Civility: More than a bumper sticker

The Baltimore Sun

Over two years, Choose Civility in Howard County has grown into a public campaign of workshops, book discussions and school programs supported by 40 community partners, but it may still be best known for its bumper stickers.

People have taken more than 35,000 of the green magnetic reminders to "Choose Civility," and displayed them throughout the county on automobiles, refrigerators and file cabinets.

The campaign "began taking off after the car magnets became a visible thing," said Valerie Gross, executive director of the Howard County Library, which is the lead partner for the campaign.

Now campaign leaders are planning to expand the effort with a free public symposium Wednesday morning that will focus on the need for civility in all aspects of life and some practical steps that can be taken in communities, schools, workplaces and families.

Choose Civility had its start in 2006 after P.M. Forni spoke at a library staff development day about his book, Choosing Civility, and his work heading the Civility Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University.

Plans for a countywide book discussion program grew into a full-fledged public education campaign as more partners joined the effort. An official kickoff was held in 2007.

This year, "we thought, 'Let's take this to the next level,'" said Christie Lassen, head of marketing and public relations for the Howard County Library.

The symposium will feature a keynote speech by Joe Ehrmann, a former professional football player with the Baltimore Colts who became a lecturer, pastor and high school coach. Ehrmann and his wife, Paula, a psychotherapist, founded Building Men and Women for Others, an organization that seeks to empower youth to build positive relationships.

Symposium organizers plan to highlight Ehrmann's message, as outlined in the book Seasons of Life by author Jeffrey Marx: "At the end of our life, we ought to be able to look back and know that somehow the world was a better place because we lived, we loved, we were other-centered, other-focused."

Gross said the book and a speech by Ehrmann to Leadership Howard County initially captured the attention of library staff, and fit well with the goals of Choose Civility.

"He works to teach [youth] that life is based on relationships," Gross said. "It is the notion that we are a human family. ... The quality of our lives is determined to a great extent by the quality of our relationships."

The symposium will begin with remarks by U.S. Representative Elijah E. Cummings. After Ehrmann's speech, participants can take part in one of four sessions led by partners in the Choose Civility Program.

John and Joan Webb Scornaienchi, owners of the Columbia-based etiquette-training firm Ambassador Protocol, will talk about "Promoting Civility in Your Neighborhood."

Webb Scornaienchi said after a year of the campaign's public message, "this is the perfect time to re-evaluate our behavior and recommit to being our most civil selves."

As part of that commitment, she said, "We all have a responsibility to keep our neighborhoods safe and look out for each other. ... I think we can all use a refresher on neighborhood etiquette."

In another session, Kathryn B. Rockefeller, director of the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center at Howard Community College, will talk about "Why Looking Out for No. 1 Doesn't Work."

Rockefeller said she hopes to show that helping oneself is a positive thing and helping others is important. She said: "I want to help people recognize it can be an 'and' and not a 'but' between the two. ... They should realize helping society as whole also helps them."

In addition, Pam Blackwell, director of student services for the Howard County Public School System, will present a program called "Being Safe and Sensible in Cyberspace," that will focus on cyber-bullying prevention. Lassen and library colleague Stacey Fields will focus on "Civility in the Workplace."

Organizers plan to make the symposium an annual event. They are also working on a tool kit that will pull together information on the Howard County campaign for other areas looking to start a similar effort.

Gross said Howard County already is a nice place to live, but "we always need to be reminded to be civil, because we are human beings."

Civility workshop

What: Choose Civility Symposium: Civility Begins With Me

When: Wednesday, 8 a.m. to noon

Where: Grace Community Church, 8200 Old Columbia Road, Fulton.

Program: Keynote speech by former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann, followed by breakout sessions on cyber-bullying, civility in the workplace, conflict resolution and civility in your neighborhood.

Registration: Carol Murray, 410-313-7762 or, by Monday.

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