Finding Common Ground: Walt Michael

If you ask just about anyone at McDaniel where to find Walt Michael, they probably won’t be able to tell you.

Walk into Thompson Hall, and you may get a clue as to where he is if you look for a door with a tiny and mysterious white sticker that says “Common Ground on the Hill.” If you look too high or too low, you just might miss it. Through that door and down a set of stairs, Walt Michael, the founder of Common Ground on the Hill and a professor at McDaniel, is hard at work. He sits at his desk, deep in thought, preparing an email. From the decorations on his walls to the papers on his desk, two things become clear: he has an appreciation for other cultures and he has a lot of work to do.

Michael created Common Ground on the Hill 20 years ago with a goal in mind: to help people gain an appreciation for the traditional arts. Each summer, McDaniel hosts hundreds of people of all ages and races during two weeks of cultural festivities and learning, called Traditions Weeks. Anyone is invited to register and participate in Common Ground, including McDaniel students. During Traditions Week, participants take part in five sessions per day, with each session focusing on a different cultural activity. Participants in Common Ground can register for numerous cultural activities, such as trying out Southern Appalachian flat-footing and clogging, practicing tai chi, learning Arabic and making stained glass sun catchers.

In the early 1960s, McDaniel College, then Western Maryland College, only had five black students enrolled. The school had only just begun to break down the color barrier. Walt Michael was a first year student at Western Maryland in 1964, when the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War were in full swing. According to Michael, “It was an exciting time, but it was also an exacerbating time.”

Michael was the editor of the school paper and was active with the Student Opportunity Services office. He traveled to the Deep South to help with voter registration and also volunteered in Southern Appalachia. These experiences made him aware of the plight of the poor. Michael felt that the people in these regions and their issues were oftentimes ignored by the rest of society. He also saw how these people clung to their art and culture.

Michael participated in the local Civil Rights Movement, along with other students from the College, which helped him to develop a sense of social justice. Michael was inspired by the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was scheduled to speak at Western Maryland College, but was assassinated just weeks before. Some students at Western Maryland felt great sorrow over his death, while others celebrated it.

“McDaniel was a very different place back then…” Michael says.

Michael graduated from Western Maryland College in 1968 with a degree in English. Afterward, he attended graduate school and also became an accomplished musician. Over the years, Michael developed an appreciation for the fine arts. His passion for the arts, as well as his experiences at Western Maryland, made him want to find a way to include those skills in a program that focused on social justice.

In doing so, he kept in mind his experiences from working with the poor and seeing their connections to the arts.

“Those arts are the only voice that people have. Those arts give voices to the voiceless and are the one way for these people to be heard,” Michael says.

With this passion and goal in mind, Michael formed Common Ground on the Hill. The Hill was, in Michael’s mind, the perfect place to hold this celebration of culture and the arts. Some of his former professors were still here, and he still felt connected to the college.

When Common Ground on the Hill first began 20 years ago, Traditions Week was called “Traditions Week: Black and White.” From there, it became “Traditions Week: Black, White, and Native American.” Now, there are so many cultures represented through traditional arts activities through Common Ground that it is simply called “Traditions Week.”

As a professor at McDaniel, Michael teaches a Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies (SIS) course  about Southern Appalachia, where he brings awareness to the poverty in that region of the country, which he witnessed when he volunteered there as a student. Michael has also taught a class about the 1960s, where he shared stories about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. One of his students in that class was Dr. Jill Krebs, who is now a Religious Studies professor at McDaniel.

Of her former professor, she says, “It seems he’s been an activist. He’s had this real sense of community engagement and this idea that we’re all sort of responsible in a way for acting in this world. I see Common Ground doing that as well and in pulling in the community and doing some great things.”

This year, Common Ground had over 500 participants total during two Traditions Weeks. Michael has even worked with McDaniel to make it possible for students to earn undergraduate and graduate credit by attending Common Ground. His goal for each participant is for them to develop an appreciation for the traditional arts and for the cultures of others.

Michael has served as inspiration for these participants to bring Common Ground to their own hometowns. Now, there’s Common Ground on the Border, which focuses on immigration, and Common Ground at Seminary Ridge, which focuses on the ongoing ramifications of slavery. Common Ground on the Shore, which takes place on Assateague Island in Virginia, has a similar focus as Common Ground on the Hill.

Common Ground continues to grow with concert series, lectures, and festivals. With it, so do the many participants who come to appreciate the traditional arts of other cultures and to find common ground with each other.

“Some people think that we’re just a bunch of hippies playing music, but it’s not that,” Michael says with a smile. “Its people engaged in these traditional arts, and they have a lot of power. You gain a real window into the lives of these other people.”