PAX445 students with Assistant Professor Gloria Nouel (in yellow), Alejandro Siller
of Mexican-American College
(third from right), and Ramona Casas of ARISE (far right) on their last day at the University of Texas in Brownsville.
They witnessed the wall being constructed along the Mexico-Texas border, which cuts across the back of the campus.
In May, the Peace Studies program took the first Naropa students enrolled in PAX445, Border Studies: The Lower Rio Grande Border Witness Immersion, to the south Texas-Mexico border to study the diverse issues and cultures of the lower Rio Grande Valley. Gloria Nouel, PhD, assistant professor and assistant dean for program development and strategic initiatives, designed the course to fulfill students' longing for a way of linking their education at Naropa to the world's needs.
Before the trip, classes oriented students to the concept of witnessing. The five-day immersion was conducted in partnership with Mexican American Catholic College and ARISE, a community center for women. The itinerary included shelters, community organizations, colonias (unincorporated rural subdivisions in the U.S.), and maquiladoras (U.S. factories in Mexico). Students met with people working in public health, education, and immigration policy on both sides of the border.
Nouel says the practice of bearing witness is different, but related, to service learning. "The idea is to get people to go and immerse themselves before they start doing anything on behalf of the community. Get to know the reality of the situation first," she says, explaining that action without reflection brings with it the danger of imposing one's ideology and values on others.
Bearing witness, or being present to external realities and internal reactions, is the kind of presence that Naropa's contemplative mission fosters. "You try to be mindful and aware of your own expectations, of your biases, of the things that you bring to the plate. It is not about action per se. Bearing witness says just pay attention...and then be as open-minded and as non-judgmental as you can to the experience itself," Nouel says.
Paris Hayes, an undergraduate Music major in her senior year, says residents' personal stories helped her understand the complicated and multifaceted border situation. "I heard about violence from a Sister working at a immigrant shelter in Reynosa, personal struggles of an immigrant mother raising her children and grandchildren in Hidalgo County, a representative of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation working to increase factory production on both sides of the border, nonprofit civil rights lawyers helping victims of domestic violence, and more. I had times where I met my 'edge' and having learned about my own emotional habits at Naropa helped me to cope. The trip also changed me, because it made me see that effective social change is possible and that hope is still alive even in the face of such a challenging dilemma."
In her Border Studies reflection paper, Hayes wrote about the trip being instrumental in her decision to attend law school. "The most powerful idea that I walked away with is that through the combination of organizing, advocacy, and legislation—real change does happen. In the future I see myself attending a social justice law program in order to serve others. I see myself continuing to volunteer with those in need of education and support. I will continue to bear witness to that which is painful to see in order to understand the depth of social issues without judgment or pity—but instead with inspiration and hope."
Students not only heard about difficult struggles, they also saw precarious living conditions. In Texas, there were poorly constructed houses lacking electricity and running water where entire families squeezed into their one-room homes. Trash pickup and sanitation services were nonexistent.
Ebony Williams, a senior majoring in Peace Studies and Visual Arts, was deeply impacted. "It looked so completely different, you wouldn't think that was Texas. In just a little drive in another direction you're back in a city with freeways and restaurants." Williams saw products that were assembled in Mexico, sent to America, and stamped, 'Made in the U.S.' "The things they were making, flat screen TVs, vacuums, are things that we use in our everyday lives. If it weren't for these people on the Mexican side manufacturing these things, what would our middle class economy look like, or would it even exist?"
Williams, who plans to study civil rights law after graduating from Naropa, met attorneys advocating to improve residents' housing and working conditions. "I feel like a concrete way to create change in that realm is through law advocacy. It was really inspiring to see that even in a small law firm they were making an impact," she says.
Nouel says students also witnessed the marvelous potential of human life that is at the heart of Naropa's education.
Journals and daily discussions provided students with opportunities for reflection. Additionally, several documented the experience through video and still photography. It wasn't all about suffering. Nouel says they also witnessed the marvelous potential of human life that is at the heart of Naropa's education. Bearing witness isn't about taking action right way, but near the trip's end when students wanted to help, they were permitted to volunteer with Proyecto Azteca, a nonprofit organization that builds housing in poor south Texas communities. "Some kind of need started to rise up for us to do this. There is a difference between that...opposed to coming with an agenda," Nouel says.