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Good Bridges Make Good Neighbors: The Foundations of Transnational Community

Michael Layton*

By Inter-American Foundation on Comment

For a fervent athlete, a 10k race — one of the shortest and most common distance runs — may be just a walk in the park. However, for the El Paso Community Foundation, a philanthropic group in the historic Texas border city, the U.S-Mexico International 10K it supports is “more than just a race.”

The route takes runners across the Santa Fe Bridge, which normally serves as a check point on the U.S.-Mexico border. On race day it is part of a celebration of two cities, El Paso in Texas and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, united as one community. The group says the race is “about the unique greatness of the largest borderland in the world. It illustrates how one community, united by an international boundary line, blends itself into one region.” 

In that sense it is an example of the work that community foundations as grant making institutions do to improve the lives of people living in transnational communities. This idea is what brought me to Texas in April — not to run a 10k, but to explore how the IAF and its partners, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and CFLeads can support community foundations in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean to collaborate with residents who live in transnational communities.

To that end the three partners sponsored a panel at the Council on Foundations (COF) Annual Conference in Dallas with the title, “Good Bridges Make Good Neighbors: The Foundations of Transnational Community.”

The title was intended to play off the famous refrain from Robert Frost, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and engaged attendees in a conversation with foundation leaders from Canada to Colombia with two aims. First, to ask them to consider the many bridges that connect their communities across national borders: where do our immigrants come from? Where are our retirees settling? Where do our local companies have trading partners and plants? Second, to understand the factors that might encourage or inhibit their engagement with transnational communities in their cities and states. 

This kind of collaboration is critical to communities in both the United States and its Latin American neighbors as our region is increasingly integrated demographically, socially, and economically.

Michael1_004Michael Layton says community foundations help build bridges connecting transnational communities.

 Embracing Transnational Connections

This panel is part of a larger initiative, Building Broader Communities in the Americas (BBCA). The participants in the initiative recognize that globalization has engendered profound economic and demographic transformations in communities throughout the hemisphere and believe that that community foundations are uniquely positioned to take a leading role in facilitating how their cities and states adapt to these changes.

The conference session provided the opportunity for three leading participants in the BBCA to share why and how their community foundations are embracing these interconnections in order to promote civility, engage new stakeholders, and build more vibrant, transnational communities.

From the perspective of a U.S. foundation, Sandy Vargas, former president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota, spoke about how Mexican immigrants injected economic vitality and an entrepreneurial spirit to her city and state, which had been confronting the challenge of an aging population and loss of jobs.

As a representative of a Mexican community foundation, David Pérez Rulfo, general director of the Corporativa de Fundaciones, in Guadalajara, Mexico, has worked with the IAF in successfully adapting the community foundation model, which originated in Cleveland in 1914, to Mexico in the 21st century. He shared his concern about making philanthropic engagement in Mexico more strategic.

Eric Summerford Pearson, the El Paso Community Foundation’s president, underlined how a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service allows Ciudad Juarez in Mexico as part of its community for the purposes of grantmaking. They have supported the 10K run mentioned above and other activities that promote a sense of community across the border.

Cross-border Connections for Local Results

As one representative of a U.S. community foundation put it, “My first commitment is to improve the lives of the people in my community.” He went on to ask this fundamental question of the BBCA, “How will this work make my community better?”

If the central mission of a community foundation is to encourage generosity, then promoting the philanthropy of a local resident — who happens to be an immigrant — to her community of origin can be an important first step. By understanding the importance of her first home, a community foundation can establish a relationship not only with an individual donor but credibility with immigrants in displaying sensitivity to their sense of transnational community.

Another community foundation from the United States discussed the challenges they faced in screening potential grantees in Mexico, for lack of expertise and local resources. A Mexican community foundation can offer precisely that kind of local expertise and knowledge.

Focus on People not Procedures

Because of BBCA’s efforts, the partners will continue to create opportunities and dialogue among community foundation leaders, diaspora organizations, and other interested parties. Out of these conversations we have the opportunity to identify connections, and from those connections we can cultivate collaboration in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

This year the BBCA will fund a number of community foundations in the United States and Mexico to undertake mapping exercises. This will help identify existing connections between the sponsoring community and its counterpart across the border, including immigration, trade, investment, and social ties. Once these connections are identified, the community foundation will be in a position to work toward a collaboration that strengthens the ties of the transnational community.

Beyond running races in El Paso, community foundations continue to prove that bridges between two communities separated by a border lay the foundation for being good neighbors. On the Texas side and in Ciudad Juarez, a local arts nonprofit, Amor por Juarez, is undertaking a number of mural painting projects on a massive scale that will be visible across the border and along major highways. One of them is a rainbow, the most beautiful, naturally occurring bridge.

Also supported by the El Paso Community Foundation, the mural’s motive “goes deeper than a fresh coat of paint,” as a local news outlet put it. “You’re creating something that people can believe in and take pride in, and from that, we are hoping to see a better sense of community.” Eric Pearson, president of the El Paso Community Foundation, told El Paso Inc. 

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* Michael Layton is an independent  consultant for the IAF and currently serves as a Senior Program Specialist working out of Mexico City. He is one of the foremost experts on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector in Mexico, and currently serves as a Senior Research Fellow with Alternativas y Capacidades, A.C. where he is lead researcher for Mexico’s contribution to the Global Philanthropy Report, a project of the Harvard Kennedy School. Layton is the author and editor of numerous books and articles on the nonprofit sector in Mexico and Latin America.

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