My name is Ryan Waller, and I work in local government as a City Manager. I have worked in local government for a little over 18 years and chose this profession because at its core, local government is about helping others, which is a passion of mine. This passion stems from the great role models I have had throughout my personal and professional life, all of whom have taught me how rewarding it is to be kind, to appreciate differences, to collaborate, and to simply help others. While I have grown to realize that these teachings actually go deeper and are much more soul moving than I had originally thought, I have also seen a disappointing trend - the corrosive effects of what seems to be a rise in incivility. Take for instance Carson King’s viral “beer money” fundraising efforts for Iowa’s Children Hospital, which sparked outrage among social media users after a local newspaper uncovered racist tweets posted by King eight years ago, thereby casting a negative light on King's good deeds. Or a photo of Ellen DeGeneres and former President George W. Bush sitting together at a Dallas football game that resulted in an onslaught of social media backlash for the comedian who preaches to “be kind to everyone.”
Perhaps the reason I am noticing this rising incivility now more than before is because I am a father who, along with my wife, are doing our best to raise our two children to be kind, positive, productive members of society. Or maybe it’s because of election season where personal attacks, negativity, untruths, and great exaggerations are the norm. Or possibly it’s because in my line of work, everyday members of my team and I are at the epicenter of neighbor disputes, requests, projects, and developments that tend to fire up people’s emotions. Regardless of the reason, I have found that the famous words of Mahatma Gandhi have been resonating in my thoughts – “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Hence, I felt so compelled to write this piece.
My personal story is not a glamorous or exciting one, but it is one that I firmly believe highlights the benefits of what happens when we focus on kindness and positivity. My mother, a retired teacher of over 30 years, became a single parent in 1990 and raised my three siblings and me. Looking back, I am more aware of the significant hardships we faced. My mother was the one who kept us together and got us through by way of her selflessness, drive, strength, compassion, and unconditional love. But my mother did more than just that. She taught us to be kind, work hard, respect and appreciate differences, see the silver lining of our hardships, and help others. She also made sure we were exposed to good, kind-hearted, polite, and selfless people who reinforced these lessons. This instilled in us a deep sense of empathy and gratitude.
These are the lessons that my wife and I are now striving to teach our children. The basics – say “please” and “thank you,” make eye contact, be mindful of your tone when speaking with others, be responsible, take accountability, work with others to address the root causes of conflict, and most importantly, be kind! However, we wonder if what we are doing is enough. After all, they are growing up in an age where Google, Facebook, and Twitter are now gospels of truth that don’t necessarily foster a forum where kindness, manners, respect, and constructive dialogue are valued. After a quick search on our smartphones, we can now share our “expert” opinions on social media, blocking those who disagree. “Views,” “likes,” and “clicks” from within our network create an echo chamber of affirmation causing us to no longer question the validity of our opinion. Candid and respectful face-to-face discussions are becoming less frequent, and we are losing important data points, such as voice tone, body language, and the subtle, yet impactful, reactions to positive and/or negative words.
Unfortunately, working in the government arena, I have witnessed the echo chamber effect and the rise in incivility more than I care to admit. This is a cause for concern because it creates hardships for recruiting and causes unnecessary stress among employees. Public servants should feel empowered to lead, but when they are constantly criticized and ridiculed for their decisions by the public, they begin to question their every move, resulting in a level of paralysis that hinders the effectiveness and advancement of our local democracies.
Have you also experienced the effects of uncivil behavior? When you really stop, take a deep breath, and reflect on your experiences, my guess is that the answer is a resounding “yes.”
So then how do I/you/we become the instrument of change towards civility and positivity? To me, as tough as it seems, considering all of the possible “noise,” the answer is a pragmatic one – make the conscience choice.
If someone posts a comment or a story that generates negative emotions in you, do you fire off an angry response, or do you choose an alternative action that leads to positive emotions or a positive outcome?
If you are part of a text message or email string that seems to be going in a downward spiral, do you continue along that same path, or do you pick up the phone and call or meet with the person to talk through the misunderstanding?
Do you constantly check your phone, or do you set the phone down and engage in personal interactions with your children, family, and/or friends?
Are the following words or phrases common place in your vocabulary: please, thank you, my pleasure, I appreciate you, I’m thankful for, I’m sorry, how can I help?
In the above questions, my hope is that the positive options prevail.
It is up to us to determine the future role of civility in society.
We can use our knowledge rather than our biases to discuss the issues.
We can raise our children to listen to understand rather than argue to prove a point.
We can debate to persuade rather than to divide.
We can show kindness, courtesy, and respect.
If we set the example, and be the change we want to see in the world, we can build a more civil tomorrow.
Guest contributor Ryan J. Waller is currently the City Manager of Indianola, a full service community in Central Iowa and home to Simpson College, a private liberal arts college. Indianola additionally offers several major tourist attractions, including the world-renowned and critically acclaimed Des Moines Metro Opera and The National Balloon Classic, one of the Nation’s longest running premier hot air ballooning events. Waller, an 18 year local government professional, is also a passionate philanthropist who has volunteered countless hours. One he is especially proud of is his service on the Board of Directors for The Sommer Foundation, a not-for-profit that provides college or university scholarships to deserving high school seniors who have experienced the death of a parent, and despite the resulting emotional trauma, have performed in an exemplary manner. Waller received his Bachelors Degree from the University of Iowa and his Masters Degree from Northern Illinois University.