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UVM Extension Building Capacity Blog

On the path to civility

Posted: April 9th, 2012 by capacity

I have been troubled for some time now about the number of instances I’ve observed of adults, in leadership positions, behaving in ways that seem unacceptable. These events raise in my mind a question of when and where we lost our way when it comes to common-sense civility.

My first lessons in civility came from my parents – be polite, show respect, and mind your manners. In school I was taught that it is possible to critique an idea and still show respect to the individual(s) promoting that idea. From conversations with colleagues and friends I know that these lessons were not unique to me.

So how is it that we seem to have arrived at a place in our society where civility counts for so little?

Dr P.M. Forni, a noted author in the field of civility, suggests that there are four major causes of incivility – stress, anonymity, lack of time, and lack of restraint.

Stress increases during times of scarcity. As our communities face diminishing resources we must anticipate that the stress levels of individuals will increase. Preparing for this by learning to be empathetic in the face of other’s pain can help moderate the effects of stress.

Strong community networks are a cure for anonymity. People need opportunities to tell their stories. Community members who are well-networked need to step forward and create spaces where everyone has a voice and where community members are mentored in how to contribute to civil discourse. Do not wait until an emotional issue presents itself — reach out during periods of calm. Identify yourself to those you don’t recognize and invite them to participate in community events.

Lack of time is the number one excuse provided for just about everything. “Why don’t you spend more time with your family? No time. Why don’t you volunteer more in your community? No time. Why don’t you eat better? No time.”  Few of us would argue that life today is hectic but, the truth is that we all make time for what we value. If we value civil discourse then we must make time for it. And we must be good role models for the young people that are watching our behavior.

Lack of restraint may be the most challenging threat to civility. How do we instill in ourselves, and others, the understanding that the need for a personal win may have to be set aside in order to achieve the bigger objective of a win for the community? Some strategies include learning to separate the issue from the individual, avoiding escalation and avoiding personal misunderstandings.  There are other strategies that will move us toward a more civil society but taking the first steps will be up to each of us.

We are not born civil. Civility is a code of behavior acquired by learning from others and by constant practicing. For the sake of our communities and ourselves, let us teach, let us learn, and let us practice. Dr. P.M. Forni

We would love to hear your thoughts on strategies for maintaining civility in public conversations. How does your community keeps emotional discussions civil?

Creating a Culture of We

Posted: March 26th, 2012 by capacity

Does your organization have a Questioning Culture?  Michael Marquardt suggests that a questioning culture exists when we ask questions of others and invite them to search for the answers with us.  By doing this we not only share information with each other, we also share the responsibility for answering the tough questions associated with problems that we face.  Does your organization display a list of “shared values”?  A questioning culture encourages an environment that engages people throughout the organization listening, appreciating, building consensus, and resolving conflict.


When leaders ask questions, they gain insight into what others hope to create, what values they prize, and behaviors they desire.  In answer-driven organizations, curiosity blooms and individuals feel safe to take risks and challenge the status quo.  Such a questioning culture has six hallmarks identified by Marquardt in his book, Leading with Questions, (2005, p.29).  Let’s take a look at these.

When an organization has a questioning culture, the people in it:

  • Are willing to admit, “I don’t know.”
  • Go beyond allowing questions; they encourage questions.
  • Are helped to develop the skills needed to ask questions in a positive way.
  • Focus on asking empowering questions and avoid disempowering questions.
  • Emphasize the process of asking questions and searching for answers rather than finding the “right” answers (click here for related article).
  • Accept and reward risk taking.

In our webinar, Begin by Sculpting a Learning Organization, the model we shared focused on learning that happens at the individual, team and organizational levels.  Learning depends on curiosity and curiosity is associated with asking questions.  A learning organization asks questions and builds a culture of we, not one of you versus me or management versus employees or employees versus volunteers.  We are engaged in addressing questions that build a stronger understanding of each other and what we hold as important for the organization.  We have a shared responsibility to find the most appropriate decision for the issues we face.  We look for answers together, inviting all voices to be heard and all perspectives to have a voice.

The quality of the decisions made in the organization is greatly enhanced if a questioning culture is active and strong.  Is it alive and well in your organization?


Engaging Youth in Community Development

Posted: November 17th, 2011 by Mary Peabody

It usually starts like this.

Community spokesperson: We need to get young folks to stay in this community. Can you help with that?
Me: Can you say a little more about what you are looking for?
Community spokesperson: All of our kids are leaving. They graduate high school but there are no jobs for them. Sometimes they go off to college and we’d like them to come back home but without any jobs to offer…well, it’s just hard…
Me: How active are the young people in your community while they are in school?
Community spokesperson: Well we financed a new playing field at the school. There’s sports and after-school activities…You know, there are always a few that just want to hang around downtown and cause trouble…
Me: Are there leadership opportunities for young people in the community?
Community spokesperson: We’ve tried…kids don’t care about that stuff…they don’t have time…

And I’m sure you can fill in the rest of the conversation.

