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Choose Civility

Howard County Library System

Democracy | 2012

Innovation Synopsis

Choose Civility is a community-wide initiative, led by Howard County Library System, to position Howard County as a model of civility. The project intends to enhance respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance through an initiative with partners comprising government, nonprofits, and businesses. Libraries across the country are forming Choose Civility Chapters.


With the rise of the 24/7 news cycle and hyper-partisan politics, incivility is at an all-time high. Negative campaigning and demonizing opposing candidates has led to increased polarization among the electorate and gridlock in Washington. On local levels, the ability to post anonymous comments online and to avoid face-to-face interactions through social media enables people to be less civil in their conversations and extends bullying from the schoolyard to the Internet. Schools and sports organizations contend with parents bullying coaches, opponents, and their own children. Incivility in the workplace leads to hostile work environments, lost productivity, and lawsuits, and even senior centers are noticing increasing incivility among senior citizens. The discovery of Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct, by Johns Hopkins University Professor Dr. P.M. Forni, led to Forni's appearance at Howard County Library System's (HCLS) Professional Development Day in 2006. Staff were moved by his words and quickly began thinking about how to incorporate his rules into their everyday lives, both personally and professionally. As community leaders heard of HCLS' efforts, interest in creating a community-wide initiative grew. Choose Civility launched in 2007 with a handful of partners and quickly grew to 100 Alliance Partners.

Key Elements of Innovation

HCLS assumed the role of lead organization, providing leadership and direction for the initiative. HCLS developed a strategic plan, which outlines goals, initiative components, levels of involvement, a communications plan, indicators of success, and initiative structure. The strategic plan guides the initiative's development and serves as a model to others. At HCLS, children's and teen instructors incorporate Choose Civility lessons into existing classes throughout the year. For adults, HCLS staff plan civility-related workshops and seminars such "Getting What You Want: Setting and Maintaining Boundaries with Others.” At HCLS' Battle of the Books, an academic competition for fifth graders, teams vie for Best Team Civility Award, in addition to best overall score, Best Team Costume, and other categories. Every October, HCLS invites the community to celebrate Choose Civility Week. The school system kicks off its Choose Civility poster contest, Alliance Partners plan civility-related events, and the Library offers civility-themed classes and events for students of all ages. The centerpiece of Choose Civility Week is a symposium. The focus in 2010 was the Role of Civility in Democracy, a timely topic given the mid-term elections one month following the event. In the 2011, the topic was Building a Responsible, Bully-Free Community. The school system incorporated its annual Youth Empowerment Summit into the symposium, bringing middle school students to the community college for a morning of leadership exercises and breakout sessions. College students and faculty participated in an afternoon session, and members of the community attended an evening session that featured a panel of students from the morning summit followed by a panel of experts. The entire day's events attracted more than 500 people and garnered positive media coverage.

Achieved Outcomes

HCLS created a Choose Civility car magnet, which became so popular that it was challenging to keep up with demand. A symbol of the initiative's popularity and success, the magnet quickly became ubiquitous in the county and inspired a number of imitations and spoofs (e.g., Choose Cycling, Choose Canines, Choose Love, Choose Insanity, Choose Civility OR ELSE). To date, more than 65,000 car magnets have been distributed and spotted locally, regionally, nationally—and even internationally. The magnets also garnered interest from the media, resulting in articles in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times of London, interviews on NPR and local television stations, and inclusion in a Canadian documentary about manners. Through social media, Choose Civility reaches more than 500 people through Facebook and nearly 500 through Twitter. A quarterly e-newsletter is sent to 300 people locally and around the country. Choose Civility continues to gain momentum on the national scene. The initiative was the subject of a feature article in the July/August 2011 issue of Public Libraries and was a program at the 2012 Public Library Association (PLA) Conference. PLA also hosted a Choose Civility webinar in March 2012, which attracted 60 individuals and groups from across the country. The Washington County Free Library and school system in Washington County, Maryland partnered to form the first Choose Civility chapter, and other library systems across the country have expressed interest in forming chapters as well. Regions interested in forming a chapter are invited to download How to Become a Choose Civility Chapter from A final indicator of success, Choose Civility is becoming the brand for Howard County. In his 2009 State of Howard County Address, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said Choose Civility “in some ways, has come to define us.”