The news of the latest mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton sent shock waves through me as I read the reports from the comfort of my location on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Although these words are awful to write, the truth is that the sheer number of mass shootings in the US – 32 this year alone – has given me a case of news fatigue.
But these shootings struck a chord.
Only a few short months ago, I completed the design of the exhibition, America the Borderland, for the Moral Courage Project, created by the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center and PROOF: Media for Social Justice.
The project saw postgraduate students of the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center travel to El Paso, the Texan border town, to gather stories from a range of people who advocate for the rights of immigrants. These stories, and the photos that accompany them, were brought together for the exhibition, which opened at the University of Dayton in April, before travelling to El Paso in July.
Fast forward to this week, and it would be easy to conclude that such education is powerless in the face of assault rifles and the laws that make ownership of them relatively easy in the U.S. – particularly given the further irony that these two communities experienced the same unimaginable crime within 24 hours of each other. But if the racially motivated mass shooting in El Paso (and still yet to be determined motivation in Dayton) has anything to tell us, it’s that now is not the time to stop, back down, or let geography segregate us. As the students wrote in the exhibition, “Solidarity demands approaching others not as strangers and not as neighbors, but as extensions of our own spirit and flesh: worthy, dignified, real.”
It’s a reminder of the role we can all play in humanising the dehumanised, giving voice to the silenced, and offering opportunities for strangers to come to know each other, as an educational experience or as a visitor to an exhibition.
The Roman Catholic bishop of El Paso, Bishop Mark J. Seitz, said in a statement released on 3 August, “In the last several months, the borderlands have shown the world that generosity, compassion and human dignity are more powerful than the forces of division. The great sickness of our time is that we have forgotten how to be compassionate, generous and humane. Everything is competition. Everything is greed. Everything is cold. Tenderness and the love that knows no borders are crucified in a whirlwind of deadly self-seeking, fear and vindictiveness.”
In America the Borderland, these sentiments are echoed by those fighting to return deported veterans, reunite families, provide legal support and bridging opportunities for the community at large. El Paso, in many ways, is an example of what the coal face of ‘generosity, compassion and human dignity’ looks like.
Programs like the Moral Courage Project are important because they teach those heading into future leadership positions that compassion is key to a peaceful world. More than this, education in human rights, social justice, storytelling and design is also key to solving problems, and can help to shape better policy. These projects, in turn, shape my own teaching here in Australia, as I encourage up and coming designers to consider the politics of representation, and lead with empathy.
Today, my heart goes out to those in Dayton and El Paso in equal measure. The words of Ruben Garcia, whose story was included in America the Borderland, is a calm but potent reminder that compassion is best understood as a verb.
“The people continue to be my motivation. It’s really important that I as an individual, I as a member of this community, I as a member of the United States, do not allow forces to take away the humanity. If we lose that, I’m not sure that there will be anything left of our souls.”
Willhemina Wahlin is a Lecturer in Design at Charles Sturt University, Port Macquarie, and Creative Director of PROOF: Media for Social Justice. The Moral Courage Project is led by Dr Joel Pruce at the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center and Leora Kahn, Executive Director of PROOF: Media for Social Justice, New York.