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Willmar citizens promote Speak Your Peace Civility idea to encourage civil and respectful discussion

WILLMAR -- Some Willmar citizens say public discourse can be civil if we follow rules of civility.

The citizens are promoting an effort called the Speak Your Peace Civility Project. The project reminds and encourages citizens to communicate in a more respectful and effective way by following some basic ground rules for civility.

"I've been using the analogy of the airline stewardess who gets up and tells you how to buckle your seatbelt. You know how to buckle your seatbelt. But every airplane you get on, you have to find out how to buckle your seatbelt,'' says Gary Geiger, one of the group's members.

"For some reason we need to be reminded. And that's really all this is about.''

He heard about Speak Your Peace at an April meeting of community foundations. The project was started five years ago by the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation's Millennium Group.

Geiger said young leaders in the Duluth-Superior area asked people if they'd run for office.

"It was pretty unanimous none of them wanted anything to do with government,'' Geiger said. "The reason they gave was that it was just too nasty to be involved in government.''

The group studied the issue and came up with the Civility Project, which they launched in 2003.

The group's Web site says the project is not a campaign to end disagreements.

"Rather, it is a campaign to improve communication by reminding ourselves of the basic principles of respect,'' according to the Web site.

The best way to determine what a community wants is to listen to what its people have to say, the Web site says. Disagreements can lead to healthy debate, which brings new ideas and information to light.

When a particular issue strikes at the fundamental beliefs of a group or individual, the debate can be especially fierce. In these situations, civility is important, the Web site says.

"When they started talking about this, really I sat up and listened,'' said Geiger. "Just the fact that any organization makes better decisions if they talk with each other civilly. They use civility in their discussions. They came up with nine rules ... on how to work with each other.''

Geiger was so enthused he sent e-mails about the project to people in business, nonprofit organizations and government. Since then, a group of 17 people has met half a dozen times and discussed how they can persuade organizations in Willmar and Kandiyohi County to adopt the principles.

"I've had just a fantastic response to that,'' Geiger said.

A few organizations have adopted the resolution on accepting the nine tools of civility. "It's starting to catch on a little bit,'' said Geiger.

The group plans to introduce the project to the public with an event featuring speakers from Duluth later this year or early next year.

A grant from the Willmar Community Foundation will cover event costs. The United Way is the group's fiscal agent. The Willmar Area Chamber of Commerce is arranging for the meeting place and the Community Marketing Coalition will promote the event.

"It's been so easy to do. I wrote an e-mail and a bunch of people came to get together and organizations are stepping forward and saying, yes, we'd like to help,'' said Geiger.

He said one committee member bemoaned the need to discuss civility.

"We have Minnesota nice, but we're not so nice anymore,'' Geiger said. "Maybe this will help correct that.''