Nelson Mandela’s Legacy of Civility

Nelson Mandela, Voting in 1994
Nelson Mandela voting in 1994, in South Africa’s first multi-racial election. Photo by Paul Weinberg, via Wikimedia Commons.

All too often we underestimate the power and virtue of civility. You just want us all to be nice, folks say – as if there is anything wrong with that. But civility is about so much more than manners or mood. It is about so much more than politeness or political correctness. Civility is about intentionality and hard work.

It takes intentionality and hard work to choose courses of action that are difficult and often unpopular. It takes intentionality and hard work to put the common good above personal agenda, anger, frustration, greed, or fatigue.

Civility’s payoff, however, is huge. And there is no better example than Nelson Mandela.

A hero in life, the choices Nelson Mandela made and the leadership he displayed helped achieve a peace and a future for South Africa that no one had ever even dared to dream, much less act upon. His example and legacy sets the standard for statesmanship and selflessness.

How tragic if we only admire him, and do not follow his example.

Among the Quotes of the Month the Institute has sent out to our members over the years are several from Nelson Mandela.

Go and speak to your enemies. (But know that) you cannot change someone else unless you first change yourself….

I am not a saint, unless you define a saint as (being) a sinner who keeps on trying.

Over and over Mandela encouraged the rest of us to believe that we can make the same kind of choices that he did, with results that would be just as magnificent. He never pretended that those choices would be easy – only that they are essential.

It always seems impossible, until it is done.

If we would honor the man with more than words, we will work for a culture of mutual respect and cooperative effort rather than one of polarization and personal gain. The stakes are high. The choice is ours. Join us.

— Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, Institute co-founders

Thinking Civility on Thanksgiving

We all have Thanksgiving traditions we have accumulated over the years with our family and friends. Somewhere in the mix, there is generally an appreciation for what is good in our lives – whether we express it overtly or not.

Here at the Institute, we always encourage folks to be involved in civic process and to build relationships with their elected officials. We encourage folks to become a resource and a source of support to our public servants. While many of us appreciate our form of government and the freedoms we enjoy, we don’t often say “thank you” to the many people who help make it all possible.

This Thanksgiving, we would like to express our thanks to the countless public servants at every level of government who help make this country what it is. Many hold positions that are strictly volunteer — on city councils or committees, neighborhood associations or school boards. Many hold positions that are difficult and contentious. Many sacrifice time with their family and friends in order to contribute to the greater good. And some put their lives on the line every day so that the rest of us don’t have to.

Next time you reach out to an elected official, civil servant, community volunteer, or member of our military – for whatever reason – start with a “thank you” for the work they are doing.  Whether you agree with them or not, without citizens who are willing to be involved – in ways large and small – this country would not be what it is today.

— Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, Institute co-founders

Veterans, Military Families, and the Government Shutdown

In our last post we asserted that, even amid the incivility and intractability of partisan gridlock over the government shutdown, at least both sides had agreed to fund active duty military personnel. But while it is true that American soldiers will continue to be paid, that fact alone does not tell the whole story of how the shutdown is impacting troops, veterans, and military families.

CBS News is reporting today on comments made by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki that if the shutdown continues even until the later part of October, 3.8 million veterans will not receive disability compensation in November, and 315,000 veterans and 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents will see pension payments stopped. And it is reporting that already, the government shutdown has stalled the department’s efforts to reduce the backlog of disability claims pending for longer than 125 days.

Veterans, Military Families, and the Government Shutdown

Moreover, ABC News reports that because of the shutdown, the Pentagon has been unable to pay death benefits to the families of soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan. Once the shutdown ends, explains Bob Hale, Pentagon Comptroller, the processing will begin and the payments will be made — but they will be delayed.

What this means is that the families of five soldiers slain since October 1 will be unable to travel to Dover Air Force Base in Connecticut to witness the return of their loved ones’ bodies. And that they will not receive the $100,000 check meant to offset the financial hardship incurred by those deaths.

According to FOX News, the Fisher House Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to caring for veterans and military families, has stepped forward to cover death benefits for the families of troops who’ve been killed in combat.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called the Pentagon’s failure to pay appalling. Speaker of the House John Boehner has called it disgraceful. And Senator John McCain has asked: Shouldn’t we be ashamed?

Now, if only there were so much agreement on ending the government shutdown that has created this problem in the first place.

Government Shutdown, and the Consequences of Incivility

In the interest of vivifying the consequences of the current government shutdown, here are some highlights from’s list of which federal agencies and services are open, closed, and partially functional.

