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Fighting Incivility With Tolerance





That is the sound of Utah State University students establishing the ground rules for Teaching Tolerance, an interactive presentation about civility with middle school students in Cache Valley. The demonstration involves acting out a series of everyday interactions gone wrong to discuss strategies for overcoming differences in opinion with respect. In a way, it's a blueprint for living in a civil society.


I'm a prevention scientist,” says Melanie Domenech Rodríguez, a psychology professor at Utah State. “I think if we catch things early on we have a whole lot more bang for our buck than we do dealing with problems down the line. So I really feel strongly that the ability to engage kids at the earliest ages to talk about civility in ways that are real [is important.]


People have disagreements. This is not about sugar coating it. It's about yes, there are going to be disagreements; this is normal. How do we work this out? How are we civil, kind, respectful to each other during these really difficult discussions? Because that's when it's hard. But you can do it. So I think giving kids a sense that at the earliest possible level is critical.”


Domenech Rodríguez mentors students of color and serves as an LGBT ally on campus. During the presidential campaign, some of her students reported being harassed. Her home life was no escape. Friends of her children spoke of being questioned by their peers about their immigration status. So when sophomore Nahomi Jimenez approached her for guidance for ways to take action, Domenech Rodríguez was happy to help.


Jimenez feared the divisive rhetoric used on the campaign trail had spilled over into everyday actions. She worried that the United States was no longer the inclusive place her parents immigrated to from Columbia. So Jimenez founded USU Inclusion to tear down the walls she felt were going up around her.


I will say that November through mid-December was a really hard for me personally, mentally,” Jimenez said. “ You could even see it in my grades, in my personality. It was hard, it was really hard for a lot of people. It felt like things were happening completely out of our control in a place where we felt so safe before. Now that we've been able to come together to say 'Hey, we are hurting, but let's do something about it, let's put some action forward.' We want to be that saving grace that we were for each other. We want to be able to do that for everyone else.”


Jimenez says USU Inclusion group is not political. Instead, it is a coalition of students of all faiths and interests aimed at keeping Utah State safe and inclusive for all people. Within a month of the election, USU Inclusion members were helping craft developmentally appropriate scripts designed to teach civility in public schools.


It's called Teaching Tolerance because that's what we want to do,” Jimenez said. “We don't want to brainwash. That's not our goal. Things are happening within [students'] community, and their school, and their society and we are are trying to show them how to you react? What do you do about it? How can you go about it in a nice way? You're curious, you're asking questions – that's good. Helping them process through things like that so that let's say that they do hear something racist on their campus, or in the news, they can take a moment to recognize I didn't like that, but why? And what can I do about it?”


Like many schools in Utah, and across the country, an uptick in bullying arose after the election at South Cache Middle School, prompting teachers like Jann Leishman to look for additional ways to insure that all schools felt safe and welcome at school.


With all of the turmoil that's going on out there in the communities, we just wanted somebody to come and calm everyone's fears, or everyone's feelings in the school, to help make everyone feel loved,” Leishman said. “We just sensed the need to still let them know we love them, we love everyone at school, we want everyone to feel welcome and included.”


Leishman invited USU Inclusion to give a presentation. Skits covered a range of topics such as targeting a person's body image to judging people based on their religion.


It's great role modeling because the kids can see themselves in that position, and this is what I can do when I see that in classes or I see that in the communities, or I see that home,” Leishman said.


The hope is that students will be able to identify incivilities in their everyday lives and actively work to correct them.


I think that middle school age is awesome,” Leishman said. “They have so much energy and they have so much enthusiasm and so much influence on others. I feel that if just one person takes a stand then it just raises up your whole school and is like we are going to rally together, which has such a ripple effect.”