Thursday’s editorial discussed the remarkable accomplishments of Common Ground, an intensive retreat hosted by the Center for Race Relations. Common Ground’s best and most important success is providing a positive and enriching experience to the fifty-something participants it graduates each semester.
Although Common Ground rightfully maintains its commitment to the individual experience, there is more at stake here. Common Ground has been co-opted as a symbol in University-wide discourse about power and privilege. Intentional or not, Common Ground represents something larger than itself: a growing progressive movement at Duke. It should therefore be concerned about its image in the wider community.
In that light, we examine some of the program’s frequent criticisms.
First, Common Ground’s application process—based on filling finely-tuned race, gender, sexuality and class quotas—has often come under fire. We actually believe this to be a crucial aspect of Common Ground’s effectiveness. By having a group of students that closely mimics the demographic composition of Duke, the program ensures diverse experiences and perspectives will be shared at the retreat. All would suffer from a homogeneously constituted Common Ground.
But an actual problem is a “preaching to the choir” phenomenon. Many students that apply to Common Ground already have an interest or even passion for the issues presented by the retreat. There’s considerable self-selection at play; students with the least exposure to Common Ground themes—the ones most averse or uncomfortable with the retreat’s content—are the least likely to apply.
To combat this, Common Ground should target the students most wary of its mission. Common Ground has no explicit goal to affect broader social change, but it is so high-profile it can no longer ignore its role in shaping campus dialogue. To increase its impact—and application numbers—it should actively seek out the students least inclined to talk about race, gender, sexuality and class.
Second, the program should provide more support for participants as they transition back to Duke after the retreat. Intense experiences can produce intense friendships, but they can also alienate those who did not have those experiences, especially friends of Common Ground participants. A perception of self-righteousness impairs Common Ground’s ability to gain a broader audience. Correcting the perception is difficult, but a start would be increasing the resources and workshops available for returning participants to ensure a less difficult re-entry.
Finally, Common Ground should capitalize on increasing demand to expand the amount and assortment of programming available on campus. Although constrained by funding and, more importantly, the emotional and mental energy of its facilitators, Common Ground’s high number of applications signals huge potential for growth and influence. In 2008, Common Ground grew from one to two retreats per year; perhaps the time has come for another expansion. Smaller programming options that utilize the house model and freshman orientation are other possible ways of broadening Common Ground’s reach.
Common Ground has done phenomenal things for those students lucky enough to attend the retreat. This alone is a mighty achievement. But there is still work to be done. Common Ground should look ambitiously into the future. The potential for even greater change lies ahead.