While most community groups say they would like more participation from young people,  there is little outreach done to really attract young people, put them into leadership positions and grant them the authority to make decisions. Another barrier is, for the most part, a lot of what happens under the heading of “Community Development” can sound really boring–meetings, planning, surveys–typically not activities that young adults are drawn to participate in. Yet, for a community to be sustainable it is important that the community leaders represent the citizens of the community. So here are some Do’s and Don’ts that can result in attracting more young people to community leadership.

Behaviors to cultivate for increasing youth participation

  • Adults need to be willing to share their power and responsibility
  • Advertise the importance of young people consistently throughout the community
  • Treat young people as individuals
  • Strive for a critical mass rather than a single token youth
  • Identify the skills that need to be developed for healthy youth-adult partnerships
  • When you don’t know something, ask!
  • Reward and celebrate the contributions made by young people
  • Identify participation opportunities that are flexible and involve issues of concern to young people
  • Make opportunities to participate action-oriented.

Behaviors to avoid

  • Don’t isolate young people into subcommittees
  • Don’t expect a single young person to represent the full spectrum of the youth perspective
  • Be careful to listen respectfully and avoid interruptions
  • Avoid parenting behavior
  • Don’t avoid honest criticism — youth need to learn how to respond and they are tougher than you think
  • Avoid insincere praise

None of these tips are guaranteed to increase youth participation but they are worth putting into practice. Reaching out to build fruitful adult-youth partnerships will pay dividends for any community willing to do a little extra work.  To learn more about how to build these partnerships we recommend Building Community: A Toolkit for Youth and Adults in Charting Assets and Creating Change.

Disaster Preparedness & Response in your Community

Posted: November 17th, 2011 by capacity

When disaster hits close to home, it’s not always easy to know exactly how to respond and start picking up the pieces. As a member of a community, there is always a way to get involved and help in the relief efforts regardless of whether a disaster preparedness plan is in place. The UVM Extension Building Capacity Project has developed some tools to help guide you and become involved in disaster preparedness in your community. These resources were adapted from the Natural Rural Behavioral Center in production with the University of Florida link) and was developed to help communities ‘Triumph over Tragedy.’

Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

The other resource available on the Building Capacity website is a tool for rural communities to use when faced with disaster. Rural communities have other obstacles to overcome, such as lack of resources, when disaster hits and this can cause more added stress on the community. The Special Concerns of Rural Communities presentation can assist community members in knowing what to expect from rural communities when disaster strikes and how to problem solve and tap into those resources that are available to them, such as local Extension services.

Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

Disaster is not an easy feat to overcome, but it is possible and doable with the help and understanding of community members. To learn more about becoming involved in community leadership and development go to UVM Extension’s Community and Economic Vitality  resource page. You can also find webinars and interactive learning materials on volunteer development on the Building Capacity website.Another resource available for rural communities is UVM’s Center for Rural Studies, here you will find personnel committed to community development and offer a range of specialized skills. It is important to get involved, because one person cannot do everything and everyone can bring something to the table.

Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

The Value of Asset-Based Thinking

Posted: September 16th, 2011 by capacity

The person that thinks they can do something and the person that thinks they cannot do it are both right. I heard that bit of wisdom at a training many years ago and it has stuck with me as one the most true things I have ever learned.  I think it is time to pull it out and get it back into play.  Many communities are struggling. Even without the drama of Tropical Storm Irene we have been in an economic crisis for some years now. Rural communities have seen out-migration of their populations — in search of jobs, affordable housing and vibrant communities. Infrastructure is aging, not just our roads and bridges but the municipal water and sewer systems have reached (or exceeded) their life expectancy. And our communities are aging…heading toward fixed incomes just at the time that we most need their tax dollars. Faced with these challenges, it would be easy to get depressed, frustrated and angry. But there is a tool that communities can rely on to begin to draft workable solutions for their communities.

Asset-based planning begins with a focus on what the community has rather than what the community lacks. So, for example, a community that has high unemployment might choose to focus instead on it’s natural beauty. In that way the community will be moved to leverage that asset to create new opportunities. By building on what they have (natural resources), they might choose to emphasize tourism rather than industrial recruitment as a way to build employment.

The simple theory behind asset-based planning is that by focusing on what you already have you will be in a better position to attract new resources. If you only focus on what you lack you create a bleak scenario. Not only will it be difficult to attract outside funders, it will be challenging to motivate your own citizens.

UVM Extension has staff and resources that can help your community begin to plan for the future using your assets as the foundation for the future.


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