Taking the LEED AP BD+C Exam

Last weekend I took the LEED AP Building Design + Construction (BD+C) exam, and, mercifully, passed.  (Something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving!)  I have two purposes in this post: first, to describe my study process for anyone else who's interested, and second, to reflect on the exam at a higher level, to consider whether it's a worthwhile use of one's time.

Exam Prep

I passed the LEED Green Associate exam back in 2013, at the end of graduate school, and have been maintaining my credential since then through continuing ed and actual project experience.  I recently completed the LEED certification process for two projects at my office and am working on a third.  Overall, I felt that I had a solid foundation of understanding coming in to the exam prep.  I gave myself two months to prepare and used two different study guides: Gang Chen's "LEED v4 BD+C Exam Guide," plus his sample test book, and Fulya Kocak Gin's "LEED AP BD+C Exam Preparation Guide."  I also read all of the reference materials listed in the Candidate Handbook from GBCI, but skimmed the actual LEED BD+C Reference Guide rather than reading it thoroughly.

It took me forever to get through Gin's book - but I think without it, I would not have gotten much from Chen's book.  The Chen book is sparse, likely because he intends it to be used as a reference manual after the exam and not simply as a study guide; it doesn't contain any exercises or quizzes to help you retain the information.  However, it does helpfully condense the amount of material you're trying to memorize.  Ultimately, I created my own study sheets that condensed the information even further, to help me memorize just the essentials.  I can't say that I recommend either book over the other; it's probably useful to have both, as I did.  The Gin book is full of "fluff" (photos, useless charts, etc) but does have quizzes and other information that can help with memorization.

I thought both books had terrible sample exams.  They both have significant numbers of choose-all-that-apply questions (where you have to choose multiple answers in order to answer the question correctly), but my experience with the actual exam was that it did not have a lot of those type of questions.  The calculation questions in Gin's book were much too complex.  I scored quite low on both the sample exams, but scored relatively high on the actual exam.  So I wouldn't put too much stock in their sample exams, but unfortunately, I don't have any other questions to recommend.

The actual exam did involve a lot of rote memorization questions based on the LEED application process, as expected, and the rest were analytical or problem-solving questions related to the same.  I thought about 10% of questions were very unclear or difficult.  I received a score of 193 out of 200 (170 is the minimum to pass, 125 is the exam minimum), with scores of 75% or higher in each category - so I think my study strategy was effective.  Basically I read through both books, took all the sample exams, and then the week before the exam, I created my study guide and read all the reference materials.

Reflections on the Exam

I had a difficult time motivating myself to study for this exam.  The exam tests only your memorization and understanding of the LEED certification process -- nothing more.  This process is, of course, described in excruciating detail in the LEED Reference Guides, so there is absolutely no reason to memorize it.  At all.  Ever.  So why is there this whole exam and credential system around it?  As far as I can tell, it's purely about money, about a system that supports the continued existence of USGBC / GBCI and that, occasionally, results in better pay for the individuals who have gone through the system and earned the credential.  You will gain nothing more concrete from the exam preparation process than that.

Earning the credential is also, however, a signal that you think LEED, and by extension, sustainable design / green building, is important.  It indicates that you have dedicated your time and money to learning about and pursuing design strategies that fight climate change.  Even if the primary force behind the credential is money for USGBC / GBCI, the mission of those organizations is to safeguard the planet by changing the way we build and operate buildings.  So what kept me going through the snore-inducing pages of point calculations and percent-savings on energy was the thought that getting my LEED credential was an act, however small, of resistance.  Since the status quo in our country is apparently climate change denial and business-as-usual, this is one way of joining the opposition movement.  While living in California, where we have better-than-average laws and codes to combat global warming, I've sometimes forgotten that the rest of the country isn't following our lead.  The whole purpose of LEED is to provide a national, even international, standard for building design and construction that minimizes the impacts of our work on the environment.  Having spent a lot of time memorizing what the requirements are, I can attest that the principles at play in LEED are actually good ones -- a lot of emphasis is placed on choosing appropriate sites and other factors that have a much bigger impact on a building's energy use than what kind of air handling equipment it has.

