Mapping Place and Possibility

In her most recent blog post, Liz Dawes Duraisingh began a rich discussion of mapping as a way of representing our world, our histories, and our stories. Continuing this conversation further, I wanted to share my own fascination with mapping and the possibilities it creates for individuals and communities. This past summer, I had the chance to go to Detroit for the Allied Media Conference (AMC)—a dynamic and energizing gathering of over 2,000 people who work at the intersections of media, arts, and activism. With special sessions on research justice and creative place-making and place-keeping, the conference sparked many new ideas that I am excited to bring back to the OOEL community. Here I’d like to focus on one of my main takeaways from AMC 2014: mapping as a way to empower, humanize, and connect.


Photo taken by Ara Howrani, at the 16th Annual Allied Media Conference

In two AMC sessions—“Counter-mapping 101” and “Good ‘Hoods: Asset-based Community Development 2.0”[1]—we began by creating maps that depicted how we got to that room that day. I chose to chart out important places in my personal trajectory, thinking through all that ultimately led me to the AMC. I grabbed purple and green markers to draw the NYC subway lines that took me from home to school and work—linking me to various communities that offered space to think, dream, take risks. As I marked out different train stations, I reflected on how I found a sense of purpose on Saturdays in the Bronx—gathered in circles with young people, talking about where we came from and what we aspired to achieve. Taking stock of my emerging map, I began to recognize the logics in my choices, experiences, and relationships. When we turned to the people beside us to talk about our maps, I was struck by how much meaningful dialogue could take place within a couple minutes of sharing. I realized that mapping had unlocked our stories.

During the workshop sessions, I learned about how people can tap into the powers of mapping to work towards equity and justice. Historically, marginalized communities have engaged maps to challenge dominant ways of knowing the world, (re-)claim ownership over how they are represented, and raise awareness about the resources they bring to challenges they might face. The maps we make can be tactical—aimed towards investigating an issue and accomplishing a particular objective—and they can also be creative—using any medium of expression, ranging from visual art to performance. Importantly, maps often emerge through collaboration: a process that can strengthen community and motivate collective action.

Over the next months, I will be developing new curriculum for Story/Space, a specialized OOEL learning journey that focuses on themes of storytelling, identity, and place. Inspired by my learning from the AMC, I’m eager to explore the ways in which mapping activities can support the growth of young people and their communities. As we have seen through students’ neighborhood maps, these exercises provide enriching opportunities for young people to share their unique worlds with others. What we have not yet explored is how mapping relates to empowerment—potentially helping students reflect on their values and goals, and take the futures of their places into their own hands.

As we look into further integrating mapping into our online learning communities, we welcome your questions, insights, and thoughts. How might mapping support the goals that you have for your students? Are there any resources on mapping that you’d like to share? What issues or stories would you like to map, and why?

 Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below, or contact me directly at

[1] “Counter-Mapping 101” was led by Lize Mogel, Our Maps/An Atlas of Radical Cartography; Chris Schweidler, Research Action Design and the Research Justice Collective; and Jessica McInchak; Kat Hartman; Laura Harjo, University of New Mexico. “Good ‘hoods: Asset-based Community Development” was led by Christina D. Brown, Impossibilitarian, Scholactivists; Ekundayo Igeleke, New Aboltionist Assocation, Scholactivists; John Arroyo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Aditi Mehta, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating conference, Jessica. This is important work for reasons too numerous to go into here. As far as mapping resources that I think are important to share, here goes….

    A few years ago, I taught local narrative history project using (among other things) Sanborn Fire maps . We accessed those Sanborn maps through our local university’s rare books collection My students and I wound up publishing a history of our school .

    Another resource on mapping that everyone should check out is the teacher resources at the National Archives . These educational resources can support storytelling and identities for entire regions and communities

    Finally there is some wonderful work being done on mapping history under the direction of the fine people at the National Archives “Docs Teach” program

    Best of luck in your work.

  2. Hmm. The links weren’t added in my comment above:
    Sanborn Fire Maps:
    Rare books collection at the University of Utah:
    My students’ history of our school:
    Teacher resources at the National Archives:
    “Docs Teach” Mapping History program at the National Archives:

  3. Hi Chris – These resources are wonderful. It’s really fascinating to see the possibilities of mapping and spatial thinking/analysis through the approaches of various disciplines. Also, how exciting that your students ultimately published a book based on their local narrative history project! What a testament to the power of students as producers of knowledge, particularly in their local communities. Thanks so much for sharing this work. Best of luck in all you do, Jessica

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