A kinder, courteous Howard

Civility initiative aims to promote politeness in everyday county life

February 18, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

At least 17 Howard County organizations and government agencies have agreed people can use more politeness in their home, work and community lives.

A new, multiyear project called Choose Civility is pulling numerous local efforts together under one umbrella. Activities include getting book groups to talk about civility at their meetings, telling students to treat each other respectfully in school, helping transit riders remember to be kinder to drivers and encouraging motorists to be more polite to each other.

As Choose Civility's leaders have sought groups to participate, "there hasn't been a single person who has said, `Oh, we don't need that,' " said Stacie Irish, executive director of Leadership Howard County. "I can't imagine there are people who haven't experienced at some point in time ... people not treating each other nicely."

The project will kick off Thursday morning with a lecture at Howard Community College by P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor and director of the institution's Civility Initiative.

Forni will share insights from his research and his book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. Those who attend also will be able to take part in one of four roundtable discussions.

Forni and his book were the inspiration for the Choose Civility project, according to Irish. She said she had seen several articles about the rising interest in civility and was considering asking Forni to speak to the community on the topic when she discovered that the Howard County Public Library was already having Forni give a presentation to its staff.

The two groups joined forces with Howard Community College, which hosts a regular speaker series, to arrange Forni's appearance in front of a broader audience.

The idea took hold and grew from there, said Natalie Weikart, the library's head of adult educational and cultural programs. The library has agreed to be the lead organization for the project's first year.

After considering ways to apply Forni's rules for civil behavior to departments throughout the library system, Weikart said, "We began to think: Why don't we invite the whole community to talk about civility? In this terrific county, why couldn't we also be the most respectful of one another?"

The library has purchased 1,500 of copies of Forni's book, many of which will be given to local groups and community leaders - including the Board of Education and school principals - with help from a grant from the Horizon Foundation. Other copies will be available for checkout.

Copies also will be made available to book discussion groups, including those organized by the library and those that operate on their own. Weikart said the library will encourage groups to devote at least one meeting to a discussion of civility in their lives and communities.

As the organizers sought more partners, many groups, including the Police Department, the Department of Recreation and Parks and Howard Transit discovered that they had a current or planned project that fit with Choose Civility's goals of enhancing respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance.

Many of the specific campaigns still are being developed, but monthly meetings help participants share ideas and reach each other's members. More partners are welcome to join.

Projects and events will be added to the project's Web site at www.choosecivility.org as they develop.

The Howard County school system, for example, instituted a civility policy last year and has a safe-schools initiative.

Mary Schiller, manager of the school system's partnerships office, said elements of those initiatives, such as a poster contest focusing on the theme of being a responsible bystander and the system's annual sportsmanship award, could be highlighted through the broader project.

She also said it is helpful to have groups throughout the county sharing the civility experience.

"I do think the reinforcement definitely helps," she said. "Everyone will be kind of operating under the same understanding. ... It's interesting to hear the different initiatives the other partners are doing as well."

Irish said she hopes activities in many different venues will help the project reach a wide group of people, not just those who are motivated to attend the opening lecture Thursday.

"If children are hearing it at school, people at the library hear about it, someone happens to be in a business that is incorporating it ... you're getting multiple touches," she said.

A lot of the rules for acting civilly are ones that people know, Schiller said, "but once you get going at a fast pace, you sometimes don't think about it or take it into consideration."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

The Choose Civility event with P.M. Forni begins with registration at 7:30 a.m. Thursday. The cost is $20; participants are encouraged to register online at www.choosecivility.org. Information: 410-730-4474.

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