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Common Ground impacts reported to Lansing Area Chamber members

by Melanie Jongsma

LANSING, Ill. (March 9, 2023) – The Lansing Journal is a member of the Lansing Area Chamber, and we participate in and report on most of the Chamber-sponsored events in Lansing. The Wednesday, March 8, Chamber Luncheon was hosted by JJ Kelley’s (2455 Bernice Road, Lansing). The Lansing Journal had been scheduled as the featured speaker on the topic of Common Ground.

Melanie Jongsma took the stage to share the business impacts of Common Ground with fellow members of the Lansing Area Chamber of Commerce. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

The text of that presentation is shared below:

Lansing Area Chamber Luncheon, March 8, 2023
Melanie Jongsma

When the Lansing Area Chamber asked me several weeks ago to talk about Common Ground at an upcoming luncheon, I said yes, of course. I love talking about Common Ground!

But this is a Chamber Luncheon, and when you come here on behalf of your business, or school, or church, or municipal organization, you want your time to be well spent. You want to get some kind of business or organizational value in return for your time investment.

So I had to think about the business impacts of Common Ground. And there are some. I’ll share those today, but first you probably need some background on what Common Ground is.

Common Ground background

Common Ground is a program sponsored by The Lansing Journal that creates opportunities for people to have conversations with people who are different from them. That sounds simple, but the fact is, interacting with people who are different from us takes some effort. We gravitate toward people who have the same values, the same experiences, the same religious understanding, the same political leanings, the same view of the world. And that makes sense. It’s very comfortable to hang around with people who are like you and who reinforce what you already believe.

But the danger is this: The more we hang around with our own kind, the easier it is to believe that our way of seeing the world is the only way of seeing the world. And then when we encounter someone who sees the world differently, we forget how to disagree politely. We forget how to stay in relationship with people who are different from us.

And the fact is, by the time you are a grown-up it can be difficult to make new friends. At a certain age, you’ve already made all your friends — at school, at work, at church — and you aren’t in situations anymore where you’re going to be forming new relationships.

Common Ground helps with that. What’s unique about Common Ground is that it combines structure with flexibility. We’ll talk about structure first.

Common Ground structure: a database, an expectation, and some tools

Common Ground is a program that you sign up for. There’s a form you complete, and you have to input your first name, last name, and email address. And you tell us what race you consider yourself and generally how old you are — 20s, 30s, 50s, whatever.

When you complete that form, you are entered into a database of Common Ground people. So we have this whole group of people whose names we know, whose race we know, and whose age we know. Just as important, we also know that everyone in this database has some level of interest in race, or learning new things, or meeting new people. So this database is part of the structure of Common Ground. If you want to meet someone who is different from you, Common Ground helps you do that by making you part of the database.

The second part of the structure is that there is an expectation. When you sign up for Common Ground, and you get matched with a partner, there is an expectation that you and your partner will meet at least monthly, and there’s an expectation that you’ll have real conversations about things you might not agree on.

Now, that can sound scary, especially if you’re an introvert. But part of the structure of Common Ground is that we help with that too. Conversational “tools” are another part of the structure.

Every month, on the first of the month, an email goes out to everyone in the Common Ground database. That email includes 4 or 5 conversation-starters that partners can use when they get together. It’s a list of questions that are designed to get people beyond small talk.

Sample Common Ground questions

Now, the questions are not always directly about race, but they are designed to give people an opportunity to share things from their own experiences that reveal how race might be a factor in how you see the world. For example, here are a couple of Common Ground questions:

  • As a child, were you more likely to spend time at the park or in the library? As an adult, what is the last occasion that you spent time at a park or in a library?
  • How is where you live now different from or similar to where you grew up?
  • What are some foods you enjoy during holidays that you don’t have any other time of year?
  • How often are you in the minority? What kinds of things make it easier or harder to be in an unfamiliar situation?

Then again, some of the questions are directly about race. For example:

  • What are the stereotypes, rumors, or myths about other races you grew up hearing? How do you feel, sharing those face-to-face with someone from another race?
  • In what ways do Blacks, Whites, and Latinos in the Lansing community experience racism differently?
  • Lansing’s parks and library were established by earlier generations who were mostly white. Is it necessary for these institutions to change in order to serve today’s more diverse Lansing?

So people are getting together and having these conversations and being exposed to different ways of looking at the world.

Common Ground flexibility

I mentioned that Common Ground combines structure with flexibility. We talked about the structure — the database, the expectation, and these provided conversation-starters. The flexibility comes in here: The partners themselves choose when and where they want to meet.

