A Night for Civility at Henry Ford College

Nolan Finley and Stephen Henderson

Nolan Finley and Stephen Henderson at Civility Night, Sept. 27, 2023, Henry Ford College, Dearborn, Michigan. Photo by Anthony Stone

On Sept. 27, Henry Ford College hosted Civility Night.

Celebrated journalists Stephen Henderson and Nolan Finley began The Civility Project to help Americans of different ideological backgrounds engage in civil discourse.

Introducing Henderson and Finley, Henry Ford College President Russ Kavalhuna, reflected on how the current political culture incentivizes us to yell at each other. He said, “This is something I’m very worried about.”

Kavalhuna sees civility as going beyond politics. “Civility is a lifelong skill that does not only apply to political or civic differences. It is a valuable part of building personal and professional relationships that can be resilient over time,” he said.

For Kavalhuna, civility can help us learn about what makes us different and “helps us focus on our common humanity through respect and inquiry.” One effort that he has promoted to celebrate diversity on campus is the holiday series, hfcc.edu/holidays,“which teaches us about different ways our community members celebrate important times in our lives,” Kavalhuna said.

According to Kavalhuna, Civility Night is an opportunity for students to “learn about the power of listening with an open mind to understand not only differences about issues, but what motivates people to hold certain beliefs and views.”

Kavalhuna hopes that students learn “that the goal is not to convince someone of your position, but to gain a greater understanding of the reasons they hold views different from yours, and to value them as people,” adding, “You can learn many things during this journey, and you may find that your own views can grow and change.”

For their part, Henderson and Finley shared how they came together to create the Civility Project. Henderson is a Democrat, and Finley is a conservative, and according to them, they “pretty much disagree on everything,” but they are still close friends.

Henderson and Finley shared how several years ago when they attended a Republican State Leadership Convention, they realized the absence of civility and the power of hate. They were at a bar when Finley was confronted by two women who asked, “Are you sitting with Stephen Henderson? How could you be a friend of his?”

“He’s just so awful; we hate him,” they added.

Finley responded, “How do you know you hate him? Have you talked to him? Do you know him?” He suggested the women sit at the bar next to Henderson to converse. After about 90 minutes, Finley asked them, “So what do you think?”

“Oh, he’s so wonderful; we just love him!”

Finley noted that nothing had changed about Henderson or the women, but the difference was that they took the time to get to know each other. The centerpiece of Civility Night was when Henderson and Finley explained the four pillars of civility.

Dropping assumptions by throwing out personal biases about a person’s background or beliefs based on first impressions.

Setting reasonable expectations, or in Finley’s words, “Conversations are not competitions.” The goal is not to win an argument or change minds but to extract value from other people and conversations.

Effective listening means listening to understand. One can achieve this by actively listening or repeating in one’s own words what someone is saying to clarify their message. Henderson and Finley recommend interrogative questions, as they transform the conversation to foster a place of understanding, and that’s better than making declarative statements.

Investing in relationships and committing to this idea: “I won’t walk away with this because of the disagreement because I value the relationships and exchanges more than the disagreements.”

Wayne State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Barbara L. Jones, who attended the event, said, “We have to look internally at ourselves; everyone doesn’t receive, or understand or know these differences.”

Jones added, “We also need to ask questions of ourselves and take a perspective of wonder and curiosity in order to understand.”

Wayne State University Journalism Professor Alicia Nails highlighted the conflict among younger and older generations. “Young people are supposed to innovate change and push limits, but in doing so, there still has to be a healthy appreciation for why things were the way they were.”

The audience was divided into breakout groups of four to six people to discuss their experiences with civility. The night ended with Finley and Henderson answering questions from the audience.

Stephen Henderson, a University of Michigan graduate, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for commentary on Detroit’s financial crises and was the recipient of the 2014 National Association of Black Journalists Journalist of the Year Award. He hosts Detroit Today on WDET radio and co-hosts One Detroit and American Black Journal on Detroit Public Television.

Nolan Finley, a Schoolcraft College and Wayne State University graduate, is a 2012 Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame inductee. He is a co-host of One Detroit.

To book a Civility Project workshop or get more information, visit greatlakescivilityproject.com, call Lynne Golodner at (248) 376-0406, or email her at lynne@yourppl.com