Building Common Ground & Discovering Strong Hearts, by OEH Intern Julia Grief

Home in Centro Bahtzel, Chiapas . Photo courtesy of Cooperación Comunitaria

Home in Centro Bahtzel, Chiapas. Photo courtesy of Cooperación Comunitaria

Adobe construction.  Photo courtesy of Cooperación Comunitaria

Adobe construction. Photo courtesy of Cooperación Comunitaria


Most people would agree that a house is much more than our walls. However, millions of people worldwide live without strong, stable structures to call home. We all want to help solve this problem, but how do we approach housing in a way that reflects our duty to care for each other? I pondered this question in a hypothetical way at school. However, in the spring of 2016, I was able to understand the housing crisis in a real-world context when I traveled to Tijuana, Mexico with a group of Seattle University faculty and students.

Our group traveled to Tijuana to build houses through a partnership with Seattle University Global Exchange Program and a Mexican non-profit whose mission is to work with the families in the community to build their homes. This collaboration encourages input and participation of the community which in turn forges a meaningful experience for everyone involved. Our group was able to work with the families and interact with them in ways that were rooted in empathy, kindness, and respect. Although our main focus was to build houses, the time we spent with the families, learning about culture and experiencing their wisdom and way of life, was extraordinary. We made a human connection not bound by who was able to help whom, but because we worked together towards a common goal.

Through my internship, I have learned how One Equal Heart is forging meaningful relationships in Chiapas, Mexico. Since the beginning, One Equal Heart has supported community leaders called Caretakers of Mother Earth who teach their communities how to use agroecology strategies to grow more food and live better.

About a year ago, the Caretakers introduced One Equal Heart to Cooperación Comunitaria (CC), a Mexican nonprofit that focuses on teaching people how to build sustainable homes, community centers, and other buildings like ecological kitchens and composting latrines, in rural indigenous villages in various parts of Mexico. One Equal Heart and the Caretakers came up with a pilot project with CC. The project will support an exchange between leaders from indigenous communities in Guerrero who have successfully learned to build their own structures and the Caretakers who have deep knowledge and experience with ecological farming.

The second phase of the project will train the Caretakers and their students to build facilities for agroecology training centers, using local materials and traditional techniques like adobe and bajareque, but in ways that fortify structures so they are more resilient to natural disasters, earthquakes and climate change. Tseltal communities have largely forgotten to build using these traditional methods, mainly because government programs and development organizations have touted cement block construction as the “gold standard.” The project with CC will work with Caretakers and their agroecology students to remember and re-learn these traditional building techniques. By approaching the problem of sub-standard structure in rural communities in ways that nurture and honor Tseltal values, culture and way of life, this pilot program will no doubt build something even more important: meaningful relationships formed between partners and communities.

My experience constructing houses in Tijuana opened my eyes to the extensive processes required to build stable homes. But it also taught me about the transcendent power of empathy and kindnesses. The Tseltal People believe that everything has a heart and that we are all responsible to each other. My experience in Tijuana, and One Equal Heart’s work in Chiapas, demonstrate the power of the heart, and how, when we work together, we can build structures that are not only physically strong, but that foster a greater sense of harmony and peace to nurture those who enter there.