For the first fall break in three years, I will not be on the Common Ground retreat. This is the first fall break in more than eight years that Common Ground is not occurring. This is the first time Common Ground has been canceled without any input from students.
At first, I was upset for myself. I was upset because Common Ground is the place on this campus, (ironically off-campus), that I call home. It is the people and the discussions at Common Ground that have made me feel as if I matter, both as a Duke student and as a person. I am upset that the Center for Multicultural Affairs staff decided to cancel with minimal explanation to the students who have dedicated time and energy to making this retreat successful in the past. I am upset that the location of the retreat was canceled this summer without any notification to the students who planned on staffing this retreat. I am upset that a letter, which called for two retreats this year and was signed by over 150 current students and alumni, was completely ignored.
I am upset.
Yet upon reflection, I have realized that I am actually upset for you. I am upset for the first-years, sophomores, juniors and seniors who have been deprived of this experience at a time on our campus when conversation is so desperately needed. I’m upset that after racial slurs and the defacement of cultural celebration, there is nowhere on campus for large-scale conversation.
You see, Common Ground is an immersive experience. You step into a room of 70 students ready to discuss socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. On the retreat, students come prepared to listen, learn and engage with the identities that weigh so heavily upon us each day even though we are never given the space to really explore their weight.
Participants enter Common Ground because they want people to understand and respect their experiences. Participants want a space on campus where people actually care what it is like for them to exist in this world. Participants want to be heard.
These students leave the retreat with an understanding that their individual behavior may be making someone’s life harder. Common Ground provides some knowledge that changing even the smallest behaviors can make others feel less isolated. At the very least, participants spend five days thinking about someone other than themselves.
The CMA staff has asked the current co-directors to rework the entire Common Ground curriculum for the spring retreat because it is flawed in its current state. I have participated, facilitated and directed this retreat. I know exactly how imperfect it is. Yet, I also know just how much the retreat changes from semester to semester. I know precisely how much work is dedicated to learning from previous retreats for the sole purpose of improving the following semester.
We have drastically improved the socioeconomic status curriculum to give equal importance to this identity. We have removed gender violence from the curriculum because we as students are not trained to have those conversations. We have added more sleep and wellness activities to the curriculum because we want participants to feel healthy even more than we want them to engage.
Yet, I want to make it clear that I know the retreat is far from perfect. We struggle supporting survivors. We struggle supporting non-binary people. We struggle supporting those who are marginalized in multiple identities and have to handle incredibly difficult conversations back-to-back-to-back. In fact, I will be very honest that we do not always succeed at supporting and protecting each participant. For participants who enter having experienced trauma in their lives, the retreat can be incredibly difficult.
So, we make changes. Each retreat, co-directors meticulously comb through the curriculum so that we can do better at supporting and protecting participants, while also facilitating an authentic conversation. This is a difficult, almost impossible goal to succeed at. Yet, I firmly believe that, given the opportunity, the curriculum could have been improved this semester without canceling the retreat.
Common Ground has been the most meaningful and profound experience I have had at Duke University. While I want to believe it is still possible for students to find common ground on our campus—to care for one another, learn from one another, and hear one another—I know that the decision to cancel this retreat has made it far more difficult.
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While I still urge everyone to search for it, the concept behind this retreat I hold dear, the only thing I know for certain is that Duke will not be finding common ground this fall break.
As I sit in the fall semester of my senior year, I realize that I may never see a Common Ground retreat again.
But what scares me more is that you might not either.
Kristina Smith is a Trinity senior.