I can't say that I learned anything useful from the LEED AP exam.  I also can't say that it was easy, or that studying for it was entertaining, or that now I feel more empowered to work for green buildings, or that I am now more capable of persuading clients on why to build better buildings.  I will probably forget everything that I memorized in short order, because I won't be using the information regularly, and because the numbers change every few months when new LEED Addenda get released.  But I have made a public commitment of my time, energy, and money toward fighting climate change, and I will keep it up until being a LEED AP is no longer a signifier of something unique, and something better comes along to signify my commitment.


A Voter's Guide: Local Elections 2016

I spent a long time researching different local races and some of the ballot measures here in Santa Clara County.  In case you're on the fence or want some further information to guide your voting, I've compiled my thoughts here.

Selection Methodology

I have three tiers for selecting  candidates.
1. Alignment on Issues:  I will choose the candidate who is most closely aligned with me on the issues I think are important.
2. Experience and Education:  All other things being equal, I will choose the candidate who has the most knowledge of what is required for the position, either through education, previous experience, or active participation in similar positions.
3. Women and Minorities:  All other things being equal (#1 and #2 above), I will choose candidates who are women or minorities in order to increase the diversity of voices of our elected officials.  It's my own personal form of affirmative action.

The Issues

We're fortunate enough to live in a place where most things are good.  We have good schools, good parks, lots of (some would say too many) jobs, etc.  We even have a fairly cohesive constituency who agree that issues of climate change are important, equity and justice are important, and a strong education system are important.  Thus, I tend to agree with the candidates on most issues, and have just a few main issues that I use to separate them:

1.  Housing:  The Bay Area in general and Mountain View in particular are suffering from a high jobs-to-housing imbalance that is driving the cost of housing up.  The underlying issue is that we do not have enough housing (supply) to accommodate everyone who wants to live here (demand), and building new housing is expensive.  In some areas, like San Francisco, it's not even allowed as-of-right as it is in most of the rest of the country.  My top issue for local elections is choosing people who want to encourage the construction of new housing, not just for low-income individuals, but for all income levels (ie, "diverse" housing).  Refer to my previous discussion of this problem.

2.  Transportation:  Because of the lack of housing, there is a traffic congestion problem where people must commute long distances to their place of work since they cannot live close by.  I want to elect people who will take a multi-modal approach to solving the transportation issue through supporting high-speed rail / Caltrain electrification, biking and pedestrian infrastructure, BRT, etc, and not just highway widening.

3.  Rent Control:  This is specific to Mountain View, where we have two similar but fundamentally different rent stabilization measures on the ballot.  I can attest that our rent has been going up by 4% to 10% per year since 2013, so I can understand the anxiety about this issue.  However, my general position is that tenant protections, like protecting tenants from evictions without just cause, are good, but price fixing is bad.  Economists seem generally agreed that rent control / rent stabilization does not achieve the goal of making housing more affordable, and in fact can have the opposite effect, as has been the case in San Francisco.  Here's another comment on that.  Thus, I have voted against both rent control measures and would prefer to support candidates who oppose rent control.

The Races

US Senator: Harris.  In watching her debate with Sanchez, she seemed clearly to have a better grasp of the issues and more well-thought-out policies.

US Representative: Eshoo.  Her Libertarian opponent, Fox, seems to care only about the debt and nothing else.  Eshoo, the incumbent, is doing fine by me.

State Senator: Hill.  His opponent, Ciardella, seems a bit crazy.  I don't like that the incumbent, Hill, opposed a proposed highway toll that I think would have been a good idea to discourage driving and encourage public transit, but otherwise I think he's doing fine.

State Assembly: Berman.  He seems to have much more thought-out policy proposals than his opponent, Veenker, and generally aligns well on the issues, despite his support of a retail protectionism measure in Palo Alto that I oppose (requires ground-floor retail in certain areas of the downtown).

For the three school board races, I thought all the candidates were generally good ones, so I'm not as strongly supportive of my choices here.  However, if you want a recommendation:

SCC Board of Education: Mah (her opponent has no experience)
Foothill-De Anza Board: Ahrens, Casas, Landsberger
MV-Whisman School District: Wilson, Gutierrez, Blakely

Mountain View City Council: For this race, with eight candidates for four seats, I ended up making a chart on my whiteboard to help me sort out their various positions and experience.  I oppose Coladonato for his intemperate reputation and lack of policy positions, although he's the only candidate who, like me, opposes rent control.  I decided against Cornes and Clark because they do not support new housing strongly enough, and against Carpenter for his lack of experience.

