How a gritty Midwestern city is emerging as a model for civility

Gary, Ind., hosts World Civility Day on Thursday, drawing attendees from as far afield as Kenya as part of an ongoing campaign that has boosted not only civility but also the city’s own self-image.

John J. Watkins/The Times of Northwest Indiana
Many in Gary, Ind., are striving to establish a new narrative for the city of 80,000 — one of progress earned through taking on the city’s deep segregation, stagnant politics, and repressive self-image.

The “Go Lo” gas station’s letters have been stripped, the sun permanently etching their faded shape on a blue background. Nearby, the “Buy N Save” still has signs for the $1 money orders that folks used to purchase before plywood was nailed over the windows and doors.

Closer to downtown, the abandoned post office and train terminal stand as reminders of what Gary, Ind., used to be.

The unemployment rate here is twice the Indiana average, and Gary has long struggled with one of the highest murder rates among small American cities – even higher than Chicago, just 30 miles away.

But beneath that veneer of blight, this city reveals a gritty spirit. Many in the community are striving to establish a new narrative — one of progress earned through taking on Gary’s deep segregation, stagnant politics, and repressive self-image. Over the past two years, that push has come in part from an unlikely source: a call for civility.

Even before Donald Trump’s blunt and often vulgar rhetoric made civility a buzz word, Gary's Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper to take on the increasingly uncivil discourse in the world and help rebrand the city’s negative image. Now, they hope to broaden Gary’s initiative into a grass-roots movement to reclaim civility in society.

Measuring progress is difficult, but the diverse crowd coming to Gary for World Civility Day Thursday – from nine states as well as Canada, Ghana, Haiti, Nigeria, Gambia, and Kenya – shows the appetite many have for reclaiming civility, from City Hall to the playground to the workplace. The two-year “Community Civility Counts” (CCC) initiative has also prompted lawmakers in eight local governments as well as the Indiana House and Senate to pass resolutions promising to uphold civil discourse.

“I think there is definitely a model here,” says Summer Moore, audience engagement editor at the Times, which has encouraged civility on its editorial page, pushed for a civility curriculum in schools, held student essay contests, and is hosting World Civility Day, among other activities. “Everything we’ve done can be replicated … and the great thing is that it’s easily molded to what other cities need to focus on. Take the big ideas and make it your own.”

Deeper impact than expected

One of those big ideas is to ensure that more students graduate from high school, and, when they do, that they’re prepared for a college setting that might intimidate them. African Americans, who make up 80 percent of the population in Gary, often arrive to find they’re in the minority for the first time.

The civility curriculum at two Gary charter schools, Lighthouse Academies and Steel City Academy, has become the ideal forum to address those issues and even the deep angst that comes with a lack of self-esteem.

“I knew it would have an impact,” Lighthouse teacher Erica Young said in an interview about the civility curriculum. “I didn’t know it would be so deep – how far it could go.”

Students have gained poise and confidence, in themselves and where they come from.

“It helped us to understand one another – trying to understand what people go through, where they’re coming from,” says Dorothy Lewis, a Lighthouse student who says she’s a happier person because of the course. “We are like a family, for real.”

How it started

The notion of civility is somewhat fraught in the wake of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, which showed that many of his supporters conflate it with unnecessary political correctness. On the left, some feel that political vulgarity, which a recent Current Affairs piece traced to the French Revolution, can be powerful and even necessary to make a point. The push for “safe spaces” in academic settings and backlash against controversial speakers have led to concerns that university officials are engaging in censorship under the guise of civil discourse.

Talking about civility can also have unintended racial undertones. Ms. Moore, the Times editor, says that when she presented the program at a conference some activists felt that the civility initiative looked like white do-gooders were telling black youth how to behave.

“It was the first time I realized that civility could be seen as an oppressive term,” says Moore, who describes the experience as “humbling.” Now, she makes sure to cite the definition from the Institute for Civility in Government, which reads in part: “Civility is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences.”

Indeed, it shouldn’t be confused with political correctness, says Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary’s mayor. “It’s that you have a responsibility to exhibit a level of respect even if you disagree with people,” she says.

To a certain extent, that comes naturally to a community that, in the words of local activist Sam Love puts it, combines “Indiana friendliness with that Chicago grittiness.” But even as he and others see beyond the blight, crime, and limited financial resources to a city rich with potential, thorny problems around race and violence often feel entrenched. Mr. Love recounts a jarring run-in with a woman at a county fair, who blamed the city’s problems on its African-American majority. “Look what these [people] did,” she said to him, using a racial slur.

“We’re challenged – that part is no different from any other community. I think where Gary is different is we’ve made a concerted effort,” says Chuck Hughes, president of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, who worked with the chamber’s public policy committee and the Times to implement the civility initiative. “We started thinking broader…. We started thinking, ‘Let’s look at what’s happening around the world … board-room quarrels, bullying. Any situation that needs some kind of resolution or mediation, you have to inject an ounce of civility.”

A 'sacred space' for conversations

In the classroom, educators see benefits of the curriculum far beyond basic tenets of politeness or civics. Principal Katie Kirley of Steel City Academy, where the curriculum has been adopted in its ninth-grade class, was especially grateful to have time allotted for the civility course after Trump’s election. Many of the students, mostly African American from impoverished backgrounds, were fearful. “Am I getting sent back to Africa? … Ms. Kirley, do you hate black people?” she was asked.

Kirley was relieved there was a “sacred space for those conversations to happen,” she said.

One of the civility teachers, Joshua Moore, remembers those fraught conversations about Trump and race, but says the course’s greatest strength is what happens in the margins. For example, it has allowed him to open up about what it means to be a black male in society.

The conversation often turns back to Gary — a place many students view with shame. Now, he said, the course has infused pride in these young teens, enabling them to “see the good in the community they’re in.” 

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