Common Ground

com·mon
ˈkämən/
adjective

  1. occurring, found, or done often; prevalent.

  2. shared by, coming from, or done by more than one.

ground
ɡround/
noun

  1. the solid surface of the earth.

  2. an area of knowledge or subject of discussion or thought.

I can’t see you when I’m on stage. The lights that illuminate your view of my colleagues and I have the opposite effect on me. Their brightness obscures the shadowy sea of humanity beyond. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know your political affiliations, your gender, the shade of your skin, your hopes, what language you speak, or what you believe. I don’t know if you got a promotion at work today, whether you are fighting with your spouse, whether you just became a grandparent, or if you mother was just diagnosed with cancer.

But I can sense your presence.

It’s such an intimate act, singing. My heart and mind make a choice to breathe deeply, let my vocal folds touch and then release. Those two little flaps of cartilage and skin vibrate and disturb the air in waves that eventually reach your ear. Through the magic of your ears and brain you can interpret that wave and know more about me and what I am feeling than if we had a long conversation over lunch. And if I do it right, you’ll forget that maybe I’m a Democrat and you’re a Republican, or maybe I’m from Arkansas and you’re from New York City, or maybe your favorite composer is Kendrick Lamar and I prefer Mozart. If I do it right, you will not only feel for me, you’ll feel with me, and you’ll imagine what it’s like to be a king who is wounded, or a servant who is in love, or an abusive husband, or a conflicted scientist. Maybe you’ll even change your mind, maybe you’ll transform. Maybe I will too.

None of that would be possible if we hadn’t found common ground. In this case, our common ground is the opera house itself. We are literally occupying the same space. Not only that, but we have agreed that together we will take part in this experience; my colleagues and I will sing, the orchestra will play and you will listen. There’s no requirement that we are in agreement about anything else. This safe space gives us permission to dig into the most pressing questions of our lives: Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What makes us happy or sad? What is my role in this grand story? We don’t have to agree on the answers, but asking the questions together can give us the strength to look deeper than we would have on our own.

An organization you’ll be hearing a lot more about from me is called Search for Common Ground. They are the world’s largest international peacebuilding non-profit and have been building peace all around the world through an incredibly diverse array of programs for almost forty years. They are nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year and were recently honored for their work by The Elders, a peacebuilding organization founded by Nelson Mandela himself. When I heard about their work I knew I wanted to be affiliated with them in some way, and I was incredibly honored to be invited to their recent Common Ground Approach Training in Washington, DC. There’s not enough space here to tell you everything about my incredible experience, but two major themes jumped out at me: empathy and collaboration.

Some of the greatest successes that Search has facilitated have come from having empathy for all the parties involved, especially the ones who on the surface seem to be bad actors. Not because they necessarily deserve empathy, but because understanding their wants and needs can help peacemakers to identify potential ways to transform conflict through collaboration.

If, in the current political climate, especially in the U.S., you find yourself resisting that idea, that’s fine in other parts of the world but I just can’t even talk to anyone who voted for candidate x, consider the story of the Congolese Army:

“The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was facing the deadliest war since World War II. With the violence of war came additional abuses: rape, pillage, murder, extortion…. The list of heinous offenses committed by Congolese soldiers and police officers in eastern DR Congo seemed endless.

At first we rushed to condemn them, with the rest of the international community. But that didn’t change their behavior.

Slowly, we began another type of conversation with them. One about enabling them to become protectors, not perpetrators. We listened, and heard that deep down, they also wanted to change. They knew that if the communities didn’t trust them, but feared them, that their own security was in danger. And they weren’t proud of their record of abuses.

We created educational tools to resonate with the soldiers’ sense of self-esteem. Since we began this new initiative six years ago, we’ve engaged more than 40,000 Congolese soldiers of all ranks across the country. They’re trained, coached and equipped with interactive training materials to use within their own brigades and battalions. They educate other soldiers using radio drama, comic books, film screenings and participatory theatre. The soldiers also reach out to the communities where they are deployed to organize town hall meetings, community clean-ups and sports events. Their goal is zero tolerance.

The soldiers feel that this initiative is about them, not against them. Communities where these soldiers have been deployed feel safer.” – SFCG.org

Without cultivating empathy for those soldiers, most of whom had committed incredibly heinous acts, would the peacebuilders have been able to save so many women from being raped? If it hadn’t been for those peacebuilders’ bravery and their suspension of judgment, how might the DRC look different today?

My challenge to you and to myself is this: how do we bring that collaboration in the face of differences that we find in the opera house into the other parts of our lives and into the broader world? How could searching for common ground transform conflict in your family? Your community? Your country?

Learn more about Search for Common Ground at www.sfcg.org.