Government Shutdown, and the Consequences of Incivility

As a result of bipartisan stopgap legislation, active duty military personnel remain on assignment, and will continue to be paid. But only half of the nation’s 800,000 civilian Defense Department workers remain on the job.

Of NASA’s 18,250 employees, only 367 are at work this week. 212 of 4,195 employees of the Department of Education are currently working. Of the 680 employees of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, 37 are currently in the office. And of the 1,460 employees of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 67 currently remain.

Only about half of the Department of Health and Human Services’ 78,198 workers are on the job during the shutdown. For the Department of Energy, it’s thirty percent — 13,814. Nineteen percent of the Department of the Interior’s 72,562 are in the office. And for the Department of Labor, it’s only eighteen percent of their 16,304.

Fox News reports that the IRS has just 9.3 percent of its workforce hanging around this week — about 9,000 workers. The Environmental Protection agency has retained just 6.6 percent of its workforce. Of more than 16,000 employees, just over 1,000 are on the job. And the Department of Commerce retains just thirteen percent of its staff.

According to the Huffington Post:

  • In Alaska, National Transportation Safety Board Investigators have all been furloughed.
  • In Colorado, the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit has shut down.
  • In Georgia, seventy-five percent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 13,000 workers have been furloughed, and researchers have had to halt their studies.
  • And in Maryland, firefighters were forced to move a memorial service for a colleague killed in the line of duty when the federally run Fallen Firefighters Memorial was closed. reports on IHS Global Insight’s estimate that the cost of the government shutdown amounts to approximately $300 million per day (that’s $12.5 million per hour). While according to Businessweek, Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics estimates that if the shutdown stretches for three to four weeks, it could cost the United States 1.4 points of growth.

Government Shutdown, and the Consequences of Incivility

This — all of this — is an example of what happens when intransigence triumphs over civility in the governing process. It is what happens when we mistake adversaries for enemies, and place personal gain or partisan point-scoring ahead of maintaining a baseline of common good.

The consequences of incivility are not abstract in this case. They are measured in wages lost and services not rendered. They are measured in research not done, progress not achieved, and lives disrupted.

And it has all been entirely avoidable.

A Call for Action from the Atlanta Civility Training Workshop

Elevation of dome of U.S. Capitol, 1859
Elevation of dome of U.S. Capitol, 1859

Earlier this month, we announced an upcoming Civility Training Workshop in Atlanta, GA, organized by Institute member and civility activist LaRita Reid. The training was a civility-fostering, community-building success. And Institute co-founders Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke have agreed to share some of their thoughts and reactions to what came out of it.

Considering the event, this is what Tomas had to say:

One of the rules featured in our book, Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square: Ten Rules that Count, is that one is powerful. There are dozens of ways, large and small, that one person make a positive difference in the lives of others. And here is one from a woman named LaRita Reid:

Like many people, Ms. Reid understands that in our society, we aren’t necessarily given to treating each other kindly. She wanted to make a difference. So she went online in search of an organization that would help her understand what each of us can do to make life less harrowing for others.

She found the Institute for Civility in Government website. At the time, we were promoting the Citizens’ Civility Symposium to be held in July in Washington D.C. So she got on the telephone to us, joined the Institute, and signed up to attend.

LaRita returned to Atlanta from the Symposium with a mission to create a civility movement in her hometown. She talked with friends and garnered support, and she was responsible for organizing the civility training event that was held September 21.

The result of her effort is a growing nucleus of people in Atlanta who are committed to civility in the governing process, and civility in their community.

One person is powerful. One person can be the difference in their community just as LaRita is being a difference in hers. And you can be the difference, too. Learn more about Civility Training, and contact us to set one up in your area.

And here is Cassandra’s reaction:

Numbers Count!

The attendees of our recent Civility Training Workshop in Atlanta came from a broad cross-section of the community, and represented a variety of backgrounds. Some came because they had heard about it through their church. Others were educational professionals who had heard about it from the school at which they teach. There were, among others, a state legislator, a candidate for mayor, and an engaged citizen who had heard about the workshop at a town hall meeting.

The broader the range of experience that people bring to the seminar, the richer the observations are during the participatory exercises that we do together, and the more we learn from one another.

But the critical piece of these workshops is not just what we learn from the activities we do, but the way they foster engagement with, and memberships in, the Institute.

It is important to raise awareness of the value of civility in the governing process. And it is important to teach people the skillset they need to maintain and foster a greater civility in difficult and often conflicting situations. All of this must happen.

