Transform Rockford: Cultivating True Connection through Civility

Looking far beyond mere respectfulness, one Transform Rockford group is setting out to improve relationships by encouraging personal responsibility and a deeper-level bonding between neighbors and strangers.


What does civility mean to you? Is it simply treating others with respect?

Ask the 815 Choose Civility team and you’ll soon discover a much broader vision for cultivating civil behavior by building deeper connections with others – in our schools, in our public forum, among our neighbors and with complete strangers.

“The idea of civility is all about recognizing your perspective, recognizing how you’re responding and feeling about the situation, and then intentionally choosing to search for and prioritize what we have in common before addressing what we see as different,” explains Daniel Sommer, an 815 Choose Civility subcommittee member. “It’s all about personal responsibility.”

Led entirely by volunteers, this civility cultivation initiative is one of many projects being rolled out by Transform Rockford, as the nonprofit continues its mission to create a strategic plan for our region’s self-renewal.

If Transform Rockford is to be successful, there’s a recognition that neighbors will have to work collectively toward a common good, rather than constantly butting heads. It’s a task that’s easier said than done.

“It almost feels like adversity, discord and disagreement are the norm, and we develop relationships but we don’t know these people very well,” says Sommer. “Click on Facebook and you get bombarded by all of this negativity and disagreement, and how someone is wrong or bad because they think this, or ‘Did you hear they did this? How awful are they?’ It’s this bombardment that comes at us every day.”

Not like this is unusual for Sommer, a trained clinical social worker and a psychotherapist in private practice. He specializes in anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and easing people through difficult transitions, especially families going through a divorce.

“Cultivating civility in high-conflict divorces is learning how to recognize what it is we have in common and using that as our foundation,” says Sommer.

It’s from this environment that Sommer began developing a civility curriculum he hopes will soon be available to any group around our region. Unlike the traditional civility program, which tends to focus only on public discourse and debate, Sommer’s approach starts with personal perspective, asking “What do I have in common with this person? Finding those commonalities helps to create personal connections, which naturally creates respect and trust that enable two people to address their differences.

The 815 Choose Civility curriculum is still in its early pilot, having been tested and refined among various church groups, firefighters, librarians and community leaders. In its current form, the 90-minute workshop is highly experiential, with lots of interpersonal engagement. But, in time, Sommer believes it could grow into a daylong seminar or a continuing series of meetings. “This is just the beginning of it,” he says.

As the subcommittee chair for 815 Choose Civility’s education committee, Sommer is just part of the picture. Fellow committee member Jennifer Macek is testing out these ideas inside the Rockford Public Schools, introducing a social-emotional learning curriculum that seeks to cultivate better behaviors in our young people. In many cases, she’s introducing mindfulness, emotional regulation and interpersonal skills to students who’ve experienced some sort of trauma in their lives.

“What’s beautiful about the work Jennifer is doing is that she’s taking an approach of honoring and respecting that there are many people in our school systems who’ve experienced trauma, and for whatever reasons haven’t fully recovered from the experience,” says Sommer. “So, the work we do as caring adults for young people who are experiencing trauma is helping them to calm that down, and focus on learning and positive social interaction.”

At the same time, the 815 Choose Civility public forum committee is reaching additional young people through its annual Youth Summit, where high schoolers gather for a series of lectures on cultivating civil behavior. Past summits have included conversations between Congressmen Cheri Bustos and Adam Kinzinger as well as local leaders like Mayor Tom McNamara and County Board Chairman Frank Haney. Local journalists have discussed the importance of news literacy and identifying propaganda.

“What I hope they got from it is that we have good role models, and civility in our elected leaders is not only possible, but for many of them it’s the goal,” says Sommer. “I hope it’s inspired them to see that the adversity and discord we see in social media and the news is not the full definition of what is happening and how we’re interacting with each other.”

Sommer thinks wistfully to portrayals of Victorian London, when gentlemen in top hats would bow and wish a “good morning” to others on the street. It creates an instant connection between strangers.

“Once we get back to that foundation of connecting with the people around us, then it’ll be easier to collaborate with each other,” says Sommer. “The more connected we are, then the more effective and efficient the collaboration is, in making the city or the state or the county we want to live in together. My hope is that, if we begin to connect and feel the benefits of civility, and feel the success of collaborating together, then we’ll begin having more confidence in the idea of connecting with our shared citizens.”

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