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Creating Impact: Supporting migrant advocacy at no more deaths aid camp

Meadows Scholar Rachel Stonecipher has turned a freshman year seminar into a passion for telling the stories of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border. This is her story.

I believe that no one should be stuck in a second-choice day job when there is important work to be done.

My film education at Meadows, together with my human rights and anthropology studies, has taught me not simply to “make an impact” on the world, but how to create an impact by calling on everything I have learned. For me, it boils down to this: I believe human understanding (the basic goal of anthropology) and empathy (my basic goal in film) to be two sides of the same coin. Over the past four years I’ve combined my interests to support migrant advocacy efforts.

In my freshman year, I took an anthropology seminar on transnational labor migration. That one class kicked off a swirl of ideas and inspiration. First, I joined a trip with the Embrey Human Rights Program to study public health issues on the border. That project led me to apply for a summer 2011 Richter Fellowship to study the social networks among southern Arizona migrant advocates. There I filmed demonstrations, interviews and more, using the footage as data. What I discovered was a multi-layered network of activists who had been fighting for as many as four decades for the basic inclusion of immigrants in community life. They used activism to expand the contexts in which people could know those “other” than themselves, supplanting the now-divisive label of “citizenship” with shared goals: community participation, solidarity, justice.

Last summer, thanks to an SMU Engaged Learning grant, I returned to Tucson specifically to study a volunteer organization called No More Deaths. No More Deaths is one of the only groups that consistently maintains a volunteer presence on the remote desert trails used by migrants coming into the U.S. Its mission is to end the deaths of migrants in the desert due to dehydration and heat exhaustion.

The volunteers of No More Deaths provide food, water and medical assistance to migrants at a semi-permanent aid camp near the border, outside rural Arivaca, Ariz. From the camp, volunteers drive and hike to designated GPS waypoints where they leave food, water and sometimes socks and blankets. For two weeks last summer, I volunteered and lived at the camp. I hiked, learned to four-wheel drive and helped with daily operations. My object as an activist was clear; my object as a researcher was to study the experience – mental and physical – of volunteers who face the difficult task of responding to the overwhelming health crisis in the desert using essentially a GPS and their own senses. To comprehend this it was necessary to be a volunteer myself.

I was not able to film extensively during this trip because of logistical limitations, but I took some pictures in order to remember the feeling of the walks. I think my feet, arms and back remember, but I will never be able to say that I experienced the incredibly difficult, seven-dayminimum, on-foot journey that many border crossers have learned to make.

The study taught me that empathy is nuanced. It is difficult. I believe film can help. This project changed my orientation to social problems by making me feel a part of the problem and the solution. I will always feel connected to the situation on the border, along with any havocwreaking context to which policies – and our politics – are tied. If being there in the desert could change the perspective of any social scientist, commentator, voter, etc., as it did for me – and I believe it would – then those of us who have been there have a moral imperative to bring that experience to the broadest of audiences.

After graduating this spring, I plan to create a documentary on immigration through Arizona, focusing on communitybased social change. Exploring the experience of caregiving in the border’s politically and physically strained environment has also been foundational to my longer-term career plans to become a medical anthropologist and public writer on these issues.

My priority is to create culture that shows readers or audiences a glimpse of the mundane and extraordinary details of each other’s lives. My trips to Tucson have proved that once you walk in another’s shoes, it is impossible to re-segregate your social world.

-Rachel Stonecipher B.A. Film & Media Arts and B.A. Anthropology, ’13

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