Connected to Place

Partnership Strategies for Social Change and the Environment

Author: mbiggar

Taking Down Walls

Diversity is our reality. In a blog post last Fall, I discussed the importance of biodiversity and human diversity within the places we live and experience everyday. Our connectedness to one another and nature sustains, nourishes and rejuvenates us.

Walls separate us, diminish diversity and threaten the ability of people and nature to thrive or even survive. The most prominent and perhaps controversial discussion of walls today is the proposal of a 30-foot high wall along the US-Mexico border. The proposed wall and related policies will separate people who live and work across the border in binational communities (such as the large metropolitan areas of San Diego-Tijuana and El Paso-Ciudad Juarez), and disrupt the migration of many species, threatening their survival (including the jaguar profiled in this recent article in Sierra magazine). Walls disrupt the natural diversity of humans and all life.

While much of our attention on walls these days relates to this border wall proposal, walls exist all around us and limit daily interaction among diverse people. These walls are often not physical, such as the border wall or a gated community, but rather our social, cultural, economic and political divisions that separate where we live, work and play from each other. Ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) creates uncertainty and fear for many in our country and builds another wall that diminishes diversity in our country. Over time, the large income gap in America has led to much different everyday realities between large groups of Americans and barriers to mobility; walls that while not physical or sometimes even visible are very real. How can we take down the walls that stand between us and embrace the reality and strength of diversity?

Communities have to be intentional to break down walls that separate us by race, income and other demographics. Cities and communities that welcome all people, bring diverse people together in everyday life settings and support affordable living for a wide range of people take down walls, providing benefits to all involved.

Columbia, Maryland opened fifty years ago and was designed to be such a community. This city of 100,000 residents remains racially and ethnically diverse and consistently ranks as one of the best places to live in the United States. While this community has taken down many walls between people, income inequality and market forces are challenging its socioeconomic diversity. As discussed in this Next City Experiments ebook, Columbia is wrestling with how to provide affordable housing and remain a community for families with a wide range of income levels. It’s history and culture suggest that many in the community will work hard to address affordability issues and keep the city diverse and a great place to live.

Mountain View, California is another community with ethnic and economic diversity that ranks high as a great place to live. Mountain View is also struggling with how to keep housing affordable for new and existing residents. In addition to government and collaborative action to address affordability, many residents and organizations in Mountain View strive to maintain and further build an inclusive community. The proposal for a We Are Mountain View  campaign builds on community values of compassion, empathy and inclusion. The organizers share that “Our community will come together to explore and articulate what makes one of the most diverse cities in the world a great place to live and work. At a time in our country when negativity pervades the messages filling our inboxes, we will shine a light on something positive; Mountain View, where diversity is valued as integral to the fabric of the community.”

Close to home, I’ve been deeply inspired by how Dance Mission (my daughter participates in their youth dance program) in San Francisco ensures, values and celebrates the diversity of its students. In listening to their Director Krissy Kiefer speak at a parent meeting last year, I was struck by how this organization has also played a role in breaking down walls in the larger community. Some parents expressed concern about a potential move of the theater to another location in the Mission District in which crime and drugs are perceived as prevalent. In response to this concern, Krissy shared how the current location had similar safety issues when they first moved there and how much it has changed since then, in no small part due to the presence of Dance Mission’s children and families. This allowed the group of parents to imagine how the new location could not only be safe but how Dance Mission’s presence could potentially benefit the larger neighborhood and community. This example illustrates how taking down walls can mean moving yourself into new communities as much as welcoming all into your community.

These are just three ways communities are working together to proactively take down walls and embrace the reality of diversity. We need to be intentional about building and sustaining communities that welcome all people and build strong bonds among diverse people. The reality across America is that the walls between us are pervasive and often create large inequalities between groups of people. No community is perfect, but communities and organizations that strive to take down walls, serve as examples of how we can build strong, inclusive communities whose diversity benefits all of us.

Nature serves as our best guide. The strength of any ecosystem relies on the presence and flow of biodiversity and the beneficial interactions among all the species and elements in the system. Nature knows no walls and actual walls, like the one proposed at the US-Mexico border, threaten ecosystems and the survival of many species. We all belong to nature. For our ability to survive and thrive, our work ahead is to take down walls of all types (and not build them) and embrace the reality and strength of diversity.

Your feedback and comments, including sharing other examples of how communities are embracing diversity, are welcome.

