Race relations program Common Ground launches, grows, and unites in 2020

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Common Ground provides structure for healthy conversations about race

By Josh Bootsma and Ashlee De Wit

LANSING, Ill. (December 2, 2020) – Common Ground: Lansing Edition launched on a Thursday evening in August, with most of the participants gathering in-person to meet their partners, introduce themselves to the group, and learn some best practices for their one-on-one monthly meetings. The launch event was held in the courtroom of the Lansing Police Department and was led by Melanie Jongsma, who has participated in a similar program at her church.

Purpose and structure

During the launch meeting, the 44 participants were paired with their partners, some of whom were unable to be present at the meeting or were watching via a live video stream.

Common Ground
Marvin Rogers (standing) introduces himself to his fellow Common Ground participants at the August launch meeting (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Each Common Ground participant is paired with someone from a different ethnic background. Each month for a year, the partners meet one-on-one and use questions sent by Jongsma to generate conversation and explore differences.

“The whole purpose of the program is to create a framework for these relationships to happen,” Jongsma told participants at the launch meeting in August. “Most of the program happens with you and your partner wherever you want to meet, whenever you want to meet. Those conversations are what Common Ground is all about.”

“Ground” rules

Jongsma laid out guidelines for participants to do the program well, including the importance of honesty, balancing when to listen and when to talk, and understanding that there isn’t a “wrong” and “right” to every difference. She also asked participants to remember that their partner’s attitudes and beliefs do not reflect those of their entire race.

Another ground rule is simply logistical: “Check your email at least weekly!” Because information and updates are distributed via email, participants commit to checking email even if texting or phoning is a preferred means of communication.

After launch

Following the launch meeting, partners were encouraged to schedule their August meeting right away. One pair—Tiffany Wells and Missy Krygsheld—met immediately because they didn’t want the month to get away from them. They sat on a bench outside the police station and went through the Month 1 questions that had been provided.

Common Ground
Partners Tiffany Wells (left) and Missy Krygsheld held their first meeting outside the Police and Court Complex immediately following Common Ground’s launch. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

On September 1, a new set of questions was emailed to participants. And later in the month, Jongsma emailed participants to make them aware of the Human Relations Commission meeting on September 17, inviting them to attend as an “extra-curricular activity.” Common Ground-ers were also encouraged to patronize local restaurants for their monthly meetings if possible, as another way of building community in Lansing.

Jongsma has continued to email monthly questions and make participants aware of community events in Lansing. The most recent set of questions for December asks partners to share their holiday traditions.

Tension and growth

“I heard about how my mom was meeting with someone, and I was interested in joining,” said Dorelle Scheeringa, daughter of Missy Krygsheld. Scheeringa joined the program after it started. “I’m not really immersed in different cultures; to hear the truth from someone who is in a different culture is really important; it’s really important to be able to hear those stories, to hear about the different life she [Scheeringa’s partner] has led because she’s a different color.”

Scheeringa’s partner Shauna Small-Craib has experienced a few different cultures in her life—she is from Jamaica and lived in Miami before moving to Illinois. She and her husband purchased a house in Lansing five years ago.

“I’m going to be very candid, because that’s who I am—and that’s why I’m good in the program,” Small-Craib said. “I see people in Lansing that are still a little racist. People have told me, ‘Lansing is getting quite dark.’ This kind of program can help shed some light on disparities that people of color face. A lot of people don’t understand minorities, and there are a lot of stereotypes that people actually believe.”

“It is a very good educational program,” she added. “People who come into it have to be open-minded, and a lot of people in it that I’ve met seem to genuinely want to learn.”

That learning is encouraged by the monthly questions, which have become slightly more probing as the program has continued, in the hope that the developing relationships are able to handle deeper discussions. The November questions tackled issues of politics and religion. One participant admitted, “The November questions about politics really led us into more, shall we say, ‘tentative conversations.’ The political climate has made all of us a little shy about discussing these things.”

But, she added, “It definitely was not enough to derail our Common Ground relationship.”

“What makes this program work,” says Jongsma, “is the fact that it keeps bringing people back together month after month, even when they disagree, even when they see things differently. The partners are stuck with each other for a full year. They don’t have to become best friends in that time, but if they stick with it, they can figure out how to at least disagree respectfully.”

Quarterly check-up

Before COVID restrictions ramped up again, Common Ground participants managed to fit in another large-group meeting in November. This meeting was hosted by Faith Church in Munster. Members of the church’s leadership team sat in on the Common Ground meeting and were impressed with how openly the participants were able to talk about race, expectations, frustrations, differences, and commonalities.

Common Ground
A group meeting of Common Ground-ers was held at Faith Church in Munster in mid-November. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

November marked the fourth month of the program, and the large-group meeting revealed that only a few of the partners had met four times. A variety of factors impact the success of a partnership, including schedules, personalities, and, this year, COVID. Meeting together as a large group provided an opportunity for participants to ask questions, express frustrations, share successes, and get ideas. In addition, meeting as a group reminds each pair of participants that they are not alone. The shared laughter and judgement-free conversation that comes as a fruit of a deepening relationship gives life to  the monthly meetings.

Looking ahead

Jongsma is hopeful that Common Ground will continue even as COVID increases and busy holiday schedules make meetings more difficult for partners. She has mentioned that remote meetings can be a good option, especially as restaurants close their indoor spaces and the weather makes outdoor meetings less doable.

Common Ground organizer Melanie Jongsma facilitated discussion at the group’s November meeting. She hopes partners will continue to meet—either in person or virtually—despite holiday busyness and rising COVID numbers. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

If the November group meeting was any indication, it seems most partners’ relationships are already strong enough to weather the winter and stay immune to rising COVID cases.

The program’s promising start has sparked an interest in other groups in the area thinking of starting their own Common Ground program. Faith Church in Munster hopes to launch a Common Ground program in 2021, possibly with other churches and schools in surrounding towns. Unity Christian Academy in South Holland has already taken steps to start pairing up students for a high school version of the program. Other individuals and churches have expressed approval of and interest in the program, a testament to how, even amid a year where racial, political, and ideological differences have reached a national fever pitch, local people are nonetheless interested in entering into meaningful, caring conversations with people who look different but share a lot of common ground.

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