I sort of work in education.
The partners of this program -- other individuals and organizations, the city of Tucson itself, the border, the desert -- bear the lion’s share of the educational work we do together. My part of our shared work is to set up opportunities for the volunteers, and help them process what they experience. I facilitate encounters with new ideas: with the border, the idea of borders, the single harsh permeable boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, the multiple lines in Tucson that separate race and class, the looming presence of the Border Patrol, the volunteers’ own privilege. I ask volunteers to consider, for instance, how it might feel to inhabit a different body and see the green-slashed white trucks creeping around town. I try to coax or push them into recognition of how institutions and policies impact our bodies, our neighbors’ bodies, our neighborhoods, our lives and deaths.
“Border enforcement” is one way to say, “institutions and policies that kill.” “Militarization” is another way.
Each year, the structure and pace of learning are different. With a new group of people catapulted into this context, I spend the first weeks sussing out what they might be ready to encounter. Some people want to talk during about the harm of white people calling the police during the first week. Others are still struggling with the concept of white privilege in the 10th month. Still others I don’t reach at all, or can’t.
I wonder, every year, how I can best begin this work of concientizacion, continuing from wherever our volunteers are when they arrive. I know that building rapport is key. If my volunteers don’t trust me to stay with them through what is hard, they won’t let me invite them into hard conversations. And yet, if I work too hard to keep them in a safe place, they will remain insulated from the realities I want them to encounter. It’s a balancing act: how can I discomfort and destabilize my volunteers enough that their worldview becomes porous, without pushing them into defensiveness?
Every year I look for new resources, new tools, new experiences, new ways to reach into the lives that have led the volunteers here and gently ask, “Would you consider this other idea? This other way of life? This other view? Let’s work through it together.”
Less than 24 hours after I bought it, I had finished The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu. I devoured this book, this unflinching and profoundly personal story of border life. This is first book I have read that feels like living in the borderlands. A book that helps me to feel -- not just know, but feel -- that I am part of this border paradigm that dehumanizes and destroys beloved human beings.
Cantu is clear: people are being destroyed on both side of the border and both sides of enforcement. He illustrates some of the complexity of the Border Patrol, without excusing or condoning its violence. Instead, he shares the impact that his time in the Border Patrol had on his own heart and spirit, inviting the reader in to see how supporting a dehumanizing institution is itself dehumanizing.
I bought this book hoping it would be a good resource to read and discuss with my incoming volunteers. I read Cantu’s descriptions of the historical construction of the border with gratitude, thankful that he offers the past in an accessible way. I read his graphic depictions of violence and death -- the reality that we live in -- with mourning, and misgiving.
The question I am left with, finishing this vital, luminous, horrifying, heartbreaking, book, is - can my new volunteers handle it? Would it do insuperable harm to our fledgling rapport to introduce this witness to violence? Torn, I wonder: If I protect them from this, if they need protection from this, will they be able to endure these borderlands?
If I protect my volunteers from bearing witness to violence, from having a felt experience of dehumanization, white supremacy, and “moral injury,” am I really protecting them? Or am I protecting their privilege? Where is the line between protection and enabling? How can I begin to disassemble the blinders of citizenship, whiteness, wealth, education, in a way that encourages, nurtures people to reach up and out and begin to peel back for themselves what keeps them blind? What will be too much, what will push them fearfully or angrily back toward ignorance, distance, and comfort?
I talk about my program as a nest, a safe place where people can reflect, grow, experience, explore. True, we have to build the nest new every year, together. It doesn’t exist just because I say it exists.
The point of a nest is to leave it. To jump toward the ground.
We might not read this book in the first month of the program, but it’s too important not to share. We will read it together later in the year, discussing lo dificil y lo duro when my volunteers trust me not to let them fall alone from the nest to the desert floor.
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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