
Weber-Shandwick has been taking an annual poll about the public perception about civility for eight years now. It provides a good snapshot of where we are. But it is not enough to bring about change.
It has taken us twenty years to build an impeccable record of non-partisanship, and for more than a thousand people to join the Institute. Keep in mind that when we started, the internet was in its infancy, few people had cell phones, and social media did not exist. Getting the word out took longer, and we ourselves have been on a learning curve since day one. But learn we did.
And join they have. Every voice makes us stronger, more influential, and enduring. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Join the Institute today and help us build a more civil tomorrow. We’ve got the track record. Now let’s win the race and bring civility back – as the norm, not the exception.
– Cassandra Dahnke and Tomás Spath,