A View From Glen Hill: Injecting civility in our society

The Board of Selectmen’s meeting last week was a model of civil discourse with contentious matters discussed respectfully by the numerous residents who spoke during the public comment period.
How does a community best foster a robust sense of civility at all levels? That’s the question that a series at the library on Tuesday evenings during March will be asking and hopefully helping to answer.
The series had its genesis in incidents last fall involving swastikas at school, but it is also intended to address everything from angry parents at sports events to discussion of hot-button topics in town. Under the title, “Who is My Neighbor?: How Our Community Can Respond to Differences, Divisions and Conflict,” the series will explore how we relate to each other at very fundamental levels. How do we foster a community in which we all:
Are consistently thoughtful in our remarks to each other even when we seriously disagree;
Welcome and accept others whether they are the same or different from us;
Regularly look for and find ways to be compassionate to each other and also to those outside our community?
A tall order to be sure, but the series’ sponsors — Wilton Library, Wilton Clergy Association, and Wilton Interfaith Action Committee (Wi-ACT, composed of congregants of 10 Wilton faith institutions, Christian, Jewish and Muslim) — are certainly well-positioned to present this program. They “invite the Wilton community to pause, come together, and consider how civility and compassion have the power to transform ‘Us vs. Them’ into ‘We.’”
The series comes at an especially opportune time, not only with respect to political discourse in town but in other areas as well ranging from parental behavior at their kids’ games to how we respond to those swastikas incidents. In fact, the series’ third session will feature Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann, who is known to many in town for her moving and thoughtful presentations before audiences of all ages, and Dr. Kareem Adeeb, board president of the Southwestern Connecticut Interfaith Council. The series’ planning committee has heard sad reports from Muslim women who have lived in this community for years now being confronted about wearing their headscarves.
The speaker for the opening session on Tuesday, March 10th at 7 p.m. at the library is Union Theological Seminary Professor Sarah Azaransky who will focus on “ethical communication” — how the ways we talk with each other in community can be improved.
The second session, on March 17th, will turn to a local perspective on what works well in building community right here. Cider Mill teacher and Ambler Farms leader Kevin Meehan will speak about the Ambler Farm experience of working with young people to build community and foster compassion. With him on the panel for that session will be Wilton Youth Services Director Colleen Fawcett and Wilton Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith addressing different aspects of how our community provides opportunities for our children and youth to practice being members of a civil and compassionate society.
The third session, on March 24th, will focus on how civil discourse is advanced in “broken” situations; how a community can foster constructive dialogue across groups seriously at odds with each other. And the series’ fourth and last session, on March 31st, will feature a panel of Wilton clergy addressing what our faith traditions say about civility, compassion and healthy communities and how we can proceed forward together most constructively.
The Rev. Jane Field, director of spiritual formation at Wilton Presbyterian Church and youth pastor at Zion’s Hill United Methodist Church, who is one of the series’ planners, said this about the series’ subject matter: “The world’s great faith traditions address the challenge of practicing civility and compassion in community life: the Hebrew Bible’s mandate to love neighbor as self, the Qu’ran’s injunction to speak kindly with those who do not share your opinions, and Jesus’ admonition about not casting the first stone.”   
Series Planning Committee member Peter Kaskell observed, “This is a very important subject. I hope this series will have a broad impact and perhaps even that video excerpts of it will be shown in our schools and elsewhere around town.”
And the Rev. Mary Grace Williams, rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and involved in planning for this annual interfaith series throughout the eight years of its existence, offered this perspective: “This series has a rich history of bringing us all together to broaden our understanding of the world’s religions as well as issues of ethics and life in community.”