That left me with Ramirez (my top choice), Abe-Koga (has good experience), Matichak and McAlister (also experienced), who all more or less support new housing and sensible transportation policies, despite all also supporting some form of rent control.  It will be interesting to see how this election plays out and what happens in the rental market after this.

The Ballot Measures

I borrowed heavily from Justin's research into these, so I'm just going to summarize the ones that I looked into myself or think are most important.

51:  Voted No.  This was the toughest one for me.  I am a strong supporter of school construction, both because I think education (and the facilities that support it) is critically important, and because I have a financial interest in new construction.  However, I decided that I agree with the Governor, who opposes this measure, that the existing school bond program that this money would support is inequitable and has the wrong priorities.  I also agree with the San Jose Mercury News that developers should be shouldering the cost for new school construction, as is common across the country; state bonds should be reserved for the communities with the least ability to fund adequate school facilities themselves.  I hope that a "No" vote signals that the legislature needs to take up this issue again, as the governor has asked, and design a better bond program that benefits the poorest school districts most, not wealthy districts.

53:  Voted No.  I don't want to see a statewide referendum on every infrastructure project that costs more than $2 billion (which is probably every major state-level infrastructure project).  The state needs the ability to fund and build important statewide infrastructure without subjecting it to votes from people who will self-interestedly vote against it.

59:  Voted Yes.  This is a ridiculous measure and I initially thought I might abstain.  California legislators cannot do anything concrete to overturn Citizens United, so this is merely a protest vote saying that we don't like it.  I decided in the end that I might as well join the protest.

62: Voted Yes.  The death penalty is outdated and awful.  It's also morally reprehensible.

66:  Voted No.  This would speed up death penalty sentencing and make it easier to execute people.

67:  Voted Yes  / 65: Voted No.
The plastic bag measures are pretty ridiculous, especially when they show up on either side of something as important as death penalty sentencing.  However, there are major differences between the measures so it's important to separate them.  Measure 67 continues the state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags and allows stores to go on selling bags as usual.  This would have no noticeable effects.  Measure 65 would direct money collected by stores for selling bags into a special fund.  Why two measures?  Apparently, measure 65 is supported by the plastic bag industry, who would prefer for us to overturn the existing ban (by rejecting measure 67), and even if we uphold it, could potentially prevent it from being enforced if measure 65 gets more votes.  Just be careful and approve the referendum (ban) but reject the initiative (bag fees) so that we continue as normal.

A: Voted Yes.  I agree with SPUR's analysis that a measure that provides permanently affordable housing for those most in need is a good idea for our area.

B:  Voted Yes.  Again, I agreed with SPUR's analysis that this is a good measure for transportation funding, since it is multi-modal and not just for highway expansion.

V:  Voted No.  See my discussion above about rent control.

W:  Voted No.  Ditto.

I hope this is helpful to some folks still trying to sort out everything on the ballot!


On the Border: Part V

July 17th - Last Day in Arizona

On Friday the 17th, our final day of the trip, we met with a whole host of people of different views to hear about the immigration crisis from all sides.

We started the day with a presentation by an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  ICE is "the principal investigative arm of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the second largest investigative agency in the federal government.  Created in 2003 through a merger of the investigative and interior enforcement elements of the US Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the former INS), ICE now has more than 20,000 employees in offices in all 50 states and 48 foreign countries" (BorderLinks document).  The agent showed us a slideshow of their work: catching illegal human smugglers, arresting illegal border crossers, targeting drug rings and weapons dealers.  He had photos of drug smugglers using drones, disguised trucks, gliders, even ramps to get trucks over the wall, and tunnels to get under it.  His personal take on the situation is that the drugs and guns are the problem, not the migrants who often get caught in the crossfire.  He thought that the US should focus on cutting down on the demand for illegal drugs, since shutting down the supply chain completely is probably impossible - when there's a will to smuggle drugs, there's a way.  He described joint efforts by the US and Mexico to control smuggling but thought that eliminating demand would be the best way to address it.  He also described the difficulty of working for the federal government, whose priorities change with every new administration, and how he wished there could be consistent immigration policy that would make it easier to enforce the law.

