Race relations program Common Ground nears launch

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Kick-off event on August 20 at 7 p.m.

By Josh Bootsma

LANSING, Ill. (August 18, 2020) – The Lansing Human Relations Commission (HRC) voted to approve the Common Ground program on August 13, the final step in a process elongated by COVID-19.

The program is scheduled to launch on Thursday, August 20 when participants will gather in the Village courtroom and meet their partners—someone of a different cultural background than they—with whom they will be meeting on a regular basis throughout the year. Common Ground: Lansing Edition is designed to help people explore differences, correct misunderstandings, and discover similarities through regular, informal meetings arranged by the participants. 

Human Relations Commission Chairman Leo Valencia said, “To get [Common Ground] approved on our second meeting back is great.” He said it’s one of the first major projects the HRC has taken in its two years of existence.

“I think it’s exciting for something of this magnitude and something that’s very tangible to be coming out of the commission,” Village Trustee Saad Abassy, said. Abassy serves as the trustee liaison between the HRC and the Village Board. “There’s been this waiting and anticipation of what tangible things the HRC can take on and experiment with and lead with…For me this feels like one of the first big things, the first big initiative.”

The Lansing Human Relations Commission during its July 16 meeting, where they discussed the Common Ground program. The program was approved during the HRC’s August 13 meeting. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Program timeline

The idea for the program was first brought before the HRC by Lansing resident Melanie Jongsma, who was familiar with the Common Ground program through her church. Jongsma coordinated with Commissioner Micaela Smith and then-Commissioner Rich Schaeffer to share the program details. Chairman Valencia said Jongsma “has a lot to do with the success of kicking this off.”

First discussed by the HRC in February, the program’s progress was delayed by the commission’s months-long adjournment due to COVID-19. After the HRC discussed Common Ground at its July 16 meeting, Village officials determined that a final vote of approval by both the HRC and the Village Board of Trustees was needed. HRC Chairman Valencia began scheduling a special HRC meeting on August 6 so the program could appear on the Village Board’s August 18 agenda—in time for the program to launch on August 20.

According to Valencia, after further researching the issue, Village Attorney Erin Blake found that a vote before the Village Board was not necessary because Common Ground was not requesting any reimbursement for expenditures from the Village. It is unclear how the HRC budget factored into these determinations.

As a result, the HRC special meeting was pushed to August 13 to allow more time for the program details to be finalized before the HRC vote to approve it.

Participants and Launch

The pilot program will incorporate only up to 50 members for COVID reasons. As of this writing, 42 participants are confirmed, including Village Administrator Dan Podgorski, Village Communications Director Ken Reynolds, and Trustee Maureen Grady-Perovich. Invitations were sent to all Village Trustees and the Mayor as well.

The launch event on Thursday, August 20 will be streamed live on the Lansing Journal’s Facebook page starting at 7 p.m.

People interested in the program can contact Chairman Valencia at [email protected] or commissioner Micaela Smith at [email protected].