But the culture of our country will not shift from one of polarization and animosity to one of mutual respect and collaborative effort just on these initiatives.  We must make our voices heard. And our voices carry more weight together than they do alone.

Who do you know who needs to join the Institute?

If you want to learn more about Civility Training Workshops through the Institute for Civility in Government — including how to set one up in your area — click here for more information.

If you want to add your voice to the chorus calling for civil discourse, join the Institute today.

Or, to support the Institute in its mission to facilitate dialogue and teach respect, click here to make a donation.

Institute Co-Founders Featured in The Boston Globe

Eastern MassachusettsThe month of August saw Institute for Civility in Government co-founders Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath each featured independently in articles in The Boston Globe.

Early in the month, reporter Peter Schworm sought comment from Cassandra about cases in which discontent has bubbled over into shouting matches and heated exchanges, screaming and table-pounding, at municipal meetings around Massachusetts. A health board meeting in Hanson, for example, abruptly ended when one participant overturned a table. While meetings of school boards and town councils in Salisbury and Dracut have degenerated into shouting matches.

When asked about creeping incivility, Cassandra responded that “this stuff doesn’t happen in a vacuum” — that “what you see is actually a reflection of the population at large.” She told Schworm that a reality-show culture, in which extreme views dominate the conversation, has crept into all corners of life. And that when “what gets attention gets edgier and edgier … people think ‘I have to do something bigger and bolder if I am going to make my point.'”

Meanwhile, later in the month, Tomas spoke to The Boston Globe‘s Calvin Hennick about a lawsuit filed by Robert Schuler against the town of Shirley, MA. Schuler, a former member of the town’s Finance Committee, had been barred from town property at the end of 2011 after public comments in which he seemed to threaten town selectmen with a gun. “The only question I have about the budget,” he is reported to have said, “is what have the selectmen done with this, if anything? Don’t tell me they haven’t done anything with it, or I’m going to pull my gun out and start shooting or something. It drives me nuts!’’

The American Civil Liberties Union defended Schuler, who eventually won his case.

When asked for comment on the situation, Tomas replied: “I think we get frustrated because we just don’t know how to work through issues…. We all need to take a deep breath and start over again and work through our issues before we get to a place where we lambaste one another.”

Peter Schworm’s full article, “Local Government Boards Feel the Sting of Incivility,” is available, complete with Cassandra’s comments, here online.

Calvin Hennick’s article, “Shirley Settles Lawsuit by Town Official Banned Over Gun Remark,” may be found by clicking here.

You can find more information about the Institute’s definition of, and approach to, civility here.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: Fifty Years of Civility in Civic Action

March on Washington for Jobs and FreedomYesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in which, on August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 marchers converged on Washington D.C. to call for an end to discrimination and a legal pathway forward to racial equality.

It is a day that we now remember as the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We remember it for his exhortation that social change must necessarily eschew violence — that it must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. And we remember it for his insistence that nonviolence must not become code for the tranquilizing drug of gradualism — that:

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

But even as we remember how Dr. King balanced the need for civic action with the need to act civilly in his rhetoric, it is easy to forget that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was itself an example of that philosophy in practice.

The New York Times of 1963 reported over and over, of the preparations for the March and of the March itself, on the order and amiability of its African American participants. It marked with surprise that one group from Alabama showed themselves to be peaceful in the Birmingham park as they boarded a bus to the nation’s capital. And it called the mass of marchers on the National Mall an orderly demonstration.*

The degree to which that order and that amiability came as a surprise reveals a great deal about the racially tinged lowered expectations of the newspaper in 1963 — and of the nation as a whole. And yet it is still worth noting that in its appraisal of the marchers’ tenor and actions, the New York Times was not wrong.

In preparation for the March, the city of Washington D.C. brought in National Guardsmen to police the streets, and deputized firefighters. Area hospitals cleared schedules to make room for expected riot casualties, and local jails cleared cells in preparation for mass arrests.

But there was no riot. And there were no mass arrests. And the single largest policing action of the day did not involve African American marchers at all, but was the dispersion of fifty members of the American Nazi Party who had turned out to stage a counter-protest.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize one year later, Dr. King said that the crucial political and moral question of our time is the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. And the peaceable, orderly, civil March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom stands as one kind of answer.

On August 28, 1963, marchers, speakers, and protesters on the National Mall reached out with civility, not violence, to demand redress for a lingering, suppurating wrong. And to that gesture — sometimes slowly, and sometimes through a veil of violent resistance to change — civil hands reached back.