Next up, back at BorderLinks, we met with a representative of Corazon de Tucson (I can't find a website for them but here's a related article), an immigrant rights group that advises its members on how to deal with law enforcement in order to avoid deportation if they are detained.  The representative challenged us to see the conflict over immigration as driven purely by racism, arguing that racism is the root cause and the one thing that needs to be addressed to solve the conflict.  He described how members of the group educate themselves on their rights, carry cards that help remind them what to say (and not say) to law enforcement, and support each other in posting bail (if needed) to get out of detention and fight their cases in the courts.  With local law enforcement working hand-in-hand with federal immigration agents, it can be difficult to protect the rights of people who are stopped at a traffic stop and then asked for their immigration papers.

In the afternoon we were able to see Operation Streamline for ourselves, back at the federal district court.  I have to say that this was one of the most depressing things I've ever seen.  The offenders, looking very bleak, were shackled hand and foot with their attorneys standing behind them.  Chained together in long lines, they stood together in a row as the judge went down the line, asking whether they pleaded guilty or not.  Only one man questioned his sentence, but the judge counseled him not to challenge it, because the cruel irony is that pleading "not guilty" means you wind up spending even longer in prison waiting for your trial than if you simply plead guilty, serve your six months, and are deported.  The man finally seemed to understand and withdrew his protest.  The whole group of fifty or sixty people were sentenced quickly, without commentary, and were led away.  The judge seemed tired but sympathetic to the rows of detainees, but there was nothing he could do differently.  It was clear how easily this system could deny entry to someone who was lawfully in the US, as a relative of a citizen, or an asylum seeker or refugee, if they were not able to communicate well with their public defender.  Operation Streamline has received a good deal of criticism but remains in effect.

Back at BorderLinks we met with another immigration attorney, this time with someone who helps skilled foreigners attempt to immigrate legally.  He explained how long and difficult the process is even if you have work sponsorship, money, and valuable skills.  The current quota system in place makes it particularly difficult to immigrate if you are from India, the Philippines, China, or, of course, Mexico.  He told us stories of weird quirks in the system that prevent people from immigrating, up to and including people who were turned down for no reason at all, since this type of immigration visa is discretionary.  We learned that the wait list for people from some countries is over 20 years long, and only getting longer, with no hope in sight.  (For example, if you are the adult child of a US citizen or permanent resident trying to immigrate from Mexico, the visas currently being processed (as of April 2017) were submitted in 1995 - 22 years ago.)  So to those people who think that illegal immigrants should just "get in line," you should understand that the wait in line is over 20 years long with no guarantee you'll be approved.  At that rate, it's easy to see why some people would risk coming illegally, so they could spend that time with their family.

At the end of the day we went out to dinner and then tried to reflect on everything we'd learned.  My personal takeaway was to try to understand better how we Americans use architecture as a weapon against our neighbors.  The next day, we flew back to California, trying to come to terms with an overload of information and thoughts about the border.


Fast forward to 2017, when I actually finished writing this post (embarrassing, I know).  News about the border wall has been exploding in the media this year, as Voldemort (or 45, as some have taken to calling him) has pressed on with his insane wish to continue building the wall.  Here's a small sampling of NYTimes articles on the subject.  And one more with a shout-out to my senator from California at the end.  While I didn't have much to say or think on the topic of immigration over the last two years, with Voldemort now in power, this issue has become critical.  What especially irritates me is that this "immigration crisis" isn't a real crisis of too many people immigrating.  After the peak of illegal border crossings back in 2005-2006, many fewer people are coming, and the number of illegal immigrants in the US seems to have stabilized since 2009.  One might ask why Voldemort is so keen on building a wall to protect against a "threat" that has already passed - but one might ask a lot of questions about Voldemort and get no answers.

I don't have any answers either, only more questions, and more anger about irrationally spending my tax dollars on violating human rights, degrading the environment, and "solving" a "problem" that doesn't exist.  Further militarization of our southern border will do nothing but cause more deaths of people who have done nothing wrong but try to flee to a country that supposedly welcomes the poor, the homeless, and those seeking freedom from oppression.  Try telling that to Voldemort.

What next?  Architects, tell your friends: Don't build the border wall.  Don't let scare tactics by the new administration convince you that it's needed or that it will be effective.  It's not and it won't be.  Fewer people are coming anyway, thanks to changing economic conditions and rightful fear of the new administration, and to other factors outside its control.  Building the wall will do nothing but leave a bigger, deeper scar on the landscape and leave more bodies in its wake.


What can you do?

