Well into Lansing’s year-long pilot program, partnerships describe their experience
By Ashlee De Wit
LANSING, Ill. (March 5, 2021) – The year-long Common Ground pilot program is more than halfway over, and the experiences of each group have been as diverse as the participants.
Common Ground, which launched in August 2020 with 44 people, partners participants with someone of a different cultural background. The stated goal is for each partnership to meet at least once a month for a year. The program is designed to help people explore differences, correct misunderstandings, and discover similarities through informal meetings. The partners are provided with a list of questions for each month’s meeting to help start and guide their conversations.
Enlisting Lansing leaders
The pilot program aimed to bring in Village officials, school board members, members of the Human Relations Commission, and other leaders in the Lansing community. Ideally, it will expand further in the future.
Melanie Jongsma is coordinating the program after bringing the idea to the Human Relations Commission (HRC) more than a year ago. Jongsma is Publisher of The Lansing Journal, but is acting as a private Lansing citizen in her role with Common Ground. She has coordinated the program before, in her church, and offered to help the HRC launch a Lansing version. COVID lockdowns slowed the process of starting the program in early 2020, but Jongsma was able to organize the launch meeting late last summer.
The HRC, which seems like a natural fit for the program, was originally acting as the program sponsor, but they ran into issues around how to interpret the Open Meetings Act. In the meantime, Jongsma continued providing leadership. The commissioners are now once again talking with her to figure out exactly how they can be involved.
Jongsma notes that while the program doesn’t technically need a sponsor, sponsorship does help to get the word out. She has also considered the newspaper as a sponsoring organization, citing the Journal’s mission of community building as another good fit for Common Ground.
Freedom and struggle
As program coordinator, Jongsma sends emails to participants at least once a month, organizes quarterly full-group meetings, and advises partners when issues arise. But because the program is largely self-directed, each partnership has a lot of freedom to decide where, when and how to meet.
Some groups clicked immediately; others took more time to warm up. Some partnerships have struggled with resistance, hectic schedules, and COVID fears, and never really got off the ground.
What success can look like
Here’s a look at a couple groups who have had success in the first half of this village-wide program, and what they think the future of Common Ground can be:
Ken and Cam
Ken Reynolds is a former TF South English teacher and is currently the Director of Communications for the Village of Lansing. He’s white.
Cam Sanchez traces his heritage back to a Black, American slave and a Cuban immigrant, among others. He’s currently a student at TF South.
At first glance, they don’t seem like a likely pair—but because of the Common Ground program, the two have shared deep conversations, lots of friendly banter, and meals at Mancino’s.
“At the first general [Common Ground] meeting, we quickly realized that not only do we have a different race, but also the greatest age difference of any of the partners—which is a credit to him, and also means that I am old,” Reynolds laughed.
They do have some things in common, of course. One is that they both like to talk, which has been a great asset during their partnership.
“We start on one question, and we never finish it!” Sanchez said. “We go all over [during the meetings]—it’s a business meeting, it’s ‘how’s the family?’ We never get through all the questions, but we have amazing conversations. One of our biggest things is current events. I truly enjoy that we’re in a position that we’re comfortable discussing this—comfortable discussing the plain truth of what’s going on, and what’s been going on.
“One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is that we have these conversations in general, but also on a personal level,” Sanchez added. “We have this open dialogue, but it’s non-confrontational. I truly enjoy that.”
That kind of connection doesn’t happen overnight.
“It takes some time to get to the questions, but we’re developing a relationship. We’ve completely lost track of time during our conversations. He’s a confident young man, and it’s refreshing to see someone who knows they want to help,” said Reynolds, citing Sanchez’s work with We Are Lansing, the nonprofit he started earlier this year.
Reynolds and Sanchez both have great respect for the community they’re a part of.
“Lansing is so small, but so big. Many people don’t know their neighbor, don’t know the local businesses,” Sanchez said.
“Early on, we agreed that we’d be meeting at Lansing restaurants, when they’re open,” Reynolds added. “The name of the program is pretty clear—Common Ground—and both of us recognize that one thing we share in common is a love for the village and how much we care about our community. If that’s shared, then the rest of this stuff we can work on.”
Missy and Tiffany (and Rosa)
Missy Krygsheld and Tiffany Wells are not part of the city government or members of the HRC. However, they are enthusiastic participants in the Common Ground program and are doing their part to grow it already in this pilot year.
Krygsheld, who is white, and Wells, who is Black, did not know each other when they were partnered up, but they did have some connections. They discovered they know a lot of the same people—largely through Lansing Christian School. Krygsheld’s daughters attended the school, and she still volunteers there. Wells’ children are current students, and she is employed at the school as an Enrollment Associate.
“We’ve now been meeting for a while,” Krygsheld said. “One of the questions we answered was, ‘Are you careful with how you speak to your partner?’ And initially, I was very careful. We didn’t know each other or our backgrounds, and I didn’t want to offend.”
But Wells added that both she and Krygsheld are generally very careful anyway. “I think there’s a certain amount of sensitivity that we both try to apply in our lives. We want to be thoughtful about how we say things. We may not get it right all the time.”
