Bertie Simmons opened her remarks by saying, “If we can’t imagine what civility looks like, we can’t do civility.”
She then showed us what it looks like.
Simmons was a panelist at last week’s Citizens’ Civility Symposium 2010, sponsored by the Institute for Civility in Government. (Check out my last post for a broad overview.) Compelling and drop-dead funny, she spun the remarkable tale of her tenure as principal of Furr High School in Houston—and how she used civility to transform the culture.
That culture was tough, to say the least. The school had no fewer than 15 gangs. On her first day, one student threw another through a plate glass window. Another day brought a near riot to the hallways.
Simmons wondered whether she was cut out for the job—especially because 75% of the students were Latino, 25% were black, and she was (in her words) “white and old.” How could she possibly lead such a school, let alone make a lasting impact?
She got an early boost from a cultural phenomenon she hadn’t known about. Many Latino and black children learn from day one to hold their grandmothers in high esteem. As it turned out for Simmons, being “old” translated into being a grandmother. So she had an in.
And she leveraged it with a bold reach across divides. After the near riot, Simmons convened 42 leaders from the 15 gangs in one room—and asked them what it would take to make peace. What she heard amazed her: the depth of mistrust and disillusionment that these young people felt toward the system, the pervasive sense that they had been left behind.
How big was the divide? The gang leaders stunned Simmons with their belief that 9/11 never happened. They’d all seen things like that in movies; why couldn’t the government produce the same sort of “movie” and just make the whole thing up?
So Simmons took it upon herself to prove 9/11—by arranging a field trip to Ground Zero.
It took a great deal of planning and fundraising, but the trip took place, and the gang leaders got to see the devastation for themselves. In the process, Simmons built trust and got a penetrating look into the mindsets that drive many of her students.
That is what civility—and dialogue—look like. That is one way they bear fruit.
Simmons closed her remarks with the quote from Oscar Wilde that I mentioned last week. It, too, is a model for us as pursue dialogue: “Run your fingers through my soul. For once, just once, feel exactly what I feel, believe what I believe, perceive as I perceive, look, experience, examine, and for once, just once, understand.”