  • Call your senators and representative, and tell them to oppose the expansion of the border wall.  Voldemort doesn't have the funding ready, so there's still time to oppose this.
  • Talk to your friends and neighbors, colleagues, church members, or anyone who doesn't know what to think about this issue.  The border wall doesn't affect everyone, so we need to make more people aware of its effects.
  • If you're in the building industry, talk to your colleagues and get them to oppose this project.  If you know anyone who has responded to the RFP (the deadline just passed), talk to them about the risks to their reputation, among other things, of taking on this project.  Ask them to reconsider.  (If you're curious, here's the actual RFP.)  (And in case you missed it, here's the fake IKEA response.)
  • If you're in the vicinity of the border wall, take pictures, talk to people, and share your thoughts with your friends across the country.  Two years ago, I didn't know anything about this issue, and would have been happy to accept whatever argument I heard from the people closest to it - the people who have to live with it every day.  If more people know your story, they can oppose the wall with you.  Guerrilla art also seems to get people's attention.
  • If you want to learn even more or see things for yourself, consider going on a delegation to the border.  BorderLinks is a good place to start.

Back to Part I  - Part II - Part III - Part IV


On the Border: Part IV

July 16th - The Sonoran Desert

For the entire trip, we'd heard about the hazards of crossing the border through the desert, and now it was finally our turn to see what it was like for ourselves.  We drove out to the home of Ed Lord, a member of the Green Valley Samaritans, who lives in an affluent retirement community on the edge of the desert.  The Samaritans are an organization dedicated to saving the lives of people in the desert.  They know the landscape and walk the trails looking for people in need.  We followed him to the home of a friend that adjoins land owned by the local mining company.  During our walk, an enormous plateau of tailings was visible in the distance, like an unnatural ridge, with tiny tractors running across it.

We left early in the morning, around 9 am, and it was already 100 degrees and full sun.  Ed showed us his collection of items he'd found in the desert, dropped by migrants, including clothes, shoes, backpacks, and even a notebook with Spanish-to-English phrases.  He pointed out more items as we walked.  We noted the cow tanks: water left out for cows that is fine for them to drink, but after sitting out for weeks or months, becomes poisonous to humans; unwary migrants have tried to drink this water only to become worse off than before.  We all wore long sleeves and pants to protect against the thorny plants; in this desert, every plant has spines, not just the cacti.  Nearly everyone in our group got spines stuck to their pants or shoes.

The purpose of our walk was to visit the sites where the bodies of three migrants were found back in 2009.  The sites were close together and less than a mile from the ranch where we started.  Only these three people have been found in this area, although from the rubbish along the way, it was clear that many more people had passed through.  The three sites are marked with small crosses and rocks.  It's unknown if the three people, two men and a woman, were traveling together or were related; they have never been identified.

The plants are beautiful despite being dangerous, and the landscape is also beautiful in a severe way.  The ground is rocky and rutted with arroyos (washes) from flash flooding, which is yet another hazard for travelers.  After less than two hours out, we were all sweating through our clothes and drinking water often, and most of the group was exhausted when we returned.  By the end of the walk, I couldn't decide if it was easier now to imagine hiking for three days through this desert to reach Tucson, or even harder to imagine since I had some idea of what it would be like.  What's hardest to imagine is that less than ten years ago, people were dying here in the backyards of wealthy retirees, less than a mile from air conditioning and indoor plumbing.

In the afternoon we stayed inside.  We met with a public defender, Laura, at the US District Court in Tucson.  As a public defender, she represents immigrants detained by Border Patrol and tries to determine their immigration status.  She was an eloquent speaker and made a number of points that I will summarize here.  She spoke forcefully about:

  • The injustice of executive / prosecutorial discretion as an immigration tool, which can arbitrarily allow some immigrants to be released while keeping others in prison
  • The lack of time given to public defenders to meet with their clients, since the attorneys need time to understand who's a citizen or otherwise eligible to stay; who's a refugee or asylee; who's had a concussion or other medical emergency and needs continued care before appearing in court; etc.  All of this has to happen through one or more translators, since most immigrants do not speak English, and many do not speak Spanish but instead speak other indigenous languages of Central America
  • The problem caused by forcing judges and lawyers to spend substantial time sentencing migrants instead of focusing on addressing violent crime, drug smuggling, or other public harms
Her main target of criticism was Operation Streamline, which was a result of the criminalization of illegal border crossing; she said that prior to 2001, being in the county illegally was an administrative offense for not having the right papers, rather than a criminal act.  (More to come on this in my next post.)  Once it became a criminal offense, processing all those criminals was a strain on the judicial system, so Operation Streamline was developed to deport people faster, creating a situation with the potential to violate the human rights of thousands of people.  She asked us to let her know as soon as we figured out immigration reform.  We said we would.

