Duke is a school obsessed with dialogue. We love dialogues, as evidenced by all the formal mechanisms we use to have them: student working groups, advisory councils, committees and subcommittees for every imaginable thing. But few groups on campus facilitate dialogue as powerfully as Common Ground—the centerpiece program of the Center for Race Relations, which is also accepting applications throughout this week. At a university where issues of race, class, gender and sexuality are notoriously combustible, Common Ground provides a safe space where Duke students can share personal experiences and achieve better understanding with one another.
The administration’s effort to start dialogues with students are usually mediocre, but Common Ground is a completely student-planned and student-implemented program. Common Ground started in 2003 by students in public policy professor Tony Brown’s social entrepreneurship class. Since then, the program has gone from being held annually to biannually, graduating more than 100 participants per year.
The mere mention of the program triggers immediate reactions—both positive and negative—from many Duke students. We will address the source and validity of some familiar Common Ground criticisms Friday. But today, we focus on the lessons to be learned from the program, which remains one of the principal spaces for dialogue on campus today.
What can we learn from Common Ground? First, that students are actually capable of having conversations about issues important to them, even those as sensitive as race, class, gender and sexuality. In the wake of scarring scandals like lacrosse, it is student-initiated dialogue—not didactic or paternalistic rhetoric from administrators—that leads to healing and progress.
Second, the most important thing about dialogues is quality, not quantity. The CRR’s emphasis on consistently executing high quality Common Ground retreats has been key to its success. In a larger Duke context, many watered-down, half-hearted forums won’t accomplish much; a single carefully and thoughtfully planned one will. Many campus voices, including those on the Editorial Board, have sometimes been too quick to call for more and more dialogues. Instead, greater effort should be put into the actual form these dialogues will take: where and when they will be, who will be present, the rules and structure of the discussions and how the opinions expressed will be weighed and processed.
Third, Common Ground teaches us not to be daunted by the social divisions that can seem insurmountable. Common Ground stacks its chips on diversity. It bets that men and women, straight and LGBT, greek and independent, with various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, want to understand each other. Considering the program’s success—it now receives four times as many applications as it can accept—the diversity bet is a good one. Common Ground suggests that social divisions at Duke do not always block dialogue, an idea that has powerful implications for everything from social life to housing.
Common Ground is not a perfect program. But it has accomplished a remarkable feat: starting a serious conversation about power and privilege among hundreds of Duke students, many of whom never considered such issues before. We hope that, with lessons taken from Common Ground’s playbook, other attempts at dialogue might be successful.