Common Ground Quotes

As I sifted through my belongings that still sat packed in old boxes that I had moved from Bucknell University I came across a paper bag and a few folders. I have a habit of collecting random things that have some sort of memory attached to them. This particular collection of items was a special collection… these were my schedules, notes, and others’ impressions of me from the two years that I participated in a fall break student-led diversity retreat called Common Ground (CG).

One of the reasons I have kept “warm & fuzzy” notes from CG is obvious – they make me feel good, in a warm, fuzzy, and nostalgic way. The other is that I have thought of the program as an experience that I would like to bring to more students – perhaps at UNH.

Before I can adapt the idea for use in a new environment, I really wanted to reflect upon my own experiences as a participant and share them here for other practitioners in the field. This will have to be a series of posts and I hope to complete it no later than the end of March 2012.

Here’s what you can expect from this series:

  1. All the details of the program that you may need to replicate the experience for your students. I will provide necessary planning documents where appropriate.
  2. My reflections of my experiences in the program a) as a participant and b) as a facilitator.
  3. Resources that you can use to help in planning for a similar program.

The program consists of a four-day retreat that, in our case, took place at a forest retreat center owned by Bucknell University. One nice thing about the retreat center – and a factor that was crucial to its success in my opinion – was the lack of good telecommunication signals. Cell phone use was strongly discouraged throughout the retreat. The three full days during the retreat are all assigned social just themes. We used the following:

  1. Race and ethnicity
  2. Sexual identities
  3. Gender identities

The entire program is student-led. There were two directors who worked with staff to organize the retreat. In the first year these have to be visionary students with exceptional understanding and maturity, in subsequent years the facilitators from past years can apply to be directors. There are many facilitators, we had 12 facilitators who worked in pairs to supervise small discussion and activity groups of eight participants. The last order of reflection came in pairs of participants, four pairs in each group – we referred to these pairs as processing partners.

Each day we had some time to get warmed up with discussions within the small groups, some activities that took place in the small groups, others that involved the whole group (all participants and facilitators). We invited guest speakers and showed documentaries to provide a context for some of the discussions. Throughout the program an elevated level of dissonance was maintained. This meant that the facilitators were always proactively engaged in discussions with participants. Overflowing emotions were common and we treated such instances with respect and understanding while being realistic.

Promotion and Recruitment:

Because the very idea of the program is to discuss sensitive issues, it is essential that the concept of a safe space is very clear to all participants. This is communicated by facilitators who promote the program and recruit participants. Several information sessions are held in the weeks preceding fall break during the fall semester. Spring semester planning focuses on recruiting and training the staff of facilitators and directors.

The program does not allow participants to return as just participants – they must be selected to be facilitators or directors if they wish to return. This policy expands the reach of the program which is very small in size due to its intimate nature.

To be continued…