On July 23, 2019, TRL hosted a Map Room event for Prof. Krystal Strong’s Re/Member Black Philadelphia Project, which brought undergraduates and graduate students from Penn and students from the School District of Philadelphia into conversation about maps, resource disparity, and Philadelphia. The mapping workshop was taught by myself and Girmaye Misgna, the Mapping and Geospatial Data Librarian.

The Re/Member Black Philadelphia is a mutli-modal digital scholarship and community archiving project geared toward recovering and documenting the lived experiences and diverse histories of the city’s Black and African diasporic residents. Over the course of this summer and fall, in collaboration with RBP, student media makers from high schools across Philadelphia will be created micro-documentaries that investigate and interrogate changes in their own respective neighborhoods.

For the RBP map room, we some important decisions about the learning outcomes we desired for our intergenerational group of participants (high school, undergraduate and graduate students and adult learners). We selected the Collaborative Classroom, whose adaptive layout allowed us to have four simultaneous workspaces where participants to work in small groups. Rather than projecting the map from overhead, we projected the maps directly onto the whiteboards.

Mapping as an exercise of power…

Most likely, you’ve interacted with a map in the last 24 hours. Every day, they help us make decisions about where to go and how to get there. They are integral to the ways we both occupy and navigate space, and their regularity in our day-to-day lives give them the aura of neutrality. But maps are anything but. They reflect a particular historical, political, and social worldview. Their inclusions and exclusions make powerful claims about what is and is not important. Maps are powerful instruments, they are used to construct meaning and can have very real implications for our lived experiences.

Consider these two maps? What can they tell us about both the assumed users and the map maker? 

The map on the left has the Pacific Ocean as its focus and therefore prominently features Asia, the South Pacific and Australia. This maps is commonly used in classrooms in those regions, particularly in Modern China. The right is the Atlantic-centered map we commonly see here in the Western Hemisphere.

How about this one? What is being communicated by the scale relative to one another?

The Peters World Map presents countries in their true proportion to one another, and has been adopted by the UN, aid agencies, and businesses for its more accurate depiction of Africa and South America, which are often much too small in traditional map projections. Its important to note that the traditional world map we often see, was prominently influenced by 16th century cartographic practices, invented to support the growth of European empire.

Mapping: An interactive practice…

In the second portion of our day, we annotated a map of Philadelphia. We asked where the students lived, where they went to school, how they got around, where they spent the most time, and other locations of significance. The student marked down sites that are significant to them, their friends, and their families. Here’s some of the data collected: 13 educational institutions, over two dozen residences, 6 restaurants/eateries, 1 skating rink, 3 grocery stores, 2 movie theaters, and 1 convenience store.  

We then used ArcGIS data layers to show some of the historic ways the same geographic area had been annotated. The layers offered new ways to visualize the city and by viewing both maps simultaneously, students began to connect how different structures and systems have informed where they live, how they move around the city, and what they do and don’t have access to. 

Using redlining maps, the students began to connect the discriminatory practices that dissuade investment in certain neighborhoods and the prevalence of food deserts in Philadelphia. Most of the participants lived further than a mile from a supermarket, farmers market, or health food provider. Another showed that toxic waste sites were spread all over the city, some disturbingly close to educational institutions and new development projects.

The day was full of lively discussion, and generated new ways to see the city in which we all worked, studied and lived. Want to learn more about how a map room might be incorporated into your course curriculum? TRL will be having a Map Room training session on Thursday August 15 at 2:30 pm outside of the Collaborative Classroom (VP 113).

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