In January, Sisters City Council members, the mayor and community members attended Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project sessions to discuss the breakdown in communication within the community. People participated in discussion groups in order to help solve the problems the community has been experiencing. Last year, three city council members resigned and a prior lack of civility created an unwelcoming environment preventing people from speaking out on important issues, according to Sisters Mayor Chris Frye.
Robyn Holdman, president of the Citizens4Community nonprofit, says the event was planned to encourage open and civil dialogue within the Sisters community and the turnout and participation exceeded her expectations. "We were humbled and inspired and hopeful by the response," she says. "The way the people just wanted to officially and with permission talk about some of the problems we face as a community, to figure out where was it that our communication broke down to this place of polarization."
For the Speak Your Peace event, Rob Karwath, president and CEO of North Coast Communications in Duluth, Minnesota, served as a guest speaker. He has been involved with the Civility Project since 2003. "Speak Your Peace is a tool to bring more heads to the game--whatever the game or need is--by working to enhance the level of civility in the discussion," he says. Karwath met with several citizens, volunteers, elected officials and nonprofit and organizational leaders in Sisters—he says around 500 people total. "We did a session with the staff of the U.S. Forest Service, which has such a big impact in the region and really wants to serve the region. A number of issues seem to end up involving or ultimately coming before the Forest Service."
Council President Nancy Connelly was elected to the Sisters City Council in 2014 and was sworn in last January and says one of the biggest issues has been the proposed bike trail. "I think we're just much more open to public process," she says, adding that Council asked the Forest Service to look at the proposal once more to open up the process again.
Mayor Frye also says the bike trail has been one of the hot topic issues in the community. "For people to understand, I think they have to understand that Sisters is an absolutely amazing place. It's small, and people are passionate about some things that they care deeply about and sometimes that passion can boil over," he says, "and it has in certain circumstances, from issues with the roundabouts, to the proposed bike trail from here to Black Butte, to several issues."
Holdman says she recognized a difference in the conversations taking place as Karwath talked about the issues. "You could feel the relief in the room, you could see it almost as people had that ability to talk about something they just gossiped about." Speak Your Peace has nine tenants of civility and has been used in dozens of communities around the country. From paying attention, listening and showing respect to not gossiping and being agreeable, these rules are used to encourage civil dialogue to address issues communities experience.
"As I've talked to people who have lived in Sisters for 10, 20, 30 years, they say that the tone of communication over the last two to three years has become much more disrespectful and uncivil," Holdman says. As the President of Citizens4Community, she says the organization's goal "is to create a safe platform to build off of, to then improve our ability to improve our businesses, our economic environment, our societal issues." She adds, "You can't be creative and effective in development efforts unless people feel comfortable that they can at least come to the table and talk and have someone be respectful of their ideas and opinions."
Mayor Frye says the rules are simple and believes applying them will be beneficial. "We're talking first grade rules basically: treat each other with respect, treat each other how you want to be treated, and sometimes that gets lost when people's passions get involved," he says. The communication climate has "led to a lot of pressure on staff as well as council members," Frye adds. "We get a lot of it, we get the brunt of it and we've had high turnover. We've lost a couple employees at staff level of the city and a major contributing factor was this issue and the stress that it put on them."
The rules haven't officially been adopted but Councilor Connolly says, "One of our goals this year is to have more public process and more adoption of the Speak your Peace." The Sisters City Council has not finalized its goals, but will take a look at council priorities at the upcoming council meeting on Thursday. Mayor Frye added, "This lack of civility has made it very difficult because people are afraid to put themselves out there to express themselves, and my hope is that this will help us."