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On Common Ground

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On Common Ground

A Personal Reflection

Reed McLaurin

10.20.17

This piece is an outside contribution from sophomore Grace Shen, a Global Health and Biology double major.

In the first days back from fall break, conversations are inevitably prefaced with the question: “How was your break?” After various run-ins at Perkins, West Union, or while rushing to class, I have perfected my response, a thoughtful, intentional “Good.”

It’s not that I want to avoid the question. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. But even with days of practice, I am unable to condense my thoughts into an elevator-pitch that would do Common Ground justice. Behind this pithy answer are a million other words, eagerly waiting to be released by a single prompting question. However, due to time and interest constraints, I often leave such interactions with this nebulous response.

Now that I have been given the opportunity and space, I will release these gated words myself. How was my fall break? How was Common Ground?

It was frustrating. Cathartic. Heart-breaking. Validating. Exhausting. Eye-opening.

As this motley of words indicates, Common Ground is an incredibly meaningful experience, but it is by no means an easy one. Throughout the 5-day retreat, participants discuss socioeconomic status, race, SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression), and gender through a carefully planned curriculum.

Like most discussions about identity, the conversation quickly becomes personal. Topics such as poverty, anti-blackness, and sexual harassment–concepts that are difficult to process but easy to institutionalize and distance ourselves from if we do not experience them–become grounded in peers that sit at the same dinner table and sleep in the same dorms. We are confronted with the discomfort of reality and unable to escape it. How could we turn away when peers share their lived experiences of marginalization right in front of us?

Common Ground emphasizes the importance of leaning into discomfort instead of escaping it. We were forced to analyze, process, and break down our emotions. We were challenged to recognize the implicit biases, ignorance, and privilege that have made us all complicit in an oppressive social system.

At this point, my friends who did not attend the retreat typically ask: Now what?

This question is interesting because it implies a sense of doubt about the purpose of the retreat. Frankly, I don’t blame anyone for asking it. Even as I applied for Common Ground, I was skeptical of the grand promise that this 5-day experience would be “life-changing”, and that it would empower me to effectively combat discrimination that communities face because of their skin color, the money in their pockets, or whom and how they love. Having gone through the retreat, I acknowledge that Common Ground does not give anyone the capacity to change such deeply-rooted societal issues overnight. However, it does change you.

It provides the insight to recognize the gradual nature of change and the persistence needed to bring it about. It emphasizes the sheer necessity of continuing our discussions about marginalization on Duke’s campus, despite the difficulties and resistance that we will surely face. It forces you to accept discomfort and grow tremendously from it. It teaches you how to listen to understand, not to respond. It stresses the importance of self-awareness, humility, patience, and empathy–and that these qualities, often perceived as innate, actually require practice to develop.

To those that ask me, “Now what?,” I respond that we must work harder to make our immediate personal spheres safe spaces for marginalized communities. Making such individual changes requires intentionality and the willingness to center the perspectives of people with different experiences when making decisions about our own lives.

Of course, I can only speak for myself. As much as I believe that the majority of the participants leave the campground feeling similarly, this is ultimately my answer to the question, “How is Common Ground?” Even for me, this answer grows with each day of processing.

However, as dynamic as my thoughts still are, two aspects of Common Ground remain unwavering: 1) the incredible sense of community that resulted from 5 days of accelerated bonding, and 2) the motivation to spread these open dialogues, continue to try to understand each other, and listen to underrepresented voices.

After all, we all deserve to stand on common ground.