This is not the kind of program where you sign up, and you put the third Wednesday of the month on your calendar, and you go to a meeting room somewhere for an hour each month. No, when you sign up for Common Ground, you choose a meeting that works for you. Some of our participants take turns hosting meetings in each other’s homes. Some go out to eat once a month. Last year we had partners who had kids, so their kids had a playdate while the moms had a Common Ground meeting. It’s totally flexible.

Community impacts

And this is where the business impact comes in. At the very least, many of these Common Ground partners are patronizing local restaurants when they have their meetings. I asked them in a recent email to tell me some of the places they’ve met, and they mentioned Beggars Pizza, Dixie Kitchen, Tacos & Burritos, Kdulche Cafe. One of them told me, “Lansing is a great halfway point to meet my partner, since we both don’t live in Lansing.” So look at that — Common Ground is bringing people into Lansing. That’s awesome.

But the people in Common Ground are getting involved in other ways too. Last month the library hosted the Southside Soul Kings as one of their Friday-night concerts, and a couple of Common Ground partners — a white couple and a black couple — chose to attend that together. It was the first time they had been at a library event like that. Now they want to do more!

One Common Grounder who doesn’t even live in Lansing told me that she told her partner about the Chamber Wine Walks and how those have introduced her and her friends to new businesses. She said, “I bought a jumper from J’dejean’s Fashion Cafe and my group ordered matching wine shirts made by Every Good Gift/Worldwide Shirts during the last wine walk.”

Some Common Grounders are eager for the new Fox Pointe season to start because they want to experience different kinds of food and music with their partners.

You might remember the “Mexican Ballet” show that has been coming to Lansing for the past several years. One of the sponsors of that tour is La Rosita, the Mexican grocery store on Ridge Road. The owner of La Rosita is enrolled in Common Ground, and her partner is a white woman. Last year, the white woman volunteered to help at the show — I guess La Rosita provides a lunch for all the performers in the TF South cafeteria. So this white woman helped serve lunch. She had never seen the performance before, didn’t know much about it, doesn’t speak Spanish, but she signed up to help out and had a great time.

Now, officially in Lansing, we don’t have “Black” restaurants, or “Latino” restaurants, or “White” restaurants. Officially, anyone can shop anywhere. But in reality that doesn’t often happen. We go where we are comfortable, where there are other people like us.

An anecdote from the audience

At this point in the presentation, Valerie McDaniels — a Black woman who is part of the Common Ground program — shared an anecdote with the luncheon attendees. Back in the 1990s, she and her husband walked in to JJ Kelley’s for the first time. Everyone else in the restaurant was White, and the McDaniels felt very conspicuous as the crowd sized them up. In fact, said Valerie, she and her husband felt uncomfortable enough that they chose to turn around and leave.

When Valerie enrolled in Common Ground, she was partnered with Laurie Crosby, a regular patron at JJ Kelley’s and friend of the owners. Laurie convinced Valerie to give the “White” restaurant another try. They went there together and had a rich conversation about perceptions, belonging, and progress. Common Ground provided a forum for that conversation to happen, and for decades-old walls to be discussed and dismantled.

(Melanie’s presentation, continued)

Other impacts

Pam Hodgson, principal at Coolidge Elementary School is working with Valerie McDaniels of Lansing’s Human Relations Commission to put on a mental health event for District 158. Both Pam and Valerie are in Common Ground, but they are not partners with each other. Still, Common Ground gives them opportunities and reasons to interact.

Police Chief Al Philip’s partner is a young Black pastor, and they’ve had conversations about race and policing and trust and community.

Common Grounders have been involved in the Good Neighbor Day parade. They’ve decorated a Christmas tree at Fox Pointe. They’ve attended the Candidate Forum.

Building Community

My point is, the people enrolled in Common Ground are all people who are intentionally building community with each other. They are introducing each other to their own favorite businesses and events. They are advocates for Lansing. They are making a difference. And that helps all of us.

When we have regular people taking steps to build community, that makes Lansing a community that people want to live in, a place where everyone can feel welcome and where people know how to make others feel welcome. And those kinds of communities support local businesses, they attract new businesses, they have strong schools and active churches and responsive government.

Common Ground is making a difference in Lansing.

If you are interested in learning more, we are having a large-group Common Ground meeting on Monday, May 8, 6pm, at the Lansing Public Library. Everyone is invited, whether you officially enroll in Common Ground or not. This is a time for people who want to build community to get together and talk about how to do that. We hope to see you there!


Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma grew up in Lansing, Illinois, and believes The Lansing Journal has an important role to play in building community through trustworthy information.