Community

Project coming to Cedar Rapids aims at improving civil discourse

Amy Smit

Drake University
Amy Smit Drake University
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Donald Trump. Immigration. Elections.

Bring up one of those topics and you can be sure you’ll get an earful — or an in-box full.

That dialogue is good — as long as it’s respectful, according to the organizers of Revive Civility Iowa, a yearlong project to support Iowans’ efforts to improve the way they talk and listen to each other, to show mutual respect for each other’s perspective and to be able to “disagree without being disagreeable,” explained Amy Smit, associate director of the Robert and Billie Ray Center at Drake University.

The Ray Center is partnering with the National Institute of Civil Discourse, which was founded in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep Gabby Giffords, to bring the initiative to seven Iowa communities.

The first one was in Waterloo and six more are planned, including one from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Aug. 23, at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library.

So far, more than 60 people have signed up, including Barb Westercamp, who has a long history of community involvement. A Cedar Rapids resident for nearly 50 years, Westercamp has seen — and heard — a change in the tone of community conversations.

“There’s been a loss of civility,” she said. “People don’t listen. People of different viewpoints don’t listen. They have their line in the sand and won’t go over.

“If you can’t even listen, you can’t understand where they are coming from,” she said, “and we can’t build consensus if we don’t start listening.”

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So far, Smit said, the community conversation has attracted faith-based and civic leaders and others who want to change the tone of the discussion. The workshop will include skill-building exercises for participants to learn how to have a civil conversation across differences.

Active listening is one of the strategies that will be taught, she said, to help people begin to better understand other people’s perspectives and develop more tolerance toward those who think differently than they do.

The Ray Center recognizes the risk that it will be “preaching to the choir,” Smit said, “but even if people agree, they may have different perspectives.”

“You don’t have to be sick to get better,” she added. The workshop may help motivate people who already are committed to civility go out and spread the word.

The Aug. 23 event won’t be a “one and done,” Smit said. Revive Civility Iowa will to work with people interested in continuing the conversation.

Workshops also are planned July 31 in Pella, Aug. 14 in Sioux City, Aug. 21 in Dubuque, Sept. 18 in Carroll and Sept. 25 in Des Moines. Go to www.eventbrite.com for tickets.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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