Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Other Half

I went to Mexico yesterday. We are launching an environmental program in schools along the US/MX border that will - in theory - benefit children's environmental health. I've been to this border area several times, but never has it affected me like this. Before ever reaching the school, my head was swimming from the fumes of a hundred idling vehicles at the border crossing; for several minutes, I thought I would become physically ill beyond ability to do my job. Stray dogs greeted us as we stepped out of the vehicle at the first school. It sat perched atop a hill with a sharp and unfenced drop-off around much of it. Trash was strewn everywhere. Water ran from an unchecked hose. I was there to do a brief and modest inspection and determine the nature of how our program would begin to take shape.

As a scientist and someone with three years of therapy, I have become very, very good at healthy detachment (or as my therapist likes to call it, "boundary-setting"). But there is always something in life to remind us we are not impenetrable - and nor would we want to be. Mine came in the form of yesterday, a montag of shanty towns, horrendous air quality, debris in sinks with no running water, a disfigured man dragging himself across a busy street, more amputees than I typically see in a year, and a beautiful dark-skinned child with burn scars covering her face. I have been to this country before, and I did not grow up with a silver spoon. Whether it's the looming instability that is hovering over my year ahead, or whether I have simply grown up since my last border visit and better understand the precariousness of life - whatever the case, I have never been so cognizant of the effects of poverty and desperation, particularly when it is divided from my world by... a fence.

My colleagues, the school principal and I congregated in a small office to discuss some basic, pre-inspection questions. We were there by invitation to lend our assistance and empower the staff... No big surprise that this gets lost in translation. How could I convey our best intentions? It must be shown, I concluded. Not explained. Later that afternoon, through a fortuitous meeting with a local industry representative, we were invited to pitch the program to a maquiladora association next month. They may be interested in funding modest structural upgrades and supplies needed to make the public border schools healthier and safer for kids.

I am ecstatic. What a great kick-off to this program. But more than once yesterday I lowered my head with embarrassment that what I was doing wasn't enough. For 95% of those I saw along the border, our program will have a negligible impact. Fewer bugs, well managed trash, and a little less classroom mildew is nothing in the face of rampant and polluted dust, a lack of clean water, hungry children, and widespread poverty. Rather, it's the life I live that they're jumping fences and risking treks through parched desert for. For every hungry, desperate person who's eye met mine, I felt a pang of guilt for how lately I've spent weekends: ruminating over plans on the "next phase" in career advancement, and writing fellowships for future graduate studies amidst functioning faucets, drinkable water, and the whirring of machines to do my bidding. Need something at the store? Anything all, just pop across the street and buy it - no worries. No worries...

Yesterday raises a question that used to come up often, but got lost while making plans. Chances are, if you are reading this, you've asked yourself this question, too. ...How am I contributing and how am I taking away? (A veritable naughty and nice ledger for the conscientious modern U.S. citizen.) Put simply: am I doing enough?

The luxury of pontification is not a crime, I realize that. And neither is having a functioning washing machine. But for this moment, with yesterday's images still swirling in my head, the career planning and grocery shopping invokes gross indigestion.


Sid Schwab said...

Thanks for visiting my blog, and for your comment. And for producing what looks like a fascinating-to-be blog of your own. Not to mention trying to put a small dent in the walls -- real and symbolic -- that separate us from the rest of the world.

JP said...

...What a great compliment, Dr. Schwab. (FYI, I'm enjoying your book!)