Transforming shelters with a team of unlikely co-creators on the U.S./Mexico Border
This past fall, a group of partners teamed up on the U.S./Mexico border, united by a common belief…that everyone needs a safe space, to nourish, to rest, to dream, to be. Everyone deserves un Pedacito de la Tierra.
Pedacito de la Tierra is the kick-off of a global movement to create sustainable spaces of hope and refuge for people experiencing migration, beginning at the U.S./Mexico border. Together with the Burning Man Community, Catholic Sisters, renowned architect and designer Ronald Rael (Teeter Totter Wall installation) and filmmakers Lina Plioplyte and Kai Schoenhals, Alight is bringing radical hospitality to places where it’s needed most, where people are simply looking for a slice of earth to call their own.
Want to join us in meeting families at the border with dignity and humanity?
In response to the increasing amount of people waiting for approval for asylum in the U.S., and deteriorating conditions while they wait, the goal is to transform these shelters to help establish community, sustainability, and hope — to bring human-worthy and welcoming services to families. The program, initially co-designed with IDEO.org, was developed with the intent to build a place that evokes feelings of joy and inspiration while migrants’ await refuge.
We’re now working to transform three different shelters along the border, beginning at Casa de la Misericordia in Nogales, Mexico, building community and sustainable tools that support residents to come together through building, cooking, education, and shared experiences. The transformation of the shelters will include healthcare provision, childcare spaces, practical education services, gardens, computer labs, recreation areas and more.
“It’s Alight’s purpose to serve every individual no matter their circumstances,” said Alight Director of the Americas, Annie Nolte-Henning. “This project serves as an opportunity to show people living in these shelters that we see them. We can help them create a sense of home, wherever they are on their journey.”
Designed by Rael, the team also constructed traditional hornos—mud ovens—in Nogales, providing a sustainable tool to cook food. The hornos, along with the other work the team is doing, symbolize community, resilience and belonging.
“There is a saying in the borderlands, ‘while the border divides, the earth unites (la frontera divide pero la tierra une),’ and traditional adobe ovens made from the earth have always brought people together through food, fire, storytelling, warmth and the experience of a community coming together to build an horno,” said Rael. “Together, we built more than an horno — we built friendships and a sense of accomplishment and connection with the migrant families living there.”
The kickoff to a Little Piece of Home at Casa de la Misericordia was captured in a short film documenting the humans at the center of it all, along with the transformation of the shelter, including the building and use of the horno. Directed by Plioplyte and produced by Schoenhals, the film highlights the work that Alight and their partners are doing to create safe, dignified and sustainable conditions. The film is set to be released this month with a special virtual dinner to commemorate the event.
“In Nogales, we visited a shelter like no other: a place where waiting becomes a community bonding exercise, and where the multicultural habitants share their wisdom to better prepare for the future,” said filmmaker Lina Plioplyte. “Working with one another to build essential tools such as the horno alongside the inhabitants of the shelter becomes a symbol of many cultures learning from one another and breaking bread in celebration of life and hope.”
Over the next year, we’re scaling up and setting our sights on shelters in Matamoros and Tijuana. Each shelter serves up to 250 per day, and can sometimes provide refuge for over ten months as people wait for their asylum cases to be heard. At all three locations, we’re transforming these spaces to reflect the incredible creativity and potential behind each family that comes through their doors. Our dream is to scale to other existing shelters along the migrant route in the interior of Mexico and along the Mexico-Guatemala border, accelerating the impact of amazing local partners.
Pedacito de la Tierra: Our Partners
Burners Without Borders is a grassroots, volunteer-driven, community leadership program whose goal is to unlock the creativity of local communities to solve problems that bring about meaningful change. Supporting volunteers from around the world in innovative disaster relief solutions & community resiliency projects, BWB is known for the unbridled creativity they bring to every civic project they do. BWB is a program of the Burning Man Project 501(c)3.
Catholic Sisters are our guiding stars. Though Pedacito de la Tierra is non-sectarian, we know incredible humanitarians when we see them—and Catholic Sisters wrote the book. When we first began to partner with Sisters Rising Worldwide in Latin America, we saw firsthand the unique position that Sisters hold in the communities they serve–as trusted, beloved, human-centered, and critical providers. We work to amplify the stories of these incredible women and their communities across the wider world.
Professor Ronald ‘RAEL’ Rael is the Eva Li Memorial Chair in Architecture and Director of the Masters of Architecture program with a joint appointment in the Department of Architecture, in the College of Environmental Design, and the Department of Art Practice. He is a design activist, author, and thought leader within the topics of additive manufacturing, borderwall studies, and earthen architecture. Rael is the recent winner of the 2020 Beazley Design of the Year Award—to create human-worthy spaces for migrant families in Mexico.
Lina Lyte Plioplyte is an Emmy, Silver Lion and Clio-winning director and cinematographer. As a filmmaker, her work bridges documentaries, commercials, music videos and short films that have aired on MTV, PBS, VICELAND, Pitchfork, A&E and screened at various film festivals, including Hot Docs, MIFF and IDFA. Plioplyte’s feature-length directorial debut Advanced Style is currently streaming on Hulu after a successful run on Netflix. Her goal as a director is to provoke change through storytelling in front and behind the lens.
Kai Schoenhals was raised in Central Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, and is committed to building bridges that break down ideological barriers. His groundbreaking documentary work in Chernobyl earned a scholarship to film school in Denmark. Schoenhals volunteers much of each year as a chef first responder feeding people harmed by natural and human-made disasters. He has designed and operated award-winning restaurants in over a dozen countries that have been featured in BBC, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Wallpaper.
Charles Michel is a renowned Food Educator whose work revolves around the idea that bringing back food at the center of our lives can be a catalyst for inner, social, and environmental change. With the belief that food literacy can change the world, Charles is creating Food Education content on Patreon, crowdfunding ideas and prototyping systems and multimedia content hand-in-hand with the Patreon Community. Charles is currently leading and partaking in grassroots community activism, advising regenerative food projects, and working as a consultant for the World Food Programme in Colombia.
Leigh Glynn-Finnegan is an Irish artist, filmmaker, and activist working in the intersections of empathy-centered storytelling and advocacy. He works internationally on projects aiming to amplify the voices and experiences of communities often made marginalized. His past projects have focused on; equitable education, domestic and sexual violence, Migrant and Refugee’s rights, racial justice, and Indigenous justice. Leigh’s priority is to co-create and nurture positive and sustainable impact for the communities he works alongside.
Casa de la Misericordia shelter in Nogales, Mexico provides support to more than 200 people of different nationalities in their journey north in search of a better life. Led by Sister Lika Macías, Casa de la Misericordia offers a home and a family that welcomes those who knock on its door. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges for the shelter. Through outbreaks in Nogales, Sister Lika’s Casa is the only shelter that remains open and continues to receive new families.