Collaborative Impact for Environmental Literacy

Thanks to California’s Environmental Literacy Steering Committee supported by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, Ten Strands, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and many other partners around the state, progress is being made to make environmental literacy an integral part of every child’s education. In this post for Ten Strands, I write about the great work ChangeScale is doing in the Bay Area to support local partnerships that advance environmental literacy.

Diversity in Everyday Life

 

blog-2-wall-of-empathyStrengthening our connections to each other and nature in everyday life can help us find greater meaning and happiness. When diversity is present in our daily experience, these deeper connections can also help counteract the growing social divisions in our country and threats to our natural environment. Experiencing human diversity in the places in which we live can be an antidote to negative bias and prejudice towards others. With local nature and biodiversity present, we may more regularly see nature as part of us and ourselves as part of nature.

When I experience nature, I am in awe at its complexity. In any plot of wild nature, hundreds if not thousands of species exist from microorganisms to plants to birds to other animals, all dependent on one another and contributing to the larger ecosystem. When we do not see or experience nature in our daily life, we can become detached from knowing how we need biodiversity for the survival of our species and all others.

With biodiversity as our guide, we can think about how our communities also need human diversity. It has been a long and divisive political season in our country. The divisions and the lack of understanding for each other seem to be only getting worse. If we don’t have opportunities to hear diverse perspectives, it’s hard to imagine that things will get better. Calls for dialogue and talking with each other and not at each other  are being made and hold great promise. However, if the places in which we live lack human diversity, such dialogue and understanding may be hard to achieve.

Life in America seems designed to keep us separated from one another by race, ethnicity, income and other demographic characteristics. There are historical trends in our country around voluntary and forced segregation that underlie this phenomenon. Diverse American communities, where they exist, can disappear when gentrification takes hold and pushes out those with more limited means. Even within diverse communities, we can experience limited human diversity in daily life when we transport ourselves in private cars, work in another community and spend most of our remaining time in a private residence. Changing these structures and patterns that keep us separated from human and natural diversity may seem impossible, but working to change this has never been more important.

We need to seek out, cultivate and embrace diversity where we live every day. Transporting ourselves, whenever possible, in ways that get us outside, with others and out of private cars, may be one starting point. Spending more time in public space—such as parks, plazas and diverse neighborhoods—is another related approach. Public space can be further utilized to foster dialogue and understanding, such as the Wall of Empathy (pictured above) that I came across getting off the subway earlier this month. Advocating for and supporting the development of our communities to become more diverse is also needed. Mixed-income communities, with affordable housing, that welcome all people are a cornerstone. Making public space safe, attractive and abundant with nature can support interaction among diverse people and meaningful connection to biodiversity. To address the challenges that we face in the 21st century and increase meaningful connection and joy in our everyday life, we need human diversity and biodiversity in the places in which we live.

Halloween and Connecting to Place

Another Halloween has come and gone. Our kids look forward to it every year with great anticipation. And we, adults, love the joy and excitement it brings our kids. Sure, a lot of it centers around the costumes (and the candy!). Over the years, disposable, packaged Halloween costumes have become more common. Yet, those creative, handmade costumes still seem to capture most of our attention and create great memories. Halloween not only taps our creativity but provides opportunities for meaningful connection often missing in our busy everyday lives.

Halloween connects us to our place in the world. If we are fortunate to live in a safe community that celebrates Halloween, we’re walking through our local neighborhoods and talking and laughing with one another. Our sense of community and togetherness is strong. We’re outside and in the elements— rain, snow or moon! Walking slowly outside allows us to open up our senses to the nature that surrounds us on the ground and in the sky. Connecting with nature in our lives restores and rejuvenates us, even on Halloween.

The pumpkin carving ritual also brings us closer to nature. The pumpkin(s) you bought may not be local or organic, but also did not come packaged or processed. It’s directly from the land. Carving a pumpkin provides a child (or adult) with an opportunity to carefully observe a plant with all its contours, textures and smells. Extracting and then cooking the pumpkin seeds connects us intimately to this food source. This year for the first time, my family removed the pulp to make a pumpkin pie filling.

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Enjoying the creativity of costumes and the taste of sweet treats are a big part of Halloween’s excitement. Let’s also appreciate the deeper meaning and happiness when we connect with neighbors, our community and the nature around us and in our pumpkins!

 

Thanks for reading my inaugural blog post of Connecting to Place: Community and Nature in Everyday Life. Connected to place is about finding meaning, happiness and hope in our everyday lives and communities.

 I welcome your comments and making this blog a conversation. I’ll be sending out a blog post 2-3 times per month, no more. I hope you subscribe or stay subscribed and engaged. You can also unsubscribe at any point.

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