Category Archives: Reflections

Reflections on how we feel and how the mission is changing us

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!



Destination: Falfurrias

It’s hard to believe that in just a few short days, I’ll be heading back to Texas. With all of the hubbub of wrapping up the semester, the trip has managed to sneak up on me and is just around the corner. I couldn’t be more excited, though. I have all of my supplies, and I’m ready to pack my suitcase!

As a returning team member, I have some idea of what to expect, but I also know that each trip is unique and has its own triumphs and challenges. Having gone in January, I think the biggest change is going to be the weather. We were lucky on the previous trip to have pretty mild weather. Going in May, however, is going to be extremely hot and humid. Looking ahead at the weather, we’re going to be working in sunny, 95+ degree days. Just keeping moving is going to be challenging, but what we are doing makes it worth it.

We were also lucky with our environment on the previous trip. The mild weather kept most of the snakes and insects hidden away, and the plants were still dead-ish. This trip is most likely going to be chock-full of slithery snakes, biting/stinging/itching/sucking creepy crawlies, and plants that want to stab you. I firmly believe in the motto “everything in Texas wants to kill you.” I can’t say I’m looking forward to the interactions I’ll have with these things, but I just have to remind myself that everything I’m facing is only for a few hours a day, and I have all of the supplies I could need to face them. The migrants aren’t so lucky. They’ve traveled for days or weeks with little in terms of supplies, and no idea of knowing when and where they will finally end up.

This trip will be a little bittersweet in terms of team members. While I’m sad that Alex and Tanya won’t be on this trip with me, I’m excited I get to work with Jordan and Austin and experience another trip with Izzy. The team dynamic plays a vital role in how successful we are during our time in Falfurrias. Our previous team was a close-knit, well-oiled machine, and I have high hopes that this team can be the same. We get along well on and off campus, and I hope our friendships translate well in the field.

I am also eager to see Don and Eddie again! They are truly awe-inspiring individuals. While they approach the migrant crisis from two different angles (law enforcement vs humanitarian), they do so with the same goal in mind: save as many lives as possible and bring home those who perish along the way. Their dedication and passion for what they do is incredible. I wish everyone could meet and work with them in the ways we get to. We’ll also be reunited with Melissa (and Oakley!) and the guys from Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery. Working with them was a blast, and they also taught me so many things. I’m excited to see and work with all of them again!

Just as with the previous trip, I know the memories I make and experiences I have on this trip will change me and last a lifetime. What we do is just a very, very, very small piece of a much larger picture. I couldn’t be more ready to go!

~ Olivia


Yin and Yang

In ancient Chinese philosophy, Yin and Yang describes how obviously opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. I prepared my team for the different approaches taken by the different teams we would encounter on the border. They have different ways of achieving the common proximate goal of saving lives. But during my decade of work in the Texas Borderlands I never head it said so deliberately so many times — there is a human rights side and a law enforcement side. While these sides do not always agree on the best path, they do agree on the ultimate outcome of dignity in life and dignity in death. The Beyond Borders Team assists organizations in both the Yin and the Yang when we are in South Texas. We respect and appreciate anyone who volunteers their time to this work. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. Everyone we have met has invested a lot of their own time and money into preventing deaths and identifying the dead. So the paths and ultimate long term goals might be different, but these forces need each other as they search the brush and work to save lives. Just as the night needs the day, big is only meaningful when compared to small, and order is meaningless without disorder.

Some of the Yin and the Yang of Humanitarian Work in the Texas Borderlands

Most of the year I am geographically removed from an issue I care deeply about. Therefore, my role is less applied to searching the brush and recovering the dead and more dedicated to providing opportunities for the next generation to tackle issues of social justice and global citizenship. While this generation of young people is much more tolerant different races and cultures, they are also tend to be more isolated due to internet and social media technologies. Teaching empathy in a way that literally places you in the shoes and pathway of another, teaching awareness of global issues that dehumanizes and marginalizes others and how that impacts us all, teaching how every person is connected to every other person on this planet and teaching how action can come in big and small packages while all having the same impact are not things that come just from reading a book. I have to remind myself that these issues stretch longer and deeper than Brooks County and there are many ways we can all contribute to positive change. The 26 current members and alums of the Beyond Borders Team are out there making a difference in their local and global communities. They are continuing the work to bring awareness and understanding of the connections we all share in the wider world and using that worldmindedness to advocate for basic human rights.

I’m so proud of the team members from this trip for many reasons! Not only are they knowledgeable in the practical applications of forensic casework but they also grew in their skills, their awareness, their motivation and their aspirations while in the Texas Borderlands. At the same time their humor, care for each other and support all contributed to their success in the field. We worked hard and covered a lot of ground while we were there. Their experiences will motivate them to stand up for human rights and work for change long after they physically leave the borderlands.

That branch is higher off the ground than it looks! Jan 2022 Beyond Borders Team

I also need to mention that our team is so grateful to our supporters: the University of Indianapolis President & Provost provide financial support, our donors to the Beyond Borders Team, our families, our colleagues in south Texas who not only do this on a regular basis but changed their schedules to host us and a special thanks to all of you that have read and shared the blog ! I hope you know how much of an impact you have on so many people! Thank you!

~Dr. Latham