“If your mouth is open, you aren’t listening.”

— Gautama Buddha

Civility is a trigger word in today’s political climate. Ironically, we use it as a weapon against our enemies. Yet it’s true that our normal political conversation has become far from civil. Civility doesn’t mean cowering in debate or abandoning our values. It means kindness, and respect, and real effort to understand.

Heck, we could use more civility at home and school, too.

A recent school email list I’m on included a notice for a parent steering meeting, and then a curt email asking why such meetings are in the middle of the day, and then a snarky reply that teachers “give their hearts, minds, and souls” to 3,000 kids each day, for a pittance, and can’t come back in the evening for a meeting to accommodate parents who work.

And then came a nice, courteous reply that both educators and parents are members of this committee, and in order to accommodate the educators, meetings are during the day, and that if a parent cannot attend she should feel free to email her concerns and they will be addressed.

Civility goes a long way. Snark doesn’t.

And that is exactly what a project called Looking for America is trying to accomplish. The project, sponsored by American University School of Public Affairs and New American Economy, is an initiative exploring immigration and American identity in communities across America through public art and civil discourse.

They came to Salt Lake City Tuesday night — one of six cities they have or will be visiting, including Detroit, Anchorage, El Paso and others.

The idea is to use art to inspire and encourage citizens to respond and share their own perspectives and stories around immigration — a subject typically difficult to discuss with someone of a differing viewpoint. Participants have an opportunity to view the art, and then share a meal together and listen to each other tell their own stories about what it means to be American in Salt Lake.

At my table on Tuesday night was a Mexican immigrant artist, a former CEO of the Democratic National Committee with grandparents from Poland, a junior high teacher from a Salt Lake private school originally from Memphis, a woman with roots in Germany whose grandfather helped build a famous pioneer mansion and a man whose Catholic family came from Ireland.

Our stories differed by culture, traditions, experience and religion, and yet our stories were all the same. Family. Search for freedom and opportunity. Belonging.

We had guidelines for our conversation – listen without judgment, and without formulating a reply. Listen to understand. Be curious about each other, and not just right about what we think. Don’t interrupt and, conversely, don’t talk forever.

This should be how we always behave.

It’s not lost on me that I called someone a hypocrite and religious bigot in my last column. I’m the first to admit I have room to improve.

Our table discussed the tension that comes with living in Utah as a member, or a nonmember, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With nine out of 10 legislators as members of the church, but a population that doesn’t match that ratio, tension is inevitable.

But the teacher at the table reminded me that if we all shared our foundational values – the top three things we all want – we’d find more similarity than difference.

In fact, I had just such a moment with this woman a few seconds later when she asked if I had ever read Bryan Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy”. I lit up. She lit up. You bet I have, I told her.

She told me how her eighth-grade class read it and how the students were completely changed by it. I told her I had been devastated when I had to cancel a trip to witness the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice memorializing lynching in America that was created with the research from Stevenson’s organization.

We connected in a way we never would have connected otherwise. I barely know her, but she’s a friend now.

Art, conversation, listening and understanding can help us be more civil with each other. Come to think of it, that sounds like my son’s preschool class. Back to basics, I guess.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.