Building bridges — not walls

How foundations work together on the U.S.-Mexico border

Two men in running gear shake hands.
Cross border races, which have attracted runners from across North America, are helping to change the narrative about the border towns of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Photo: El Paso Community Foundation

In an era of increasingly tense relations between the U.S. and Mexico, two community foundations on opposite sides of the border are working together to address poverty, violence and other pressing needs in their adjoining communities.

The El Paso (Texas) Community Foundation and Fundación Paso del Norte para la Salud y Bienestar, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, work in the world’s largest metropolitan area on an international border — the El Paso-Juarez region, which encompasses Las Cruces, New Mexico. The area is home to nearly 3 million people.

The foundations are demonstrating how community philanthropy can be a powerful tool in improving international relations and helping communities address difficult issues in border regions.

Community groups have organized cross-border races to foster unity among residents of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Community groups have organized cross-border races to foster unity among residents of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Photo: El Paso Community Foundation

Officials at both foundations said they, and — in turn — their communities, are benefitting from their experience with the U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership (BPP). The Mott Foundation has supported the partnership with nearly $1.5 million in grants since 2003.

“El Paso and Juarez really are a single community, not just neighboring cities separated by an international boundary, so it makes sense for us to be a part of any group that is focused on how to enhance the quality of life for those living on the border,” said Eric Pearson, president and CEO of the El Paso Community Foundation. “That was the original idea — connect community foundations along the border, look at what we have in common and learn from each other.”

The BPP was launched in 2002 as a project of the Synergos Institute, an organization focused on community foundation development. The BPP became a standalone nonprofit organization in 2008.

Andy Carey, executive director of the BPP, said 18 community foundations along the U.S.-Mexico border, from San Diego and Tijuana on the West Coast to Brownsville and Matamoros on the Gulf Coast, helped shape the group’s work.

“We’re legally incorporated in both the U.S. and Mexico and get support from both countries,” Carey said. “Our member network has grown to nearly 300 institutions, from the original 18, and we’ve expanded our membership to include academic partners, government agencies, the corporate sector and nonprofit partners. Our membership extends across the entire 10-state border region.”

Karen Yarza, head of Fundación Paso del Norte, is a former board member of the BPP. Her new organization is not yet a member of the partnership, but Yarza said it is already benefitting from her experience with it.

“The BPP helps us build bridges and effectively erases the border,” she said. “They connect people and help strengthen the affiliated organizations, and their resources allow us to make better decisions and search for partnerships with others in the region.”

Pearson said the BPP has helped highlight all that the U.S. and Mexico share at a time when many people focus on differences, harbor mistrust and try to keep the two countries separated.

“We share air, people, culture, commerce and education,” Pearson said. “Every aspect of our lives on the border is affected by someone else on the other side of that artificial line. So it’s really great to be able to interact with our counterparts not only in Juarez, but other communities all along the border.”

He wants people outside the region to experience the intense, diverse culture of the area so they can understand that violence and poverty are not the main aspects of the community. One recent project has garnered positive results.

“We do an international run — a 5k in El Paso and 5k in Juarez — that BPP helps to widely publicize,” Pearson said. “It’s been a great success. It’s awesome to get such positive attention on the border because that’s a big part of changing the narrative.”

Pearson said he understands it’s human nature for people who are unfamiliar with a community to focus on perceived threats. His group is working hard to improve the image of the El Paso-Juarez-Las Cruces region.

“I invite everyone in North America to come to our border region and learn to appreciate what it is, because it’s pretty amazing,” he said.