A climate of incivility in Aspen and among its community members has spurred a movement by the Aspen Institute to take corrective action.
A small group of community members, on behalf of the Institute, addressed Aspen City Council on Tuesday evening and announced the unveiling of the “Community Forum for Civil Discourse.”
“Many believe that Aspen and the region are suffering from a climate of incivility that is wreaking havoc on the civic, political and business health of the community,” reads a letter from the Institute. “With the rise of incivility, many citizens opt out of participation in their own community’s future. Others resort to vitriol. Both damage the democratic process.”
The purpose of the community forum is to formally gather opinions, research what works and find long-term solutions, much of what the Institute’s programming aims to do on a global level. This project will take on a smaller scale and bring local leaders together to examine the root causes of anger, frustration and distrust, and learn from experts and those in other cities who have found solutions that have worked.
In essence, the forum’s campaign slogan could be “I get your point, I disagree, let’s go get a beer,” according to the Institute’s letter.
In all seriousness, the Institute and the people behind the effort, hope to change the community consciousness that all community members — locals, visitors and second-homeowners — should treat each other with respect.
“We want to foster that culture of ‘hey we don’t do that here,’” said Cristal Logan, the Institute’s community outreach director, of particular behaviors that contribute to incivility.
While various levels of incivility may not be present all the time, organizers expect it to rise as the national election in November draws closer.
The perceived incivility can be found at all levels within the community — government, the media and personal interactions, organizers say.
“This is in all areas of our community,” Logan said.
John Sarpa, chair of the Institute’s long-standing Community Forum and one of the people behind the civility effort, said one example is that while every community has crosswalks, in Aspen if a motorist encroaches on a pedestrian, there’s hell to pay more so than other places. Same goes if a motorist dares to honk his or her horn.
“We want to change the awareness that certain things aren’t done around here,” he said. “That there’s cultural and accepted ways of behavior here.”
The Institute plans to have a community meeting in the fall and then come up with specific solutions that will be rolled out in the spring, Logan said.
A significant amount of time and money has been dedicated to the effort thus far, organizers say. The Institute is currently raising money for the initiative, which is estimated to cost $50,000 to pay for meeting expenses, experts and advisors, and marketing and communication efforts, Logan said. The Institute and forum organizers plan to ask various entities and individuals to financially support the cause. Logan noted that the Elks Club is the first organization to pledge financial support.
The council was asked on Tuesday to buck up $10,000 for the cause. With minimal discussion, council members appeared to be interested in the concept and said they would consider the request.
“They are trying to get buy-in, literally and figuratively, from the electeds,” said Councilman Adam Frisch on Wednesday. “I think it’s a great idea.”
He said he spoke during his 2009 campaign about the incivility he had witnessed prior to running for his current seat.
“I felt the council was getting more frisky than it deserved,” he said, adding elected leaders don’t always lead by example. “Is there a way to disagree and how do we do it that is respectful?”
Social scientists and experts in community problem solving observe that when public debate is civil, democracy flourishes, seemingly intractable problems are solved and citizens are healthier, more productive and prosperous, according to forum organizers. The goal of the forum is to establish tools and techniques that foster a cultural shift toward more civil and effective discourse, according to the Institute.
The group is not looking to establish the “civility police” but to arm people with appropriate things to say when inappropriate discussion is taking place. Logan used the example of when the Institute holds a candidate debate leading up to an election, it asks participants to sign off on a code of campaign conduct, pledging to not attack their opponents. That’s not to say that the group wants to stifle vigorous debate, organizers say.
Initial discussions have involved community members like Amy Margerum, Terry Hale, Helen Klanderud, BJ Adams, Brooke Peterson, Michael Kinsley, George Newman, Nina Eisenstat and Stan Clauson.
Some of them approached the Institute, which agreed to convene a community forum to develop a long-term commitment to the principles of civility.
Since 1995, the Aspen Institute Community Forum has worked to identify emerging issues and existing trends that affect the long-term economic, social and environmental well-being of the Roaring Fork Valley, and to recommend policies and solutions. Past forums have focused on health care, communications and technology, affordable housing, economic sustainability and youth.