By Sarah Beauchemin

Nearly 50 years ago, former First Lady Pat Nixon spoke at the inauguration of Friendship Park at the U.S.- Mexico border in Tijuana, where divided families have come to meet one another for generations. Mrs. Nixon, standing in front of the then-border fence, loosely strung together with barbed wire, said, “May there never be a wall between these two great nations. Only friendship.”

While the first part of Mrs. Nixon’s hope may not have been realized, many people in the San Diego-Tijuana region are working hard to guarantee that the second part – friendship between the two nations – endures.

Numerous nonprofits, foundations, philanthropists, and businesses are working in tandem with government agencies in both the U.S. and Mexico to build neighborly relationships that unite San Diego and Tijuana as a “mega-region.” After all, the environmental health factors and socio-political and cultural movements of the mega-region can have significant impacts on people living on both sides of the border; the policies and practices on one side inevitably affect the health and wellbeing of the other.

Philanthropy Aimed at the Border

To take a closer look at these earnest efforts, Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, International Community Foundation, San Diego Grantmakers (SDG), and U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership hosted a full-day learning tour of cross-border issues in Tijuana on August 9 for their collective members and donors. SDG’s tour featured an array of expert speakers along the way who discussed how innovative partnerships are positively influencing the U.S.-Mexico relationship and where additional needs remain.

Anne McEnany, president and CEO of the International Community Foundation – an SDG member organization – emphasized the border as an asset to both countries. “Today is really about highlighting the fact that people have their feet in both communities, and that we’re grabbing best practices from both sides all the time,” she said. “And that this border, despite the wall, is very fluid in that we’re all crossing with our ideas, our energy, and our financing each and every day.”

A Shared Natural Resource

park attendant at the Tijuana estuary
Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers.

The tour kicked off at the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitor’s Center in Imperial Beach. Among other things, the Reserve manages the Tijuana River Watershed – over 1,750 square miles of crucial drainage basins, 25 percent of which is located in the U.S. and 75 percent in Mexico. Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina cited the watershed as a strong example of how the U.S. and Mexico work together as neighbors to preserve environmental, social, and cultural conditions on both sides of the border.

Civic and Political Leadership that Works Together

“When you hear about things not working at the border, that’s definitely not the case here,” Dedina said. “Fortunately, we have a wonderful mayor and bi-partisan group of City officials in San Diego that are able to get things done. They’re focused on forging a relationship with Mexico as neighbors. More importantly, there is none of the divisive border rhetoric that we’re hearing on a national level.”

Learning from Nonprofit Efforts in Mexico

This amicable sentiment continued throughout the day, framing the San Diego-Tijuana mega-region as a united front, regardless of its physical barriers.

The tour’s first stop in Tijuana was at Friendship Park for a series of topic-based learning sessions:

  • Michael Krichman, executive director of inSite, shared the history, through photographs, of how the arts community in both San Diego and Mexico have played a role in the socio-political relations of the border region.
  • Daniel Watman, bi-national coordinator of Friendship Park and a volunteer leader with Border Encuentro, discussed those organizations’ efforts to create more public access to Friendship Park, host friendship events through the fence, and maintain a community garden spanning both sides of the border that provides food for the homeless and hungry.
  • Finally, Margarita Diaz, executive director of Proyecto Fronterizo para Educación Ambiental, educated us about the entire Tijuana River Watershed, how the U.S. and Mexican governments could partner on treating and using the river water, and her organization’s efforts to create awareness and advocate about water pollution and environmental protection.
San Diego Grantmakers presentation
Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers

After lunch, a panel of health experts provided an overview of the groundbreaking Dulce Wireless Tijuana, a binational research study of a model which helped Mexican diabetes patients in Tijuana to monitor and control their disease using clinical care, education, and technology. Binational and multisector partners conducted the study with funding from Qualcomm Wireless Reach™; a key component of this model was development of the technology that allowed users to easily connect directly with their doctors and community health volunteers. The multisector partners are currently working on expanding this technology to a broader population of diabetes patients.

Experiencing What Tijuana Has to Offer its Visitors

The tour concluded with rooftop refreshments from Javier Placencia’s lauded Mision 19 restaurant at the Gold LEED Certified building – and ninth tallest in Tijuana – Via Corporativo.

While attendees took in the stunning panoramic view, the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana William A. Ostick emphasized the importance of cultural connection across the border. “We really focus on promoting crossings, cultural connections, educational exchanges, and business connections throughout the San Diego County/Imperial County/Baja California area,” he said. “It absolutely benefits everyone to be involved with each other.”

Event at Mission 19 restaurant
Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers

Mexico’s Philanthropic Sector

And speaking of benefits, it’s also crucial to point out that Mexico has a burgeoning philanthropic sector of its own. Andy Carey, executive director of the U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership, explained how people generally think philanthropy in Mexico comes from outside the nation, but that’s not true.

“The public charities in Mexico report an annual revenue of over $7 billion,” Carey said. “91 percent of donations received by Mexican nonprofits actually come from within Mexico — only 9 percent comes from foreign investment, and only a sliver of that 9 percent is from the U.S.” Carey adds that Mexican nonprofits “are very serious about their work, and are wonderful to partner with.”

One thing is clear: the strong cross-border partnerships we forge today ensure that our vibrant mega-region continues to flourish – as business partners, friends, and neighbors.

For more information on the cross-border nonprofit work that was part of this tour, contact:

For more information about how to donate to nonprofits working on cross-border issues, contact:

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