The Grand Social Experiment: Building Community on a Foundation of Equality and Diversity

By Nancy Selig Amsden

I was very fortunate to spend my most formative years participating in what is probably the grandest social experiment of all times.

In 1969, my family moved to a small, new city called Columbia, Maryland. Unlike most planned suburban developments that were popping up, Columbia was more than just a planned community. It was an idealistic concept of how a community could be home to families of all ethnicities, religions, and social “standing.” A city where neighborhoods would embrace the differences of the residents. A place where people would play together, work together, go to school together, and worship together. No prejudice, no judgments, just people living together in peace and harmony. This concept, born of world renowned developer James Rouse, seemed to resonate with some folks living in the “Peace, Love, and Harmony” era of the late 60s.

The town, by design, would have homes ranging from one-bedroom, subsidized housing to 4000-square-foot golf course homes which would neighbor each other, rather than being set in separate zones. Each neighborhood had an elementary school, rec-center, swimming pool, and convenience store. Children walked to school, the streets were safe, walking and bike paths were everywhere, and an inexpensive public transportation system that could take you to other neighborhoods that weren’t within walking distance.

I remember when my parents decided to move to Columbia; I was 9. Every time we went to see the progress on our home, we went to the Columbia Exhibit Center, which had a model of the new city in its lobby, information about the stages of construction projects, plans for the future and, my favorite thing, the slide show room. I remember sitting on the avocado green carpeted blocks in a dark, round room, and watching the slide show of different landmarks and statues in Columbia. Mostly, I remember the smiling faces of adults and children—Black, White, Asian, Native American, Muslim, Indian, Hispanic—all smiling. Sitting together, playing together, worshiping together, learning together….It felt so good to know that my family would soon be moving to this wonderful place. Once we did make the move, we always took our guests to see the Exhibit Center, to share with them images and concepts about our new community. At one point, my brother and I were in one of those slides in the slide show room. THAT was very exciting.

Growing up a “Columbian,” I truly felt accepted and loved by my community. I had friends of all ethnicities and religions. My family attended synagogue in the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

Columbia did not have single denomination churches or synagogues. Each congregation rented space in the interfaith centers.

Religious symbols and art were stored together and taken out to decorate common sanctuaries for each congregation’s religious services. There were Baptisms and Bar Mitzvahs performed in the same building simultaneously. I always had an appreciation for what other people believed because it wasn’t foreign to me.

In 1971 my family decided to adopt a child. My parents explained that we were going to welcome a baby who was considered “hard to place,” meaning a child of mixed heritage. Late in 1971 we welcomed Matt to our family—a “mixed race” child with Black, White and Native American heritage. He was five months old. In 1973, another sibling was adopted, Rachel, 10 months old, also of mixed heritage. My parents were always trendsetters. Over the years, other friends of the family moved to Columbia and families we knew also adopted “hard to place” children.

I went about my life as a child in Columbia, never really knowing that the world I lived in was different from the world “out there.” Sure, I read about tensions between the races and religions and saw stuff on the news, but it just never seemed to be a concern. This type of behavior didn’t exist where I lived. It wasn’t until I went away to college that my eyes were opened to what bigotry and prejudice there was all around. I did not hear racially motivated slang used in conversation until I was 18 years old. I always thought I had led such a worldly and exposed lifestyle, but in reality, I was quite sheltered—although in a very different way than most.


As an adult, I have always maintained the view that we are all of one race
—the human race.


I believe everyone has worth and dignity and their beliefs are not “wrong” because they are different than mine. Although, I must admit that I have struggled to deal with those who are intolerant and bigoted. Yet, as I have matured, I have found a place in my heart to tolerate the intolerant. We are ALL equal, after all.

I continued my parents’ legacy of Columbia in my own life. I married a Congregational minister’s son. We moved to New Hampshire when our daughters were young. Because this state is not diverse, we attended a Unitarian Universalist Church, where our girls could grow up with an understanding of many belief systems and could choose their own paths. As adults, both daughters have married Puerto Rican men. Our family is now even more diverse.

I have often wondered if my experience, being a child of Columbia, is the same as others who came to that new city back in the early days. Over the past few years, with the integration of the Facebook community in our social existence, I have learned that my feelings and experiences are shared by others who grew up in Columbia during that same time. We share stories of love, compassion, understanding, and a lifelong commitment to that concept that all people can live together in peace.

Some say that I am truly “color blind.” I say that isn’t so. It is the differences in people that make them special. It is their background, traditions, and heritage that make them who they are.


We may be of one race—human—but there is beauty in the variety of humans on this earth. I would not want to be blind to all the colors of the rainbow that comprise humanity.


With every opportunity that presents itself, I speak to our human experience…to loving each other…to reaching out our hands to those who need a little extra help in understanding that we are all here to share and embrace our humanity.

When I look back at my life, the things I have experienced, the woman I have become, and the women my daughters have become, I can say with certainty that, even though Columbia has changed, The Grand Social Experiment was a great success! It’s now up to each of us as individuals to germinate the seeds that were planted in Columbia and continue to come together to build and grow communities on a foundation of mutual respect, equality, and diversity.


Nancy Selig Amsden tells the story of her experience growing up in Columbia, Maryland—a planned community that was designed to promote diversity and inclusion. Nancy is an author, singer, and songwriter whose compositions and writings focus on cultural awareness, social justice and honoring the world around her. Nancy has had a 30-year career in consumer advocacy and regulatory compliance, and has participated in diversity management, cultural awareness and corporate culture initiatives. Nancy has had articles published in Transformation Magazine and contributed a chapter in the book Transform Your Life, Book 2 (Transformation Publishing). Several of her songs and lyrics have been published and recorded by Stellar Voice Productions, Inc. Columbia was developed by James Rouse in the late 1960’s and was ranked the #1 Place to Live in 2016 by Money Magazine. Her book explores how this “utopian” environment impacted her life, as well as provides testimonials from others who have called Columbia home. She highlights what worked in this “grand social experiment,” what we can learn from Columbia, and how people of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles truly can live together in peace and harmony.

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