June 25, 2008

College Students Study Border Issues

By Laura Tillman, The Brownsville Herald, Texas

Jun. 25--The Sabal Palms Audubon Center transformed into classroom Tuesday when students learned about the ecological importance and political fate of the sanctuary.

Presentations by Jimmy Paz, the manager of Sabal Palms, and Dotty Irwin, a local landowner, shared their opinions on news/" class="autolink">immigration, the Rio Grande and the proposed federal fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The instruction was part of a month-long environmental justice course this summer for a class from the University of Wisconsin.

For the past three weeks, the class has spent every day theoretically and practically connecting institutional justice, health and the environment through service-learning projects that include environmental cleanups, health tests and tours of toxic sites.

They've heard from state and local officials, activists and residents, and have collected sometimes-contentious perspectives on life at the border.

This is the third year that the university has sent a group to Brownsville and Matamoros. Professor and creator of the class, Andrea-Teresa Arenas, refers to the border as a "third zone," where the sister cities begin to resemble one another more than their respective countries.

"The goal is to show students -- through work with local colonias -- that environmental justice issues are alive and well," Arenas said. "The students learn that through community engagement, they can have a positive impact on these issues on a local level."

Alida Cardos Whaley, a sophomore, said leaving home helped her understand her community's own problems and her potential role in solving them.

"I started to realize that I don't even know about what's going on in Madison," she said. "It makes me want to become more involved there. There were things that I knew were going on, but I didn't realize that I should be doing something about it."

Local environmental activist Matt Smith moved to Brownsville after taking part in the class for its first two years.

"This class is what drove me here," Smith said. "We spoke to people who were presenting the truth, but doing it with a convenient twist. It made me want to uncover the truth at all costs, to reveal the situation we live in now and change it."

Arenas said that many residents of Brownsville and Matamoros are surprised that a group of students would travel so far to study environmental problems.

"People become accustomed to the issues their communities face, and they begin to perceive them as normal rather than alarming," Arenas said. "We did a survey in Matamoros and Brownsville to see how people understood their own environmental problems. Interestingly, the people in Matamoros thought that Brownsville had the problems and the people in Brownsville thought that Matamoros had the problems."

Whaley said that she will bring more than an understanding of the border home with her.

"In a weird way, learning about Matamoros helped me to understand myself," she said.


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