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Our View: Duluth back in national spotlight: It's OK this time

It may be naive, the Wall Street Journal's Gerald F. Seib acknowledged, to think that the embrace of civility here in Duluth, "a city of 86,000," could be "useful" across a nation as vast as ours.

"But something like (the Duluth-born Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project) is needed on a national scale" — and now, Seib wrote last week. "Duluth's experience is worth a look, if only because it shows that such a slide (into nastiness and rancor) is neither inevitable nor unstoppable."

Yes, another national publication has written about Duluth this summer of rising political tensions.

But no, unlike the uninformed Rolling Stone hit piece in June in the wake of President Donald Trump's visit here, Seib's column in the Wall Street Journal didn't unfairly force Duluth into a negative preconceived narrative.

Rather, the column shared Duluth's experiences with political discourse over the past 15 years or so and our insistence on respect and politeness even in the face of rising emotions. Seib pointed to Duluth as evidence that our nation, too, can exchange viewpoints and even disagree with respect; we can coexist.

The headline was: "What Duluth Can Teach America About Declining Political Civility."

The lesson was: We can be better as a nation by rising above our divisions.

"It's always a good Duluth story when Duluth (and Superior!) are held up as national examples, right?" longtime Speak Your Peace spokesman Rob Karwath of Duluth said in an email to the News Tribune Opinion page.

As the story has been retold repeatedly by the newspaper, Speak Your Peace was borne from Duluth's summer of discontent in 2003 when debates raged over everything from a proposed golf course at Spirit Mountain to Bayfront development to providing health care to city retirees. The mayor then even coined a new and unfortunate phrase: "CAVE" people, or "Citizens Against Virtually Everything."

Speak Your Peace was a response from cooler heads, led by the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. Its "nine guidelines for civilized debate (were) so simple they could and did fit on a wallet card," Seib wrote. They are pay attention, listen, be inclusive, don't gossip, show respect, be agreeable, apologize, give constructive criticism, and take responsibility.

The goal is not to stifle debate or end disagreements. "It is a campaign to improve public discourse by simply reminding ourselves of the very basic principles of respect," the Speak Your Peace website points out.

The campaign was adopted by all local governments in the Twin Ports. Posters went up in meetings rooms listing its tenets. And, "as the tenor of debate improved, so did Duluth's prospects and finances," Seib reported.

Speak Your Peace has since been embraced and used by public bodies around the globe — almost always with similarly positive results, Karwath has said.

Now also featured nationally in the Wall Street Journal, Speak Your Peace can prove useful to an entire nation. Maybe not so naive after all.

'Citizens can change the world'

"When the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation convened the Millennium Group in 2001, a group of the next generation of community leaders, they identified the 'quality of the public debate' as the most critical problem facing Duluth and Superior. In addition, they said that they would never become engaged in the public debate because of its divisiveness. We knew at that point we needed to take action.

"Our tools of civility have now reached over 50 communities in the United States and across the world. Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project is the perfect example of how a group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world."

 Holly Sampson

— Holly C. Sampson, president and CEO of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, which founded Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project