NORMAL — Unless Americans re-learn how to be civil to one another, American society is in danger of disintegrating, a poet and cultural critic said Monday at Illinois State University.

Carole Boston Weatherford, a New York Times best-selling author, told The Pantagraph following her keynote address at a "Bridging Divides, Becoming Allies" conference that she has been thinking about the lack of civility in the United States, especially after Sunday's shootings at a small Texas community church, where 26 people were killed and more than 20 were wounded.

"Civility is such a problem in our nation right now," said Weatherford, a professor of English at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. "Our future as a nation is at risk."

"Civility is a problem because it is not being modeled by our leaders," said Weatherford, an author of 50 books, whose poems and prose frequently are inspired by actual events. "Our First Lady's platform is to stop cyber-bullying, yet she sleeps next to the biggest cyberbully in the world."

"A lot of this is because of social media, where people can hide behind their words in cyberspace," Weatherford said.

Weatherford recommended that people "unplug" and disengage from social media from time to time. "Take a break from the circus," she said.

Spend that time doing your part to make society better, she advised.

"Choose one thing that you can do — maybe it's getting more involved in your church, maybe it's helping at a homeless shelter," she said.

"When you do that, you're taking the focus off of 'I' and when you are contributing to something larger than yourself, you meet people who are different from you and you learn from each other," she said. "That needs to be done face-to-face."

Earlier Monday, about 370 people listened to Weatherford's remarks at ISU's Bone Student Center Brown Ballroom, where she urged attendees to get to know different people by sharing meals and traveling.

She said all world religions have a variation of the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you.

Divisions between groups over race and sex are encouraged by people who wish to preserve the imperfect status quo, she said.

"Don't let greed and insecurities lead you," she said. "You are better than that."

The purpose of the two-day conference, which continues Tuesday, is to make the ISU campus and Bloomington-Normal area more inclusive for people of color and various religions, women and members of the LGBTQ community, said Stacey Hardin, ISU assistant professor in special education and conference chairperson, and Jennifer Carrillo, mission impact director of YWCA McLean County.

ISU's Culturally Responsive Campus Community and YWCA are partnering on the conference, which is expected to attract 700 people.

"When you have diverse perspectives, the conversations are more robust, you have more new ideas and you can get way more accomplished," Hardin said.

"God meant for you to soar," Weatherford said.

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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Health Editor

Health Editor for The Pantagraph.

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