Harford County kicks off 'Choose Civility' campaign

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“Choose Civility” is not a command by the local government — it is a choice people can make in how they relate to others, according to Valerie J. Gross, the guest speaker at the breakfast event Wednesday to kick off Harford County’s new campaign.

“It’s an invitation for you to choose civility in your work, in your personal life... it is an invitation to the community rather than a command,” said Gross, who spoke at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp.

An estimated 300 people attended the two-and-a-half-hour event, which included remarks from Gross, group activities for people at their tables and additional remarks from Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and Mary Hastler, Harford County Public Library CEO.

“Our life is all about the quality of our relationships, and civility enables quality relationships,” Gross said.

Civility does not just create more harmonious relationships, but it can help decrease bullying, the potential for road rage accidents and violence and help heal political divisions, several participants said, as the kickoff event fell the day after primary elections in Harford County and the rest of Maryland.

“We want to encourage inclusiveness in the county; we want to encourage diverse opinions because that’s how we learn from each other to build a strong Harford County,” Hastler said.

Locally, the Harford County Public Library is the lead organization for Choose Civility. The library system is partnering with multiple entities such as the county government, Harford County Public Schools, Harford Community College and nonprofit organizations, according to Hastler.

She encouraged audience members to take part in upcoming civility events, sign on as an “Alliance Partner” to support the initiative or check out online resources for more information because “this will only be as successful as we put into it.”

“To change Harford County, we have to stay engaged and involved, and that’s all of us, our families, our friends and where we work,” Hastler said.

The Daniel Bennett Group jazz band is scheduled to perform a free outdoor concert at the Abingdon Library Aug. 8 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. to help “connect Choose Civility to the arts,” Hastler said.

Choose Civility for quality of life

Gross is the president of Education Enterprises for Libraries and founder of the Choose Civility movement that has gone nationwide since it was launched by the Howard County Library System in 2007. Gross served as president and CEO of the Howard County libraries from 2001 to 2017.

The movement was inspired by the book “Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct,” by P.M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, according to the Choose Civility website.

Gross called civility “the very fabric of our community’s quality of life,” noting it creates happier people with happier personal and professional lives, plus the increased happiness keeps people healthier.

She said the concept is found across different religions.

“Civility connects and unites us,” Gross said.

Gross discussed how Choose Civility has been implemented in Howard County, such as through bumper magnets bearing the logo — she also showed the many parodies of the logo.

There are multiple programs for young people, plus the Human Library, in which participants talk with someone of a different religion, nationality, sexual orientation, a person with a disability or trauma survivor, and The Longest Table.

The Longest Table involves many people sitting down for a meal at as long a table as possible to meet and talk with people they do not know. About 250 people attended this year’s Longest Table event in Howard County, according to the Choose Civility site.

Howard County has used #choose2Bkind as its theme for the past two years, Gross said.

Gross talked about how actions — civil or uncivil — can originate in one’s thoughts and how words and actions affect others.

“We are all wax upon which we leave our marks,” she said.

She explained 15 principles of civility, such as listening, respecting the others’ opinions, taking responsibility instead of casting blame, asserting oneself, giving and taking constructive criticism, committing random acts of kindness, even being a considerate guest.

Civility for the future

Melissa Hawkins, of Jarrettsville, talked during an audience participation session about the need to get more young people involved in Choose Civility and to encourage face-to-face communication so problems can be solved “in a more constructive way.”

“Thank you for bringing this to Harford County, I appreciate it,” she told Gross.

Hawkins is a Baltimore County Public Schools teacher and a leader in Girl Scout Troop 124 in Jarrettsville. She said she already encourages her students to make civility part of their daily lives. She attended Wednesday’s event seeking more ways to implement it in her school, Scout troop, community, even her family.

Hawkins said young people are future leaders, and they must be taught civil communication online and in person.

“We want to teach the younger generation so that they can lead us in the right direction,” she said.

Hastler said one can see “disrespect and a lack of respect for others’ opinions everywhere we go.” She stressed civility is a choice in how to respond in situations such as being cut off in traffic or bullying.

“We want to make sure that we choose the right response and encourage respect, empathy, listening and working together,” she said.

Glassman talked about how Harford County residents pull together when crises happen locally or in other communities, and he lauded Harford’s volunteer spirit. He said Harford can “light the way to make our county a model of civility” through Choose Civility.

Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for Harford County government, encouraged county residents to participate in the campaign.

“We are the community and to move the community forward takes all hands on deck,” she said.

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