For the rest of the afternoon, we discussed the difference between charity and solidarity, noting that many of the organizations we'd met were asking for the latter - more education, more opportunities to make their voices heard - rather than the former.  And then we made cookies.  Sometimes you really need some cookies at the end of a day of heat stroke and heartbreak.

To be continued in Part V.

Learn more about the Sonoran Desert:


On the Border: Part III

July 15th - Agua Prieta, Mexico

After an uncomfortable night on the floor, we crossed into Mexico to visit several organizations working with migrants on the Mexican side of the border.  The trip across the border into Mexico took no time at all.  Immediately on the other side, we stopped at the Migrant Resource Center (Centro de Recursos para Migrantes), which assists people who have been repatriated by Border Patrols; warns against trying to cross the desert and the hazards there; and helps people return to their homes elsewhere in Mexico.  The workers at the Center told us that lately there have been fewer people trying to cross due to the relatively weak economy, but even while we were there, a woman came in to get help.  The Center documents abuses by Border Patrol during deportation proceedings (lack of medical attention, taking of identification or belongings, violence, etc) and liaises with other organizations to provide comprehensive services for migrants.  The tiny center is doing what it can to stand up to a big problem, since many times, people who are deported back to Mexico are not from anywhere nearby, and have no idea how to return home or where to go after deportation.

View of the US from Mexico.  Welcome to America!

 Our next stop was DouglaPrieta Works, a co-op founded by a Presbyterian group.  Nine families work in the co-op, which farms vegetables, chicken, and rabbits, and teaches sewing and other skills to bring additional income.  The co-op farmstead and the neighborhood around it reminded me of towns I had seen in Guatemala: dirt roads and floors, abandoned tires and trash, and improvised building materials.  It's hard to believe this level of poverty is right across our border -- the lack of adequate municipal services (trash collection and infrastructure repairs, for example) was obvious.  The families in the co-op strive to achieve a better standard of living for their members despite living in a place where the major employers are factories that pay the equivalent of $8 per day.  We had lunch at the co-op main building and then the women of the organization led us on a tour around the farm.  The women spoke about the empowerment they felt at being able to contribute to their families' income by farming and producing sewn items for sale; they had a variety of clothing and decorative items from the sewing efforts.  While we were there, a painter was creating a mural above the front door -- every aspect of the co-op is created and cared for by the group.

After lunch and the farm tour, our next stop was at Cafe Justo (Just Coffee), a coffee co-op again started with assistance from a Presbyterian group, this time using a micro-loan.  The co-op is run by a family which originally wanted to move to the US, but decided they could do more good by staying in Mexico and partnering with other families to produce coffee for export.  Forty families in the state of Chiapas (a major coffee-growing region in Mexico) grow the coffee which is then roasted, packaged, and exported from the facility in Agua Prieta.  Controlling the entire production process allows the co-op to capture most of the value of the coffee, which otherwise goes to the exporter (and to Starbucks).  Their coffee is thus Fair Trade certified, as well as organic, and smelled so good, even to this non-coffee-drinker!  Unfortunately for me, they only sell coffee (it is, after all, "just" coffee) so I didn't buy anything there.  The workers explained that by running their co-op they could provide living wages to all the families involved, so that they could remain in their homes and avoid having to move away to seek work.  We toured their production facility and shop.  A new coffee shop was under construction, where they hoped to be able to employ local youth and provide a safe place for them to gather off the street.

Before heading back to the US, we stopped on the Mexican side of the border wall.  By chance, we encountered a woman who was visiting the shrine of her 16-year-old nephew who had been killed by Border Patrol on the Mexican side of the border.  She told us that her family was trying to sue in the US for justice and invited us to an event happening later that week.  We had to decline due to our schedule.  She was grateful to know that there are people like us who are trying to educate ourselves about the violence at the border so that her nephew is not forgotten.  We were all thankful for the chance to have met her and to hear from someone directly touched by the conflict.  Looking around, the houses along the border street appeared militarized, with tall fences, gates, shrubs, and trees blocking any view from the wall; it must be incredibly difficult to live along that road, with the ever-present possibility of gunfire when the Border Patrol pursues a suspect.  It's hard for me to imagine living in a place where a teenager could be shot on your doorstop at any time.