“That’s probably why we wanted to do the program!” Krygsheld said.
Krygsheld and Wells have had most of their meetings at Krygsheld’s house— “Partly because of COVID, and partly because it’s so cozy here, it’s hard to resist!” said Wells, speaking from the kitchen where they were baking together during their monthly meeting.
“Mark [Krygsheld’s husband] and I choose to still live here [in Lansing], even though the neighborhood has changed a lot since I was a kid here,” Krygsheld said. “It’s important to me to make a better connection with my neighbors, and I look forward to learning more about Tiffany.”
Krygsheld began getting to know her neighbors years before the Common Ground program began. Rosa Romero is her next-door neighbor of nearly 15 years, and the pair have been learning from each other and growing in their relationship during that time. Romero also knew about Common Ground, but was hesitant to join.
“I find it hard to talk [in English] for long conversations,” said Romero, whose first language is Spanish. But because she has a prior relationship with Krygsheld, she was willing to be a guest at some of her Common Ground meetings. Wells and Krygsheld are happy to have her.
“A lot of Missy’s comments [in our early meetings] have been about how she has learned things already through her relationship with Rosa,” Wells noticed.
Krygsheld provided an example: “I remember, years ago, hearing someone speak Spanish, and thinking, ‘I really think they should speak English.’ Then I met Rosa and realized the challenges that come with learning a new language. I went with Rosa to a market when she was new [here]. It was a small market with a Spanish soccer game on the TV. I didn’t know what to do; no one was speaking English; I just followed Rosa around! Change is hard, but knowing that I have a connection with people of other cultures helps me realize that I don’t want to ‘go back to how it was.’”
The story is evidence that relationships change people—a truth that Common Ground is based on.
“I think it is critical that we are more comfortable with each other,” Wells said. “Probably the reason we can’t move beyond certain biases and stereotypes is that we don’t have any other experiences [to show us otherwise]. Having diverse relationships is helpful to having grace and seeing others’ perspectives. To be limited in relationships provides limited understanding, which doesn’t serve us in the long run.”
“This is the first year of the program, a trial run,” Krygsheld said. “We’re hoping to reach more people [next time].”
Wells and Krygsheld are already doing their part to expand the program. Aside from bringing Rosa into their partnership, they also inspired Krygsheld’s daughter, Dorelle Scheeringa, to join—and Wells found a partner to match her with.
They’ve talked about inviting friends to some of their meetings, and they intend to bring in their husbands as well. They’ve been making a list of the things the men have in common, to help convince them.
“My husband wouldn’t ever sign up for something like this [program]—but he might come with me to a dinner or outing with Missy and her husband,” Wells said.
Their efforts are a natural way to grow the program among residents of Lansing—friends, neighbors, and relatives reaching out to each other, introducing each other, getting each other involved. It’s one way that Common Ground can continue.
“I have wondered about next year,” Jongsma said. “Obviously, I want to see this grow. I don’t know the best way to do that. I want to talk about that at one of our next large-group meetings.”
Hard work together
According to Jongsma, a lot of the partnerships have been a really good fit, and commitment is paying off. She uses Village Trustee Maureen Grady-Perovich and her partner, Michelle Smith, as an example.
“As busy as they both are, they meet every month,” Jongsma said. “I don’t think they’ve missed a meeting.”
Other groups have struggled—with personality differences, busy-ness, and, on top of everything else, COVID. Some dropped out when their partners were unable to continue meeting. Others said good-bye to their partners, but stayed in the program hoping to find a replacement. “That’s a real commitment,” said Jongsma. “I work hard to honor that commitment by finding someone new to match them with, but I’m not always successful.”
The quarterly large-group meetings can help keep participants on track. All the Common Ground members gather to give updates, ask questions, and participate in discussion. Seeing and hearing from the other people involved reminds each partnership that they are not alone in this effort.
“In my emails and at the large-group meetings, I want to highlight those who are doing well, but also I want to be sensitive to those who are struggling. I don’t want them to feel left out,” Jongsma said. “This is difficult work. Struggle is normal.”
Even groups who are meeting faithfully and having meaningful conversations face difficulties.
“Tiffany has a busy schedule and she’s a younger mom than me,” said Krygsheld. “I’ve told her multiple times, ‘Thanks for taking time for me.’ I know she’s busy, and I can see how it’s a hard thing.”
Reynolds and Sanchez also have to work hard to ensure they get their meetings in.
“January was a rough month with a lot going on, nationwide and personal,” Sanchez said. “But we’re going back to it in February. We’ve made time.”
Worth the effort
Of course, no one said the program would be easy. But, in Wells’ estimation, it has been worth the challenge.
“I think that [Common Ground] has been really positive,” Wells said. “There are a lot of examples of people who are making it work or trying to make it work. I have found that when I get caught up … in everything—COVID, and the election, and their implications on race—I find myself more discouraged. I’m always trying to intentionally remind myself that I have friendships with people like Missy, who can help me know what the truth is: that there are good people in this world who want to do what’s right.”
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” she added. “I can’t change how everyone is thinking, everyone who is hateful. But I can do this. We’re here to be the light, instead of getting distracted by the darkness.”
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