Red Dirt Girls


For ten days, we are bound by clay, water, sand and straw – in various ratios and textures. Bamboo, tapioca, and cement show up from time to time, but basically, we are women with red hands and feet.

Kahlo (as in Frida) is 18 months old.

Susan is 77.

We are every decade in between.

We are Thai, French, Hungarian;

Canadian, American, Mongolian.

We are Pakistani, raised in Canada, living in Malaysia.

We are Punjabi, raised by immigrants in the UK, teaching in Chang Mai.

We hail from Japan, Scotland, China, and Hong Kong.

We are – the 35 of us – building an adobe yoga studio in the middle of a mango orchard in Chiang Dao. This is the retreat center for the International Women’s Partnership for Peace & Justice, an organization committed to providing respite for the advocates doing this critical work in our world. IWP is fiercely feminist, in the intersectional spirit that many of us white women in the US fail to be.

We are the Thailand Women’s Build 2019. This workshop brings together farmers and queer advocates and seed savers. We are Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus, agnostics and mystics and Hungarian nomads. Turns out an acupuncturist and a couple of social workers can build an arch out of mud bricks. Community organizers and dancers can install reclaimed teak windows and inlay recycled bottles with cob to create beautiful light-catching art.

There are no men here. (You know the fish on a bicycle quote.) One could argue it’s exclusionary by design. Most of us would struggle to carry an 80 lb bag of concrete. Why bother? Just cut it and half and we’ll each carry 40 pounds. What we may lack in brawn, we make up for in interpersonal skills: strong communication and excellent collaboration get the job done. Here, we are encouraged to take risks, try new things, and ask for help when we need it. We’re shown how to use a plumb bob for straight walls while being reminded that, “Perfection is the voice of the oppressor.” We eyeball a lot of measurements; instinct is highly valued and earthen buildings are highly flexible. (If only people were as forgiving as adobe.)

A shared purpose has brought us together. It seems belonging and camaraderie come with ease when power is shared. Class is blurred when everyone is covered in the same mud. Heterosexism is not the expectation here. Dominant culture loses traction when our religions, politics, and traditions vary widely. Whiteness gets off center when people of color are broadly represented and valued.

Tomorrow morning we will pile into the pickup trucks and take turns stacking bricks, making mortar and cob, and plastering the kitchen. We will share machetes and help each other up the scaffolding. Despite the heat and red ants, we’ll sing along to Lisa’s playlists and tell stories about where we’ll go from here. (Rema will travel to Nepal to lead a conference for Muslim Queers on Feminism and Islam. Sally, Shun Yang, and Selena will return to Mongolia, Hong Kong, and Texas, where they’ll apply earthen building skills to the land they farm.)

It is unlikely I’ll hang a door or level a lintel when I return to Oregon. The rain in Portland won’t cease til June and cob-making skills aren’t useful in executive coaching. My criteria, however, for what meaningful diversity and inclusion feels like has shifted; the bar has been raised. I can joke about the Khao soi being life-changing or the bliss of Thai massage, but the simplicity and joy of being with and learning from these women is what I’ll carry home.

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