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Students find 'Common Ground'

Mike Mahdi watched as the burning candle, glimmering in the dark room, passed from one outstretched hand to another. Listening to heartfelt stories of suicidal thoughts and rape, he realized that everyone standing in the circle with him was the same. The silence was being broken, he thought.

After the candle had circled around, Mahdi went to embrace a new-found friend--one man to another, one friend to another. It didn't matter that one was heterosexual and the other was homosexual. They shared a common bond of humanity. And realizing this, at the apex of emotion and intensity, Mahdi cried.

"I had so many reservations about homosexuality based on my spirituality.... But I realized that I could appreciate this homosexual guy and be able to hug him," he said. "I was able to shed tears and cry because I understood that I had put up a wall between me and them because I couldn't accept [their] homosexuality."

Mahdi, a sophomore, was one of 35 participants and 13 facilitators at "Common Ground," a University-subsidized fall break retreat founded by juniors Amanda Earp, Maital Guttman, Amy Lazarus and Christopher Scoville, a columnist for The Chronicle.

For Mahdi, a personal struggle was being able to reconcile homosexuality and his Christian faith, especially since his older brother is homosexual. For others, it was an issue of race, gender, faith or culture. For all of the students, it was four days of watching as the walls they had built around themselves came down.

For participant Jacques Colon, a junior, it was a time for him to confront the issue of race and identity.

"I'm half-Caribbean and half-white, and I have a lot of issues with a sense of belonging and people trying put me in a certain category, and that was something I was working on while I was there," he said. "I never thought it would be life-changing... but it really did change my life."

Although the descriptions "life-changing" and "blown away" are now common terms used by the enthusiastic participants upon their return from the retreat, Colon is not alone in his surprise at how much effect the experience had on him.

"I've been going to diversity retreats since high school and I thought it was going to be a bunch of hippies trying to change the world. But it wasn't the case at all," Mahdi said. "It was a retreat where people actually shared how they really felt. People are usually afraid to share even with people they do know."

This honesty and vulnerability, however, was neither easy nor immediate. It was challenging for many participants to feel comfortable sharing and listening.

"Vulnerability was a big issue, but not because people were avoiding it," said sophomore Alicia Garcia, another participant. "The hardest thing was to listen to how much is going on under the surface of Duke and realize how little of it we were actually aware of."

Going beyond pre-set personal boundaries was a big theme of the leadership retreat, a program under the Center for Race Relations. Although the leaders assumed most of the personal development would center around participants, discovery enveloped everyone from facilitators to directors.

Sophomore Cole Wright, who began training in April to be a retreat facilitator, explored a new concept of race and what it means to be white.

"Going into the retreat I was a little worried because they needed a certain range of facilitators and I was a white heterosexual male. Since [heterosexual white males] tend to be identified as the oppressors, I was worried that there would be some of that [sentiment towards me]," he said. "But it got a lot deeper than that.... We started talking about not just the minorities, but what does it mean to be white--and that was new to me because I never explored those topics before."

This re-evaluation is in itself a challenge to achieve; as soon as it was found this weekend, however, participants began to realize that the next step of internalizing their realizations is just as hard. Even though the participants had "process partners," someone with whom students could talk to throughout the weekend, many are still trying to figure out what their discoveries mean.

"I feel like I almost internalized things too quickly. It was such an intense setting with everything so up close and personal that now it's almost a bit of a culture shock coming back to Duke because I kind of don't know where to go with it," Garcia said.

Adjusting back to Duke and yet trying to impart to friends just how life-changing their fall break was, poses a challenge to participants. Disappointment and frustration arise when their friends don't understand what exactly has changed in them.

"I try to bring a piece of [Common Ground] back with me and raise some of the dialogues that were raised with me out there," Colon said. "Sometimes it's been really good, but also it's kind of depressing when I talk to some people and they don't want to open up."

Wright has experienced an even more polar reaction from his friends.

"My girlfriend has been trying to understand it because she sees how much it meant to me, so she wants to understand it for me, but sometimes when I talk to people they have no idea," he said. "Some people laugh and joke and say it's such a bizarre thing--it doesn't make sense to them why we would do something like this."

Although others may not understand, the retreat's intent was to gather a diverse group of students and delve into issues that normally remain undiscussed. The result, however, went beyond what anyone had expected.

"It was like a collage of people... who would otherwise never cross paths and who respected each other because everyone had given so much of themselves in terms of revealing their inhibitions," said sophomore Dinushika Mohottige, one of the directors. "The result was gaining this ultimate sense of respect and compassion. It was a series of moments, an energy that you can't have until it actually occurs." Tony Brown, public policy studies professor of the practice, in whose

"Enterprising Leadership" class Common Ground originated, believes this series of moments should be Common Ground leaders' next focus.

"The question is, how do you sustain this and expand the scope of the work? How do you connect this now with the Center for Race Relations?" he asked. "For a week or so, we'll let them bask in the fulfillment of what they've done and then maybe we'll start nudging them a little bit, although these are people who are pretty passionate about this cause, and they won't need much nudging."

If the excitement and eagerness of participants to share their experience with others indicate their commitment to sparking change, then Brown is right.

"Perhaps the greatest result is that you know you have a group of 40 people who are so impressed by the results you have can have through open dialogue and understanding," Garcia said. "We're just beyond excited to see what sort of change we can make on campus."

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