Experiments in Community: Lessons from Columbia

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By Doug and Ken Ulman

What’s the difference between a crowd and a community?

In a crowd, we struggle against one another to get ahead. We don’t care if others are left behind.

In a community, we recognize that none of us can get ahead unless we are all moving forward together.

Growing up in Columbia, Maryland, we took the community principle to heart at an early age. Columbia was the first planned community in the country built around the values of acceptance of diversity and creation of opportunity for all. Driven by the turmoil of the civil rights era 50 years ago, the visionary Jim Rouse dreamed that he could build a city from scratch, a place that fostered diversity, inclusion and service, a true community of people who believed in those values and all that they encompass.

Columbia, located in Howard County, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., became the platform for Rouse’s vision. In his grand experiment, Rouse intentionally created opportunities for folks to get to know each other, like the community mailbox (first deployed in Columbia) which forced neighbors to walk an extra block to see one another while getting the mail. He clustered homes at different price points in the same villages so that the “CEO and the janitor” could live side by side.

Today, unfortunately, we are seeing a lot of ‘crowd mode’ out of Washington and in our national discourse, which is undermining our communities. An us versus them mindset creates enemies and plays on fear. Whether Muslims, refugees, immigrants or the press are the targets of the moment, we are all victims.

This crowd mentality extends to a global worldview as well. The “America first” declaration and the signal it sends to our allies and the world is abhorrent to so many in this nation. We love our country with the fullest measure of devotion, and are also willing to come to the aid of our friends when they are unjustly attacked. We recognize that we are part of a broader community that stretches far beyond the shores of this great nation. And that community – so interdependent on its members – must move forward together.

Many Americans feel isolated. We know fewer of our neighbors than we did just a decade or two ago. Technology has sped our pace of life and enabled us to do things alone rather than together. Many people are disconnected from each other and yet so utterly connected via technology. And while technology has increased the speed at which many of us move, a true sense of community, of belonging, seems to be eluding many across our country.

The extreme divisiveness we are seeing is unsettling. It’s especially scary for those among us who feel threatened based on our religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, or simply our values.

But thankfully, we see paradoxes around us all the time in the crowd versus community era. While anti-Muslim incidents are rising in the U.S., it took just days for community members to contribute nearly $1 million for the replacement of a burned-down mosque in Victoria, Texas, and hundreds gathered outside its shell for a multi-faith prayer rally.

Many people of all political stripes are seeking a new model that cements their belief in – not about – each other. One that engages everyone and leaves no one behind. One that moves our country forward together, not as a crowd, but as one community.

Communities coalesce around religion or education or athletics or politics or policy or geography or the shared experience of surviving a disease. They can dramatically improve, even save, lives. The impact of a community is directly related to the energy, passion and focus that the members of that community bring to their shared cause.

We have spent our respective careers building, leading and fostering communities of various sizes and scales through public service and non-profit leadership. We have witnessed the impact of communities of people coming together to solve massive societal burdens and we are continually inspired by what we have seen.

In fact, the Ulman Cancer Fund, a not-for-profit organization our family started 20 years ago, recently began construction on the Ulman House, a place where six vacant row homes on East Madison Street are being converted into eight family suites for young adult cancer survivors and their families to live during treatment. Our hope is the Ulman House will enhance the cancer community and the greater community of East Baltimore.

Celebrating Jim Rouse’s vision and all that Columbia has become may just provide a window into solutions for the division and alienation we see in America today.

Foster deep collaboration.

Create arenas for intimate and personal collisions.

Embrace diversity.

Create an accepting and inclusive environment.

Start small and build on successes.

And be willing to experiment, and even fail.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jim Rouse’s experiment this month, let us strive to develop more communities that foster diversity and allow us to know and value each other.

Our ability as a group of different people to come together to solve problems has always been a defining character of our nation.

Are we a community or a crowd?

Do we believe that we should forge ahead on our own regardless of what happens to our neighbors?

Or do we believe that we are one nation, one community, who will thrive and prosper together?

We need new ideas that create collaboration, collision and community. Some may work and some may not, but we need a national conversation that leads to local action now.

Ken Ulman is the former County Executive of Howard County, Maryland, and President of Margrave Strategies, through which he serves as Chief Strategy Officer at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Towson University.

Doug Ulman is a three-time cancer survivor and a widely acclaimed and globally recognized social entrepreneur. He is the President and CEO of Pelotonia, a grassroots organization that has raised more than $130 million for cancer research at The Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center. Previously, he helped build and lead the LIVESTRONG Foundation on behalf of cancer survivors worldwide.

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