At a time when political and civic debate too often involves talking over or around each other, it is inspiring to learn of efforts, based here in North Carolina, to prepare young people to talk – and listen – closely to one another.
Started in 2003 by a team of four Duke undergraduates, Common Ground is a four-day, student-led immersion retreat dedicated, in its own words, “to exploring human relations (e.g., race, gender, class, sexuality, faith) through personal and group experiential activities and dialogue.”
Since its founding, more than 1,500 students have participated in Common Ground retreats, and many alumni still point to the transformative impact it had. As Duke 2003 alumnus Nate Jenkins says, the experience “made me a more well-rounded person, more open, and provided a larger perspective of how I made decisions.” Of alumni recently surveyed, 21 percent are teachers or otherwise involved in education in some way.
Last year, more than 300 students applied for the 56 spots to attend the Common Ground retreat. With the majority of Duke’s incoming first-year class reportedly made up of minorities and the Millennium Generation being the most diverse generation in history, Common Ground’s efforts to build deeper understanding among people from different backgrounds through sustained dialogue seems increasingly relevant.
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Fortunately, the reach of Common Ground is growing. Following its launch in North Carolina, it has spread to other college campuses, from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and Waterford Kamhlaba United World College in Swaziland. In January, Christopher Scoville joined one of his Common Ground co-founders Amy Lazarus and the team at the Sustained Dialogue Institute and Campus Network (SDI) to build and launch PULSE – a national college retreat strategy to support SDI’s efforts to help campuses “build more inclusive and engaged environments and shape life-long leaders and problem solvers.”
This summer’s inaugural PULSE Institute included students from 14 different universities and colleges, including Elon University and Wake Forest University. Retreat themes focused on exploring structural inequities, developing better decision-making skills, strengthening empathy and mindfulness for effective leadership, and spanning boundaries. The Rev. Amanda Diekman of Durham Church and a member of the Common Ground founding team also consulted on the religion and faith pieces of the PULSE curriculum.
After the PULSE Institute, students are expected to bring tools learned on the retreat back to their respective campuses to jump-start dialogue and start their own campus-based PULSE retreats.
According to a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Perspective-taking – the ability to engage and learn from perspectives and experiences different from one’s own – is a crucial catalyst for intellectual and moral growth. Enhancing one’s knowledge by attending seriously to differing perspectives and developing respect and empathy for others’ views even in the face of disagreement must, therefore, remain a bedrock element of any college education.” Yet in an AACU survey of over 33,000 students, only one-third of them strongly agreed that their institutions made perspective-taking a major focus.
The Sustained Dialogue Institute aims to change this. Started in 2002, SDI is the brainchild of Dr. Harold Saunders who, as deputy secretary of state for Henry Kissinger, played an important role in U.S. mediation of Arab-Israeli peace agreements, including the Camp David accords. Drawing on his 40 years of conflict resolution experience, Saunders launched SDI to help promote the process of sustained dialogue for transforming racial, ethnic, and other deep-rooted conflicts in the United States and abroad.
As Saunders later wrote in his book “Politics is About Relationships: A Blueprint for the Citizens’ Century,” “although there are some things that only governments can do – like negotiate peace agreements – there are some things that only citizens outside government can do – such as transform human relationships, change political cultures, and modify human behavior … the capacities and energies of these citizens are the world’s greatest untapped resource in meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.”
Indeed, in a survey of 85 business leaders as part of UNC’s strategic planning process some of the top leadership traits identified for next generation leaders included: effective communication, integrity and trust, and collaboration. A similar Leadership Insights Survey by the Center for Creative Leadership on the most important leadership competencies 10 years from now include adaptability/versatility, learning agility, and multicultural awareness.
So while our national and statewide politics devolve into partisan bickering, fixed mindsets, and ineffective communication, there’s hope in knowing that our next generation is working toward finding common ground.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.