* Tom Wicker. “President Meets March Leaders.” New York Times, August 29, 1963.

NPR’s Protojournalist Talks With Cassandra Dahnke

In the excitement preceding last month’s Civility Symposium in Washington, D.C., we here at The Civility Blog allowed one key story to slip through the cracks. Linton Weeks, political journalist and NPR correspondent, sat down with Institute co-founder Cassandra Dahnke to talk about the Trayvon Martin verdict, civility, and social protest.

The article, which appeared as part of NPR’s Protojournalist series, features Cassandra’s responses to questions of how to defuse volatile confrontation and how to weave civility into the national fabric.

National Public Radio

Weeks writes that the events that took place that awful night in Florida, events now at the heart of the national dispute, show us how quickly confrontations can become tragedies. And he writes that the loud voices and rash reactions to the verdict threaten to escalate, with potentially tragic consequences.

Offering advice about how to deescalate conflict, even while expressing strongly held views, Cassandra told Weeks that civility must be our first and most natural approach to difficult situations and heated confrontations that might otherwise turn violent. Safety is always a primary concern, she said, but civility is, at the very least, worth a good first try.

Linton Weeks’s full article is available through NPR’s Protojournalist blog. Click here to have a look.

Introduction to The Civility Blog

Elevation of dome of U.S. Capitol, 1859
Elevation of dome of U.S. Capitol, 1859

Welcome to The Civility Blog. In this, our inaugural post, we hear from the founders of the Institute for Civility in Government — Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath — about their vision for this space, and how it contributes to the larger mission of the organization.

At its simplest, The Civility Blog is a venue for keeping Institute members, interested readers, and the public at large apprised of our new projects and upcoming events around the United States. But it is more than that, too. The Civility Blog is here to inform readers about the latest civility news and dialogue on and off the web. It is here as a venue in which Institute members and guests can speak deliberately and thoughtfully about civility in government, the corporate sector, and everyday life. And it is here as a venue for spirited and civil dialogue where you, as readers, can create community and contribute to meaningful change.

The Civility Blog is an ongoing project. And as it unfolds, there will be time for some more specific discussion of how you can contribute a comment, or even a post. But for now, it is enough to read about why we have a Civility Blog at all.

From Cassandra Dahnke:

When I was growing up, my mother used to tell me: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It was a lesson that I learned well, and one I have tried to follow ever since. Unfortunately, it is also a bit of wisdom that seems to go by the wayside far too often.

In recent years, the boundaries of appropriate behavior – particularly in the midst of disagreement – have stretched to the breaking point. Verbal abuse and personal attacks have become not only acceptable, but rhetorical strategies. Too often do we concentrate on speaking rather than listening as we focus on launching (or diffusing) the next attack. Lost is respect or care for our fellow citizens, and the possibility of collaborative effort, much less genuine friendship.

And so we strive for civility, because to do anything else is to give up on decency — to forfeit all that is possible when we listen without degrading, discern without prejudice, and work together to build up, rather than separating to tear down.

This blog is the most recent of our many initiatives. We hope and trust it will become a venue where civility will have not one voice, but many. This is a venue not for private gain but public good, and one where we seek to make our disagreements assets to be explored rather than problems to be overcome. The conversation will not always be easy, but we hope it will be constructive.

Welcome to this space! We are glad you are here!

And from Tomas Spath:

When the founders of the United States and the framers of our constitution nudged the pendulum away from monarchy and toward a new democracy, the goal of some, at least, was to create a government of the people that would be governed by the people, and for the people. This means that we would all share the responsibility to guide our nation.

But the question that we must ask today is: do we the people have enough information to make good decisions? To run the government?

In our time, the United States is on information overload. At any moment, we have access to news from anywhere in the world, from any ideological point of view. There is no place, and no position, that is away from the Internet.

Isn’t it a shame, then, that when we have access to so very much, so few of us do anything with it? Perhaps it is this flood of data that paralyzes us into inaction. Perhaps that is why we stifle ourselves and allow others to lead the way.

The Institute for Civility in Government is a grassroots movement that is committed to the idea that we all need to be more involved in the governing process at some level — whether locally, in the statehouse, or in Washington D.C. Ours is a nation in which we do all share the responsibility to govern, and by engaging and sharing ideas, we can make things better in our cities, our states, and our country as a whole.

So welcome. Here is a safe place to develop the ideas that will make us a better people, and a more perfect Union.