For issues of gender, class, race and sexuality, Common Ground provides a valuable space for students to discuss and engage. In this editorial, we reflect on the profound impact the program has had on participants and in weaving the cultural fabric of Duke’s campus.
Common Ground is one of the few programs on campus that provides a safe space for students to share their experiences and engage with important issues of gender, class, race and sexuality without fear of judgment. Those who participate say the experience is life changing—it spawns deep introspection that continues long after students return to campus.
For a program that is only four days long, Common Ground has a remarkable impact not only on the students participating, but also on the broader Duke community. Common Ground provides a space for students to discuss issues that affect the Duke community at large. It provides a space for students from different areas of campus life to be authentic and vulnerable with each other—providing important insight for students to then bring back to Duke.
But Common Ground is not perfect. Although issues of gender, race, sexuality and class are heavily discussed, other identities—like religion, disability, immigration status and language—can be crowded out. Common Ground likely has neither the time nor the resources to incorporate more modules into its program, but students should not forget that categories of identity are manifold.
Central to Common Ground is the value it places on personal experience. From day one, facilitators encourage participants to disengage from the modes of critical analysis employed in the classroom and, instead, connect with others on an affective level. Emotionally engaging with issues avoids the risk of invalidating personal experiences, fostering a supportive environment that welcomes emotional vulnerability and encourages students to share.
And, yet, even though Common Ground discourages intellectualism, participants often default to an ethical model that validates and affirms others’ choices simply because they have chosen them. In this model, if one chooses to engage in sex work, for instance, then that decision must be right. On the surface, this mentality—“I choose therefore my actions are right”—seems freeing, since it insists that all people have power and affirms identities that stray from the mainstream.
But, as the stories shared in Common Ground often illustrate, the choices available to an individual are largely determined by social constraints beyond his or her control. Before the sexual revolution, for example, openly embracing ones’ sexuality was not an option for most women. Since our choices are constrained by the time and place in which we live, is it always correct or wise to affirm the choices of others? Do we not risk also affirming the constraints, good or bad, that have led them to a particular decision? Might we be drawing attention away from the social norms and attitudes that limit their power?
For eleven years Common Ground has challenged, shaped and opened dialogue in all areas of campus life. Despite having some concerns, we applaud the progress it has made towards its ultimate goal: a campus where all students, no matter their personal background, meet and connect on common ground.