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Singing, storytelling a chance to find common ground

Two classes came together at Common Ground to create The Search for Common Ground.

The group stood in a horseshoe broken into three sections, each carrying a different harmony.

The three parts together created a bluesy melody, a repetitive refrain sang over and over as the voices grew stronger and more confident.

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"Must be something, must be something we can do," the group sang.

Jonathan Gilmore, of Baltimore City, stood in the center of the horseshoe in a black shirt, green camouflage shorts and high-top converse sneakers. Gilmore sang riffs over the crowd, improvising as the collective voices swelled.

As the song grew, the group moved in closer, members of it shaking hands and hugging one another.

Gilmore's singing was part of the first day of his Common Ground on the Hill class, Sing Out Loud: Blues Shouting.

Common Ground, a two-week series of classes focusing on arts, music and culture held annually at McDaniel. But, Monday's class was different than the average Common Ground class.

The program was mashed together with the Great Story Swap class as a part of a special gathering called The Search For Common Ground. Common Ground Executive Director Walt Michael said he wanted to bring these classes together to play off each other.

"I wanted to start off with stories and song from people who do work in communities," Michael said.

The song Gilmore taught, with lyrics pleading for people to take action, was preceded by talk of race relations, specifically those in Baltimore during and after the death of Freddie Gray. Gray's 2015 death sparked unrest in the city.

Shelia Arnold Jones, of Virginia, was the first performance in Monday's class. Jones is one of the storytellers in charge of the Great Story Swap class.

She spoke of storytelling as a way to connect with others issues.

"It may be small, but it's what I have," she added.

Jones' performed story was that of a person who lost their job because of immigrants. The story escalated from bitterness to outright anger — she stood in the midst of the circle of chairs and let out a large scream, emphasizing the character's frustration. The story's protagonist made it's way through a desert and through that journey, better understood the people she had been mad at.

Members of the class wiped tears from their eyes as Jones finished her performance, applause ringing out.

The second story told, this time by Pun Plamondon, of Michigan, held similar themes of better understanding those who are different. Plamondon, who tells Native American-themed stories, performed a tale about a young boy who had mocked an elder, only to eventually learn life lessons from him.

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Karen Merkle, of Baltimore County, went to the class Monday intending to take part on the storytelling course. The combination class wasn't quite what she expected, she said, but she enjoyed it.

"I thought it enriched both experiences," Merkle added.

That combined experience was what Michael hoped would come from the gathering. Community is important right now, he told the class at its start.

"It's a weird world right now," Michael said.

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