Some Akron community members are trying to create a culture of civility in a society many say has grown increasingly divided.
With that in mind, on Wednesday afternoon they launched the Greater Akron Civility Center at the University of Akron. It will be housed and maintained by UA’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
“This day we intentionally choose civility over incivility. Love over hate and in Aretha’s legacy R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” said the Rev. Carl Wallace, speaking with sermon-like intensity at Wednesday’s news conference.
Noting that Wednesday was the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Wallace quoted King, saying “Time is always right to do the right thing.”
Wallace, a retired minister from Trinity United Church of Christ in Akron, is on the advisory committee that will guide the center.
“The key is that the civility center is not owned by the University of Akron, it’s owned by the community,” Interim UA President John Green told those gathered for the event in a room at UA’s InfoCision Stadium.
The center’s advisory committee is made up of community leaders, including those representing the faith community, Akron Public Schools and local government. Those on the committee will bring in other members, Green said in an interview.
Green, a longtime UA political science professor who spearheaded the center's formation, has long been interested in the tone of public discourse.
The center will use existing Bliss Institute funds for special projects. Bliss employees, as well as students, will run the center, which is directed by Matthew Akers, assistant director of the Bliss Institute and public liaison for the UA president’s office.
Akers stressed in an interview that the center’s aim is to promote a general culture of civility, not just a political one.
“Certainly politics manifest incivility today, but that’s not the only way people are encountering incivility,” Akers said.
Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, who spoke Wednesday, said the center’s efforts are needed.
It “is mission critical,” he said, adding there is a “national distrust and I would even say local distrust of government.”
Polls show that Americans want more civility. Sixty-eight percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll last year said it was “essential” for people in high political offices to maintain “a tone of civility and respect.”
Green said the center will serve as a place for groups and individuals working on civility to meet and exchange ideas. It also will offer resources on its website, www.uakron.edu/civilitycenter.
The center will coordinate an annual summit celebrating civility, as well as develop standards of civility, with input from the community. Green said other possibilities include teaming up with schools to work with young people and organizing an annual civility award program.
Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro told those gathered that “civility is not just a word, it’s a powerful action that leads to dialogue, it leads to solutions and it leads to a common understanding.”
Zach Friedhof, executive director of Big Love Network in Akron, a community-building nonprofit that hosts arts events and other activities, said efforts such as the center are needed.
"We're allowing ourselves to be distracted from our humanity," he said. "Anytime we can be reminded that dialogue and conversation is possible, that's a good thing that we should embrace."
Those involved with the center have signed the Greater Akron Civility Compact, in which signers "pledge to practice and encourage civility in our community."
The center grew out of the Ohio Civility Project, an effort begun in 2010 by UA, the University of Mount Union and Cleveland State University to explore incivility in public discourse.
The project eventually included focus groups, research that yielded white papers and a series of Beacon Journal articles.
“We had a sense, unfortunately we were very accurate in that sense, that civility was declining very sharply … not just at the national level … but actually here in Akron, on the ground,” Green said.
Some of those who were involved in ongoing conversations that grew out of the Ohio Civility Project decided last year to institutionalize the civility efforts in the Greater Akron area, he said.
Akron Beacon Journal Editor Bruce Winges is a member of the center's advisory committee.
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.