Back across the border we went, which took much longer than the trip over, as US Customs inspected our passports and vehicle.  We returned to BorderLinks and readied ourselves for the next day.

To be continued in Part IV.

Want to support the organizations we visited?


On the Border: Part II

It's been over a year since my last post about my trip to the US-Mexico border, but I'm finally getting around to posting the rest of my thoughts and photos.  If you want to remind yourself why this is an important topic (aside from the election-year immigration hype), check out the following short documentary.  Thousands of unaccompanied minors are still trying to cross into the US from Honduras and Central America.

Between Borders: American Migrant Crisis (New York Times)

July 14th - Douglas, AZ

Our second day at BorderLinks had us up early and on the road to Douglas, Arizona, a border town that neighbors the larger town of Agua Prieta in Mexico.  During the two-hour drive, we stopped at Tombstone, AZ, a laughable tourist trap where there was once a pointless gunfight that for some reason has become famous.  We wandered around for a bit, marveling at the racist stereotypes on display in the shop windows, before finishing our trip to Douglas.

Douglas is a town of about 18,000 people, while neighboring Agua Prieta has around 80,000 people.  Our first stop in Douglas turned out to be lunch with the mayor, Danny Ortega Jr.  (Mayor Ortega has since stepped down, deciding not to pursue another term.)  Our meeting was arranged by Frontera di Cristo, a Presbyterian-founded border ministry, which assists with outreach events like this one.  Mayor Ortega had grown up in the area and remembered what the towns were like before the border walls were built.  Understandably, his primary concern seemed to be economic progress, and he said that he was pushing for an upgrade to the port to make trade easier.  The economy of Douglas relies heavily on Agua Prieta because it is so much smaller, and he described how the two towns would sponsor joint events in the years before the wall.  Now his town was suffering because of the trade and travel restrictions it imposed.

After lunch, and much discussion of the wall, we finally got to see the border wall for ourselves.  We met with Jack Knox, a retired Mennonite minister who is active in trying to care for migrants and advocating for more humane immigration practices.  He and his wife Linda visit the wall every day to pray and look for people in distress.  He described the various forms that the wall takes, and we drove along it, able to see it for ourselves.  Closest to the official border crossing (the port), the wall is double-layered, metal and mesh, and very tall.  From there it transitions to a tall steel panel wall, then to vehicle barricades, and finally to a simple fence.  The road along the fence creates a scar on the landscape that seems to have no end.  US Customs & Border Patrol is stationed along its length every few hundred yards - at least near the town - in their white and green trucks, watching it.  Our little group grew exhausted from the heat after being outside only a few minutes in the brutal July sun.  We would learn later about the many casualties, often youths, who have been shot while climbing the wall, including American citizens.  The Border Patrol often cannot tell the difference between American and Mexican citizens, and the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality that seems to be shaking the nation this year appears to be quite common at the border.

The net result of this mish-mash of walls, fencing, and barricades is that people trying to cross illegally into the US are attempting their crossings further and further out in the desert, where the crossing is less guarded but more physically difficult.  I do not believe that people will stop trying to cross even if we were to build a massive wall all the way along the border.  (Based on our later meeting with Border Patrol, it appears that determined people have found plenty of ways to subvert the walls we do have.)  Instead, the walls seem to cause needless deaths from exposure as the most vulnerable people try to cross in the least safe locations.  Looking out at the desert, it seemed insane to try to build a wall along the entire length of the border.  What good would it do?  People in desperation always find a way over, under, or around any obstacle.  The harms, on the other hand, seem very concrete: more people dying, a massive waste of resources, and environmental degradation.  This architectural obstacle is a fool's solution to the problem of immigration, which is really caused by grinding poverty and systemic violence.  Unless we solve those root problems, erecting higher and longer walls will do nothing but hurt more people.

We spent a short time at Frontera di Cristo's offices afterwards to cool down, then attended the border vigil that Jack and Linda host every week.  They said that in all the many years they have been doing this, they have never had to hold the vigil by themselves; someone else always shows up.  That week, it was our group and a few others.  We walked down the main road leading to the border crossing and laid crosses on the sidewalk in memory of those who have died in the desert trying to reach safety in the US.  We laid over 200 crosses, but there have actually been many more deaths than that.  While we walked, it started to rain, and the smell of rain and cars was very strong.  It was the first time I had seen rain for some time, and I still remember feeling grateful for it.

