Students cross border to study environmental justice

From UW-Madison Communications

This month, seven students will learn about and try to remedy some of the major environmental injustices surrounding the Mexican-U.S. border area through a University of Wisconsin-Madison summer course titled “Crossing Borders: Environmental Justice at the Mexico/U.S. Border.”

Students will spend the first week of their four-week journey in Madison, learning from UW-Madison professors about the issues surrounding environmental justice on the border. For the next three weeks, students will explore the issues firsthand in Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico, where there is a disproportionably high rate of asthma and birth defects as well as a polluted water supply.

Students will spend their mornings listening to lectures from faculty from the Instituto Tecnologico de Matamoros and the University of Texas-Brownsville and spend their afternoons volunteering. Each student will spend 25 to 35 hours volunteering in both Brownsville and Matamoros.

In Matamoros, students will help the Mexican government create a $2 million template for cleaning up a landfill and also help establish a waste service program in a small village. In Brownsville, students will teach middle and high school students about environmental justice in a summer youth program as well as helping border factory workers repair their homes.

Last year, the Cross Borders course, offered by the Division of Continuing Studies, won the prestigious award for innovative curriculum from the North American Association of Summer Sessions. This year, organizers continued to improve the course expanding it by one week to immerse students more in environmental justice.

Faculty leader Tess Arenas says through the course students are not only learning but also helping improve communities.

“Residents [in the border areas] are living on day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues. They don’t have time to work on environmental issues,” Arenas says. “Students help the residents by raising the awareness about the environmental injustices that are occurring in the region as well as brining awareness to the neighborhoods to get some remedies in place.”

Arenas says students also learn directly from the residents.

“Through the experience, students understand the weight of extreme poverty and put a face to humanity for environmental justice issues,” Arenas says. “They begin to interact with environmental justice.”

The Cross Borders class is more than a one-time learning experience. UW-Madison has made a 3-5 year commitment to the border communities to help them make lasting improvements in environmental justice.

“We aren’t just coming for a year and leaving,” Arenas says “We want to come back and invest in these communities.”