“Strength in Diversity,” proclaimed the Bugler, the newsletter I picked up at Olympic National Park in Washington State. I’d taken advantage of the opportunity to explore the Pacific Northwest before our 16 fellows arrived in Seattle and Tacoma for our second PLACES gathering, and it was as if the work had started a week early.

The stunning density of the Hoh Rain Forest revealed its layers to me as yellow-green light shone through the gigantic Sitka spruce trees, Douglas firs, big leaf maples, western hemlock, and ubiquitous mosses and ferns. Tiny saplings, striving toward the light, stretched their roots around recently fallen nurse logs down to the soil for water and stability. All these beings compete fiercely for resources, but also depend on one another to cope with and adapt to changes in the environment. “The park’s variety of life,” cried the Bugler, “provides strength and resilience for the future.”

Sounds familiar?

In Seattle, in Tacoma, and in my home, the Quad Cities, we need to cope with change and adapt for the future. We know that the American cities that are growing and thriving have diversity in common. But diversity without equity and inclusion will serve none of us.

The National Equity Atlas calls our country’s increasingly diverse population “a tremendous asset in the global economy. But rising income inequality and persistent racial gaps in health, wealth, income, employment, education, and opportunity prevent low-income people and people of color from realizing their full economic potential. And as the nation becomes more diverse, the costs of inequity will grow.”

The Quad Cities urban core is actually made of five cities in northwest Illinois and Southeastern Iowa: Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa; Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Illinois. With growing diversity and an average  racial income gap of $5 per hour in our metro area, along with disparities in educational levels needed for current and future jobs, the Quad Cities has much to do to realize our regional vision that “residents of all races, ethnicities, ages, political affiliations, religious backgrounds, sexual orientations and viewpoints […] are embraced, have an equal opportunity for success and know that their differences are the foundation for the region’s successes.”

I’m proud that our government, nonprofit, and business leaders have adopted this goal of being a welcoming and inclusive community.

As another small city setting its own image rather than letting itself be defined by others, Tacoma offers relevant lessons for my home. They too are seeing increased diversity without corresponding equity. One cooperative response comes from the Puyallup Watershed Initiative, a mix of community members, nonprofits, governments, and businesses in that watershed to increase community stewardship, strengthen local leadership, increase equity and inclusion—all in the interest of improving water quality for the people who rely on the glacial runoff of that eerie floating mountain visible all along the I-5 corridor: Mount Rainier. Each work group, coalesced around common interests like transportation, food, stormwater, and environmental education, creates a unified 20-year vision as well as shorter-term plans to accomplish goals within that time.

The people of Seattle, too, offer lessons on the power of diverse coalitions. The Chinatown-International District —made up of Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon— remains diverse despite economic pressures because of intensely careful development (and despite the forced removal and confinement of Japanese residents in the 1940s.) Today, many players are working to works to improve the neighborhood while maintaining its historical character, affordability, and diversity. They include two not-for-profit organizations that own many of the local buildings, an elected design review board with unusually strong powers, and community organizers with strong ties to the community—like Sonny Nyugen, who led us on an eye-opening tour of the Chinatown-International District.

Success is not guaranteed. The Center District up the hill on Jackson Street was once a thriving hub of African American homes and businesses, but fell from 80 percent black residents in the 1960s and 1970s to 11 percent today due to market pressures and racially motivated zoning. The Chinatown-International District has managed, if not escaped, gentrification—so far.

In our philanthropic roles, PLACES fellows took to heart this lesson on the strength of diverse allies. Bina Patel, our PLACES coach, says, “This is going to take a huge group of people that are not you. You’ve got to find them.” We each recognize the need to bring in unexpected partners to accomplish our varied goals while increasing equity. When I looked for allies at home, I didn’t initially look to business leaders: It’s not in every city that they come forward to stress the importance of a welcoming and inclusive community, as they have in the Quad Cities. One of our PLACES fellows articulated her realization that in advocating against an expanded border wall, southwestern hunters and environmental activists would have common cause with immigrant rights groups. And another elicited knowing laughter from all of us by encapsulating it with the words of Puff Daddy (Diddy): “Tell your friends to get with my friends, and we can be friends.” We need more friends with the same values, but different ideas.

I know what I said earlier: that there in Olympic National Park, it seemed the work of PLACES started a week early. But truly I know our work—The Work—of striving for racial equity doesn’t begin and doesn’t end. It’s a constant process, walking (or crawling) one step after another towards a world where people’s outcomes are not defined by their race. The lessons gained during my time with our PLACES coach, staff, and fellows teach me to recognize opportunities to learn and ask questions outside of our meetings. When I can spot a lesson on equity even while communing with nature, I know PLACES is equipping me to map those steps, walk those steps, and most importantly, to connect with others who want to walk with me.

Catch up on our last Going PLACES blog here.

About the Author:

Kelly Thompson, Vice President of Grantmaking and Community Initiatives, Community Foundation of the Great River Bend

Kelly earned her Masters in Social Work from the University of Iowa and her Bachelors degree in Sociology from Augustana College. She brought to the Community Foundation nine years of experience in social services, including direct service in the areas of child welfare and homelessness; grant writing; and agency administration. As Vice President of Grantmaking and Community Initiatives, Kelly oversees grantmaking, scholarships, and the Community Foundation’s collaborations with others on issues that no one organization can address alone. She also manages CFGRB’s youth philanthropy program, Teens for Tomorrow. Kelly lives in Rock Island, enjoys the local live music scene, and is active in community theatre.