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.