All posts by lathamke

Sometimes the Hardest Thing to Do is the Right Thing

My first trip to Brooks County Texas was in May 2013. With that initial and each subsequent trip, my understanding of immigration and the crisis along our southern border has changed. As have my thoughts on how the Beyond Borders team can contribute to the prolonged mass disaster situation facing many counties in south Texas. I will focus this post on what we learn and what we take from these trips. To date, thirty University of Indianapolis students and faculty have participated in at least one Beyond Borders mission to the Texas borderlands.  Our trips focus on quality over quantity, in that a small group of students travel each time for a truly immersive experience. The goals are 1) to provide the practical forensic anthropology and forensic archeology skills of our program and 2) to provide an immersive and transformative experience for the students that focuses on empathy and global interconnectedness.

Line Search

With every trip I learn from the people around me. From the community members who are immersed in this environment year-round, to colleagues who are also contributing in various capacities, to my students who depart Indiana full of energy asking just the right questions to consider things from yet another angle. This trip we were able to briefly meet with Sheriff Benny Martinez. I haven’t seen him since our January 2019 trip. He is a big reason why this work has continued and the success in exhumations and identifications in Brooks County has been a model for other counties in South Texas. He always says something that puts things into perspective for me. This time he said “Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing”. He was telling the team about how things have changed over the years in regards to preventing deaths and immigration policies. Things have gotten so political that people say and do what they think that have to rather than what they know is right.

Line Search

Changes in perspective often do not occur until a person or someone close to them is directly impacted. That is why empathy is such an important goal of these trips. To experience how one’s own assumptions and perspectives influence their thoughts or behaviors, and how immersive experiences can be used to question those assumptions is powerful.  Extending that to understand that one’s own life experiences create the lens for how they view all situations and stepping back to consider another’s feelings or experiences can create a better understanding of the world we live in. I hope my team always chooses the right thing, even when it’s the hardest path. Experiencing global connections is also important in that it shows how we are all connected as humans regardless of geography, political or other social borders. We can work together to do the right thing, even we have different ideas and perspectives.

May 2022 Beyond Borders Team

Every trip I watch the team transform with each day in the Texas borderlands. They grow not only as professional forensic scientists but in so many other ways as well. They learn the power of teamwork and friendship. I allow each team member to contribute ideas to our plans to build confidence in their own abilities. Just telling them what to do does not help them grow. But placing them in an environment where their contributions are heard and valued is important for their personal and professional growth.  This group was no exception. I am proud of their work and growth in the especially harsh environmental conditions of this trip. I am proud of what we accomplished as a team.



Stay Tuned…

We met at the airport at 4:30am to begin our trip. It was a long day with a few fun diversions along the way. We are busy preparing for an early start in the morning. Today is the coolest day of our trip with a high of 97 degrees. Stay tuned for more about our travel day tomorrow.

Blue Skies & palm trees


Texas brush

Seek to do good but do no harm

Do No Harm is a central ethical value in anthropology and in philanthropy. However, it can be difficult to predict every challenge one may encounter when working as an anthropologist in philanthropic or humanitarian contexts. Anthropologists must continually reevaluate their work to ensure that it does not harm the communities in which they work. While anthropologists, like my team, never intend harm, we must always be mindful of the unintentional consequences of our work. Exploring the topic of “Philanthropic Harm” provides some important points for us to consider as we work in these volunteer humanitarian crisis situations. As I depart for my 13th trip to the Texas Borderlands spanning the past decade, these are some of the questions I ask myself:

Are we diverting resources? We are visiting a mass disaster situation that our colleagues are faced with year-round. Are we disrupting the normal patterns in a way that diverts time, energy and resources to us and away from the main goal of saving lives? Are we truly participating in actions that are best for the community or wasting the time and resources of our community partners with each trip?

Systematic Line Search

Are we reinforcing the status quo? A common critique of humanitarian and philanthropic work is that institutional philanthropy supports causes that serve the elite. Are visiting and volunteer forensic scientists perpetuating dominant power relationships? Are the motivations meant to serve them and their institutions rather than the communities they claim to serve?

Can we even predict the unintended consequences of our actions? There are many reasons why good intentions can go wrong, and the probability of this occurring increases with the increasing complexity of the situation. Knowing the politically charged and sensitive nature of this work, we must always try to predict how our actions potentially have unintended outcomes.  

Cleaning barrels for redistribution

Are we being culturally insensitive with our actions? A common critique of humanitarian work is that the volunteers impose their own sense of values on the community instead of being sensitive to the particular situation in which they are working. Am I fully preparing my students to step away from their own preconceived biases and perspectives in order to better serve this community?

These are just a few of the questions I ask myself each time we prepare for a trip to the Texas Borderlands. At what point have we peaked in our contributions? Because after that it is only about us and what we are getting from these experiences. Critically reflecting on our experiences and paying careful attention to our environment and actions allows us to begin to assess some of these questions. At this time, we are eager to begin our trip early tomorrow morning. We will continue to update the blog daily while we are there. Thank you for your support and for following our journey!