Keeping It Civil
Working to Restore Respect in Politics
During a year when politics has been marked by insults, accusations and rage, Carolyn Lukensmeyer makes the case for civility and substance.
Lukensmeyer, PhD (GRS '75, organizational behavior), is executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), a nonpartisan nonprofit at the University of Arizona that has the daunting task of trying to cool the rhetoric and encourage politicians, the media and others to engage in civil, collaborative and productive activities.
"This has been a difficult year for that," she said, modeling the understatement missing in a year notable for scorched-earth attacks from candidates, surrogates and third-party organizations.
The institute was founded in response to the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people and wounded then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others. Giffords is on the board, along with former U.S. presidents (from both major parties), former secretaries of state and prominent media figures.
Leading the NICD is a fitting role for someone who has spent much of her career at the nexus of organizational behavior and politics. The Iowa native studied at Case Western Reserve's Weatherhead School of Management and received her doctorate. She then opened a consulting business in Cleveland, working with Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits. In the 1980s, then-Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste tapped the registered independent to lead retreats for his cabinet and staff and later named her chief of staff; she was the first woman in Ohio to hold that position.
A political novice, Lukensmeyer accepted the position to see if what she'd learned in the private sector could be applied to government. "It was the most extraordinary on-the-job learning experience I've ever had," she said.
She later helped reorganize the Office of the Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton.
Struck by how little voice citizens had in government, she founded AmericaSpeaks in 1995, a nonprofit organization that engaged Americans in public policy issues.
She joined NICD in 2012. Its focus isn't getting voices heard, but urging people to stop shouting and listen to one another. The organization's #ReviveCivility initiative recently launched a campaign calling on presidential debate moderators, candidates and audiences to commit to more civil debates—and the NICD's debate standards (nicd.arizona.edu/standards-conduct-debates). More than 65 organizations, including The City Club of Cleveland, support the standards, and petitions from an online drive are being delivered to debate moderators.
Lukensmeyer said NICD is making inroads at state and local levels as well. The National Conference of State Legislatures and individual state legislatures have invited the organization to lead workshops, and a number of cities across the country have formed civility organizations. "I see great hope at the state and local level," she said.
No matter who wins the presidential election, hard feelings will be inevitable. Lukensmeyer said she hopes NICD can help the nation reunite next year and improve the quality of public dialogue over such issues as immigration, and race and policing.
"Finding ways to inspire people and shape how they interact is no small challenge," she said, adding that it is too important a goal to abandon.
To learn more about NICD, visit nicd.arizona.edu.