More than a decade after its inception in 2003, Common Ground has come to be regarded as one of the University’s most popular, transformative—and controversial—programs.

Common Ground is a four-day retreat during which students explore issues involving race, socioeconomic status, gender and sexuality through interaction with other participants, discussion groups and personal narrative. Each year, Common Ground selects 56 students from an applicant pool which often exceeds 200 and elicits both high praise from participants who have dubbed the program “life-changing” and sharp criticism from others.

‘Stories of everyone’s pain’

Over the years, Common Ground has developed a reputation for its focus on personal stories. Storytelling is largely what drives the program, said senior Patrick Oathout.

“There are different activities to solicit people to talk about their experiences, but no one’s ever forced to tell their stories,” Oathout said. “A lot of the good discussions are also not facilitated, where people are debriefing spontaneously.”

Several students said that the Common Ground experience could be uncomfortable or even painful—particularly for participants who come from privileged backgrounds—but noted that this discomfort did not necessarily detract from the program.

“When I came back, everyone asked me, ‘Did you have fun?’” freshman Jeremy Fox said. “The answer is no. It’s not fun to learn about the ways in which people are oppressed in our school and our community. But it should be painful.”

Junior Fedner Lauture noted that it could be easy for those in privileged categories to feel as if they were being blamed for social wrongs.

“I always tell people, if you’re a straight, white male from a privileged background, you’re not going to feel comfortable at Common Ground,” Lauture said. “If somebody says ‘you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong’ every day, you’re going to snap.”

Junior Cara Peterson, emphasized that an uncomfortable experience is not necessarily a negative one. The retreat pushes participants to confront issues which they may have previously been unaware, she noted.

Common Ground allows students to discuss on a personal level what they learn on an intellectual level, said co-director Mariel Charles, a junior.

“They took issues you heard and made them very real,” Fox said. “It was humanizing to hear stories of everyone’s pain.”

Critiques upon coming home

As widely lauded as Common Ground has been, the program has seen its fair share of detractors over the years.

Criticisms directed at Common Ground have primarily revolved around the program’s propensity to value certain narratives and opinions above others. Although Common Ground’s directors maintain that there is no “point” to the program, several former participants have expressed the feeling that an unofficial agenda—however unintentional—exists. Other criticisms target the program’s tendency to encourage “whining” and accusatory treatment of privileged participants. In defense, former participants and directors have noted that the program’s intention is not to diminish anyone and that those who choose to share their narratives do so voluntarily.

There was “a lack of respect” on the part of the program’s facilitators for certain opinions and narratives that were voiced, Lauture said.

Senior Hong Zhu said that it was easy for those in the minority on an issue to feel as if their perspectives were not valued, even if the program did not intentionally devalue certain opinions.

‘There are definitely certain ideas that become more popular,” Zhu said. “I don’t think Common Ground tries to proselytize, but if you’re in the minority view on a topic, it’s possible to feel like your opinion isn’t validated.”

Sophomore Keizra Mecklai, a Common Ground participant and Duke Student Government senator for equity and outreach, said that the activities were about giving the underprivileged a voice rather than making the privileged uncomfortable.

“In every situation, whenever I was in the privileged group, it felt selfish to think that it was about me—it’s a lack of understanding,” Mecklai said. “The purpose isn’t about pushing the privileged. It’s about giving a microphone to the underprivileged.”

Zhu expressed that although Common Ground merited praise for giving students an outlet to voice their personal opinions, the program’s atmosphere encouraged dwelling on issues more than finding solutions to them.

“When you’re at Common Ground, it’s tempting to feel like we’re all damned by society, which can discourage you from feeling like you can do something about it,” Zhu said.

In response to the criticism, program co-directors Charles and junior David Robertson noted that Common Ground is “not perfect” and stressed that the program’s goal is not to educate students or turn them into “activists.”

“There’s no one that can change an entire system—that’s not our point,” Robertson said. “Our point is just to get 56 people from all different walks of life to talk to people they may not have the chance to talk to otherwise. Whatever happens, happens.”

Oathout said that accusing participants who share their personal experiences of being attention seekers was “cynical.”

“If people are willing to tell a deep experience, why would you choose to jump to the conclusion that they’re just saying this to get into the spotlight?” he said. “Why would we choose to presume that?”

Although Common Ground is only four days, its role is to encourage students to keep thinking about issues on campus and in the community on a deeper level long after the retreat, said Amy Lazarus, Trinity ‘05.

Past, present and future

Common Ground began as a classroom project in 2003 between four sophomores—Lazarus, Amanda Earp, Maital Guttman and Christopher Scoville—who designed the program for a public policy course.

Although the University’s student population was diverse, it was clear that students self-segregated to a significant extent, said Guttman, Trinity ’05.

“We found that the numbers were there, but they weren’t really together as a community,” Guttman said. “Diversity is also about how well you’re integrating and making friends with people who are different from you.”

Common Ground was intended to be a space where students could be authentic and vulnerable, said Scoville, Trinity ‘05. He noted that the predominant campus climate wasn’t always one in which students could be fully authentic.

“Originally, the vision was to create a climate on campus where everyone could be their authentic selves, whatever that might be,” Scoville said. “Diversity on paper is one thing, but is there a climate on campus that accepts that diversity, that allows everyone to bring in their full selves?”

The program’s first year had about 50 participants including the facilitators, and although there was an application process, no one was turned away, Guttman said.

Now, however, the program receives as many as 300 applications for each retreat. Although Common Ground directors would like to expand the program, the resources to do so are not currently available.

Common Ground receives most of its funding from the University/Cultural Fund, said senior Daniella Cordero, former co-director of the program. In recent years, the program has been forced to cut certain costs—including free t-shirts and snacks—to accommodate the limited budget. Cordero noted that costs for the program have been increasing while the amount of grant money has remained constant.

“The ideal situation would be to make Common Ground cheaper,” Cordero said. “You don’t want to ask for money if you don’t need money.”

Each Common Ground retreat costs around $14,000, Robertson said—most of which is funded by Duke.

Although there are not funds to increase the size of Common Ground, in the meantime, the directors are working on a plan to hold an event open to the overall Duke community after the retreat, Charles said.

Lasting impact

Over the years, both former participants and outsiders have questioned the long-term impact of Common Ground. Both the program’s founders and current directors have agreed that the program is not intended to fix issues on campus or in the community.

“There is no one person that can change an entire system,” Robertson said. “I can’t go and fix systemic inequality.”

Although Common Ground alone cannot change the overall community, it is nonetheless important as one of Duke’s spaces for discussion of important issues, said junior Andrew Kragie, a Chronicle columnist. He added that the program itself was not as important as the issues it addresses.

“What’s important about Common Ground isn’t the program or the people,” Kragie said. “The details of Common Ground are not important—the issues are. If I came back to Duke, and Common Ground didn’t exist, I would only be disappointed if there weren’t a space where these issues could be addressed.”

Mecklai added that even though Common Ground can only take so many students each year, its greater impact comes from what those students choose to do after the retreat.

Not everyone can participate in Common Ground, but everyone can become more aware of the issues on campus and in the community, Kragie said.

“Common Ground is like the Harvard of awareness building initiatives,” he said. “Not everyone can go to Harvard, but they can go get an education elsewhere.”

Eleven years after the program’s start, Guttman described being able to watch Common Ground continue to expand and impact students as “amazing.”

Lazarus expressed gratitude toward the University for supporting the program from its beginning to its current stage.

“To four idealistic sophomores who wanted to start something, the University said yes,” Lazarus said. “They kept saying yes. They kept supporting it. And the student leaders who came after the founders took it to this place we never could have imagined it.”