Transform Rockford: Transformational Change Begins with Civility

Good examples of civility, and the lack thereof, are all around us. Meet a group of Rockford leaders who believe a more civil community is one on the path toward positive change.

Examples of civility – or the lack thereof – are all around us. Political schisms and heated talk on social media are apparent displays, but think about the more subtle signs.
“I liken civility to being able to stop at a yellow traffic light and not have the driver behind shake their fist or their finger at me because I stopped,” says Lynn Stainbrook, executive director of Rockford Public Library. “I think it’s a combination of being able to talk about something respectfully, without name-calling, and being able to understand, or appreciate, others’ viewpoints.”
In its effort to create a strategic plan for our region’s self-improvement, the nonprofit Transform Rockford is preparing to launch nearly 65 projects that its volunteers believe will initiate transformative change here at home.
This January, one of the first of these community-led initiatives launches. A special kickoff for the 815 Choose Civility campaign is scheduled for Jan. 31 at Heartland Church, in Rockford. This civility campaign seeks to encourage citizens and politicians to engage in thoughtful, constructive dialogue in public and private forums.
“Civility is like a game of football: you have to learn to block and tackle; it’s so essential to execute bigger plays,” says Creig Day, a member of the civility campaign and outreach coordinator at Heartland. “We have got to speak and to listen to each other in ways that encourage conversation.”
Kathryn Pearce, campaign co-lead with Stainbrook and attorney Sherry Harlan, believes the concept of civility boils down to a few basic principles: honesty, respect and consideration for competing viewpoints. It means being quick to listen, cautious to react and mindful of how one’s words affect others.
“We have to start with ourselves, and make sure that we, as a region, create a community that chooses civility and demonstrates and practices those principles so that we can be a Top 25 community by 2025,” says Pearce, a patient experience officer at Mercyhealth. “Courtesy and respect are the basic foundation, but we have to start with awareness.”
Though the 815 Choose Civility campaign is still taking shape, team members agree it’ll be promoted through public bodies, local schools and community organizations, including the library. Stainbrook says the public will be able to learn about the campaign at the library’s six branches and, during their visit, can sign the local civility pledge, which reads: “I pledge to conduct myself in a way that is honest, respectful, considerate and kind, even toward those with whom I disagree.”
Stainbrook believes civility can also find its way into library curriculum, through children’s storytime and book clubs.
“If you’re a big reader, you’ve learned to develop empathy and understanding, because through books we put ourselves in other people’s shoes – or at least we attempt to understand others because that’s what we do as readers,” Stainbrook says. “Unfortunately, so many people in the world today don’t grow up as readers and so they don’t develop those same skill sets.”
Day believes the lesson of civility can also work its way into Heartland’s ministries.
“The whole concept of Christianity is to follow Jesus and to learn to live and love like he lived and loved,” says Day. “When we look at Jesus, he was radically inclusive to people who did not have power and were considered ‘others.’”
The concept of the civility campaign arose during a Transform Rockford research phase, when 12 “spoke teams” explored local conditions and best practices in multiple subject areas. Pearce, who led the Leadership & Youth team, saw the issue of civility recur several times.
Like all of Transform Rockford’s projects, Choose Civility will be measured for its ability to produce results – that is, to create transformative change. Specific data points are still a topic of discussion, but Pearce and her teammates believe several soft measurements will indicate progress.
“It’s palpable when you see and hear from people in the community, and notice what stories are being shared,” says Pearce. “There’s a change in behaviors, a change in how our community is viewed. It’s having trust in officials and confidence in our community. And in the political arena – during meetings and forums, we can see change in the behaviors that are demonstrated.”
Day believes change is palpable when civility is more of a habit than a conscious thought. He challenges his neighbors to dream about the things a more civil community can accomplish.
“If we become a more civil society, more civil home, more civil classroom or church, where can we go?” he asks. “I think the payoff comes when people feel accepted, included, and there’s more a sense that ‘I matter.’ Nothing says you don’t matter like not paying attention to someone, or saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ without giving it any thought. Imagine if you could walk away feeling that you were valued.”
For more information on Transform Rockford, visit