We had dinner at Jack and Linda's home, then spent the night at the house of a sympathetic Border Patrol officer, who happened to be out of town and let us use his home.  As you can imagine, there are those who feel strongly that the Border Patrol does have good work to do - preventing drug and weapons smuggling, etc - and who feel that changes in their methods related to the treatment of migrants can come from within.

Our next adventure: crossing the border ourselves!  In Part III.

Want to learn more?  Read:
  • Death toll in Arizona from exposure in the desert: this map from the Humane Borders project
  • Recent news report (May 2016) on the number of deaths this year.  Despite overall lower numbers of people crossing now compared to the early 2000s, the death toll remains high relative to the number of people attempting to cross.
  • Wikipedia article on the death toll


Houston, We Have a Program - Part 3

My last week at TIP was probably the most enjoyable, since I didn't have nearly as much prep work to do while the class worked on their studio projects.  Clearly, having the class do lots of studio work is best for everyone - the students prefer it, and it's less work for me - but I stand by my decision to start them off with some background information in the form of lectures, exercises, and sketching practice.  I hope that their final projects came out better for it, although without a control group for comparison, it's hard to know.

During this week I got to go on more side trips, including to the NASA Johnson Space Center, about 45 minutes outside of Houston, and to the Natural Science Museum and the Miller Theater in Hermann Park.  Four of us went to NASA and had a great time.  Johnson Space Center has a large visitor's center with exhibits, a replica Space Shuttle that you can go into, and tram tours of the working facilities.  We chose the tour that takes you to the original Mission Control, complete with 1960s carpet and original chairs.  Somehow, I ended up in the seat once before occupied by Queen Elizabeth, making me queen for a day.  The currently-used Mission Control is located elsewhere in the building but is not part of the tour.

Another stop on the tour was a Saturn V rocket, part the "Rocket Park" exhibit of rockets.  It had its own giant warehouse-sized building so you could see it up close.  The exhibits inside the main visitor's center were half silly, half interesting; the ones on space suits and on Moon exploration were pretty good, but there were also temporary exhibits about the TV show Mythbusters and something called "Angry Birds Space."  We did not explore the latter attraction.  Outside, we checked out the replica Space Shuttle and its modified 747 carrier jet.

During the week, I skipped dinner at the dining hall to check out the Natural Science Museum on its free day.  I have to say that I was terribly disappointed with it.  I thought most of the exhibits were underwhelming, either by virtue of excessive "Disneyfication" and hyperactive lighting/audio; lack of scientific content; or poor layout and exhibition design, making them very dark and disorienting.  The Egypt exhibit was a maze filled with fake temple pieces, the Amazon exhibit was an ethnographic nightmare full of bird noises, and the dinosaur exhibit had crazy mood lighting that made it impossible to tell the difference between real dinosaur fossils and fake reconstructions.  Maybe it's impossible to tell them apart under normal lighting as well, but the purple and blue glows certainly didn't help.

And don't get me started on the "Energy" exhibit, which read like a propaganda piece on the wonders of fossil fuels.  In disbelief, I took photos of the two placards that had anything to say about alternative fuels, and wandered mouth agape through displays of drilling hardware, casino-style drilling games that encouraged you to find "Texas Tea," and a simulator that has you travel down into an oil well.  I get it - oil companies are the folks who funded the museum, together with most of Houston's cultural scene - but one would think that any self-respecting museum with "science" in the name would temper their "energy" exhibit with some more detailed mention of other energy sources (isn't solar technically the source of all the rest?) and the impacts of our current fossil fuel dependency (ie climate change).  Apparently not.  Thanks, BP America and your cousins.

After dispiritedly escaping from the museum, I ate too many tacos at a nearby restaurant, then wandered through the adjacent public garden.  There was a cool hill / labyrinth / waterfall thing that I explored.  Then I proceeded to the Miller Theater to read Jane Jacobs for an hour and a half while waiting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Some folks showed up in costume, which I appreciated, but it was really hot out, which I did not.  Finally night fell, and with the theater still nowhere near full, the movie began.  At least my fifth viewing of the film made up for the lousy start to the evening!

And with that, my exploration of Houston came to a close.  I survived the students' final reviews, parent conferences, and departure day, and headed home.  Thanks to all my students for a fun term, and good luck on your next adventures!