• Palma Joy Strand

Civity: Dancing to Change

At Civity, we are about cultural change. We use the word “civity” to describe the particular change that we want to see: a culture based in positive relationships across difference.

We see a lot of civity out in the communities we encounter – relational respect and empathy across social differences, including differences in how we identify racially; whether we are recent immigrants or long-time residents; or what faith we practice.

One thing that Civity the organization does is shine a spotlight on civity the culture where we find it. Knowing that civity already exists reminds us that it is possible and inspires us with ways to grow civity that we hadn’t even imagined.

At the same time, Civity’s mission is to be part of a movement that extends and deepens civity. This civity movement is about a widespread shift toward a culture that places more value on relationships, especially relationships that connect people across and through difference, than our culture does today.

Being part of a movement calls for a conviction that things can change and that we can change them – in part because we can change ourselves.

Mary Clark for many years taught biology to college students. A recurring question she heard from her students had to do with human nature: What is human nature, and are we destined to be what we are in this place and this time?

Clark’s book, In Search of Human Nature, responds to her students’ question: Human nature is flexible. Over place and time, humans adapt by combining our three core propensities – for autonomy, for connection, and for meaning – in an infinity of ways to meet the infinity of circumstances and environments in which we find ourselves. The creation of culture – of a cornucopia of cultures – is our primary evolutionary skill.

Clark’s message is that culture isn’t fixed; it isn’t one thing or another.

Carol Dweck and Jamil Zaki, psychologists at Stanford University, focus on change at the individual level. Dweck’s work focuses on what she calls a “growth mindset.” If we tell kids that intelligence is innate, then they act on the belief that they either have it or they don’t. Either way, there’s no call to action.

But if we tell kids that intelligence is something you can change – and grow – if you put in the effort (which it is), kids are encouraged to work harder, which causes them to get smarter.Intelligence is like learning to play an instrument or practicing a sport.

One year my son brought home a sign from his summer basketball camp that said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”Growth mindset.

Zaki’s work extends a growth mindset to emotional skills and practice, particularly empathy. It turns out that if people have a growth mindset about empathy – which means that they believe that it is a malleable characteristic that can be developed rather than a characteristic that people either have or they don’t – they are more likely to be empathetic toward other people. And this is especially true when empathy might be a challenge, as for example when we encounter people who we are conditioned socially to think of as different and apart from us.

A growth mindset toward empathy and other human characteristics puts us in a frame of believing not only that we ourselves can grow and change but also of being aware that other people too can grow and change. Other people aren’t fixed; they aren’t one thing or another.

Just as a growth mindset at the individual level invites us to envision our individual possibilities, a collective growth mindset puts us in a frame of believing that we collectively can change. A collective growth mindset about culture – about civity and other cultural characteristics – invites us to envision the possibilities in ourselves and in others.

These possibilities are not certainties, but they give us illumination and buoyancy as we move forward.

Donella Meadows, a pioneer in systems thinking in the late 20th century, offered advice about change in her essay Dancing With Systems: “The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being… We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”

Dancing is an apt metaphor for change that isn’t scripted or prescribed and yet has a discernible direction and beat.

Civity is about change – and about dancing to change.

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