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Inside the newsroom: The most clear-headed definition of a civil society was spoken in Salt Lake City last week. Here it is

SHARE Inside the newsroom: The most clear-headed definition of a civil society was spoken in Salt Lake City last week. Here it is
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Chris Nelson, manager of The Other Side Academy, left, Kimberly Ishoy, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ planning division of welfare and self-reliance services, Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch, Scott Winship, executive director of the Joint Economic Committee, and moderator Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, take park in the Interfaith Dialogue at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.

Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — Definitions can be difficult. I’ve said and written many times how much I dislike labels as identifiers — liberal, conservative, progressive, media, mainstream media, etc. They mean different things to different people and can therefore be counterproductive in application to people, beliefs and situations.

So when the United Nations chose Salt Lake City for its 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference, there were many asking just what is meant by “civil society.”

The best definition I heard during the conference came from Jeanetta Williams, the head of the NAACP in Utah, on a panel discussion moderated by Deseret News Opinion editor Boyd Matheson. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Salt Lake City played host to the conference, welcoming thousands from around the world to address the aim of its theme, “Building Inclusive and Sustainable Cities and Communities.”

Why Salt Lake?

Years ago Utah was identified as one of the best states in the country for upward mobility. Here is opportunity to improve your life.

As the Deseret News reported in May 2015: “The Equality of Opportunity Project involved the tracking of millions of families over a period of years and uncovered a direct link between a child’s future earnings and the specific place where he or she grew up. In short, some neighborhoods are conducive to upward mobility while others, for a variety of reasons, are not.”

The Salt Lake City metro area was among the top three identified in the Harvard project because of its strength in five areas:

  1. The economic landscape of the greater Salt Lake area.
  2. Its stable middle class.
  3. Good schools and educational opportunities.
  4. Its strong social networks, noting its religious communities and volunteerism.
  5. Its strong family structures.

Here’s more good news for Utah. Utah County was identified by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress in its Social Capital Project as a place where the underprivileged can climb out of poverty.

As the Deseret News reported in May of this year, there are pockets of ideal social mobility in the U.S., according to Nathaniel Hendren, an economics professor at Harvard University. He identified Provo in his research, which discovered that “children from low-income families grow up to earn $66,000 on average at age 35. In contrast, low income children who grow up in parts of inner Baltimore grow up to earn, on average, only $16,000 in adulthood.”

Where you live and where you come from make a difference.

So the United Nations came to town in part because of Utah’s commitment to civil society. This is a place that believes in the third leg of the three-legged success stool: Civil society, which in joining a strong private economic sector and an effective government, provide the stability needed for upward mobility.

Author and New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his book “The Second Mountain,” describes the difference between the happiness that comes from acquiring things and the true joy that comes through service to others. The first mountain is defined as one’s climb toward achievement, career and financial success. The second mountain is a deeper sense of joy and satisfaction that comes from gratitude, from acknowledging something greater than yourself, and from finding opportunities to help others.

Utah is a place where people embrace principles that build a socially connected and socially mobile society. Utah is a place where people climb that second mountain, doing what they can to lift others, even if it comes with personal sacrifice or financial cost.

Which brings us back to Jeanetta Williams, who has played a large role both locally and nationally in promoting the civil rights of not just the African American community, but communities in general — making safe places for everyone as she works with different constituencies.

The Deseret News worked with the United Nations to create and sponsor one of its panels. In addition to Williams on the panel, we brought in Chris Nelson of The Other Side Academy, whose program is a topic for another day. But the short version is that the Academy gives addicts and former convicts a chance at a new life by letting them hold each other accountable as they live and work together in a two-year program.

Scott Winship of the Joint Economic Committee in Congress came and discussed his research. And Kimberly Ishoy, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ planning division of welfare and self-reliance services, joined the panel. She has worked in a partnership with Williams and the NAACP on its self-reliance program.

Through all the conversation throughout the three days and in a spirited exchange of the panelists and questioning by Matheson, Williams related a conversation she had with a senior leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with whom she developed a relationship.

She said he would not just ask her how she was doing. He asked, “How are they treating you here?”

That is the best approach to creating a civil society that I heard during the conference. It’s not just about being polite or civil in society. A true “civil society” is about actively seeking to learn how each person we come across is faring. How are they being treated in the cities and towns where they live? Is there opportunity for them to live the life they wish to live and to progress?

The world came to Utah last week. It’s time to take the principles that make Utah a great civil society to the world.