Monday, June 08, 2009

Popular Education Bookshelf - 4: Community Mapping

Community mapping is a practice that seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. This 'zine, featured here (it's a 4 meg PDF), is the project of a graduate student at York University. Hannah Lewis is in the process of researching community mapping practices in Canada and she has turned up an amazing diversity of practices and theory. Research from which i am learning a great deal.

In 1986 i learned about the Ah Hah! Seminar, a popular education method developed by GATT-Fly, a Toronto-based, ecumenical, economic justice group. Ah Hah! drawing is a method of representing the experiences of workshop participants by developing a large picture on the wall. Like all popular education methods it is a means of democratic dialogue, analysis, and action planning. I have always loved this method and practiced it for many years. But i kept coming up against the same problem: for the method required that the participants share a common class identity, i.e. they were all workers for the industry (e.g. fishing, forestry), or they were all people on social assistance or poor, and so on. Whenever the group was mixed (i.e. so-called middle class, upper middle class and poor and/or workers) it proved almost impossible to agree on where various economic actors belonged in terms of where to put them in the picture. The complexities of the mix of economic locations (i.e. class) proved too great to be represented with Ah Hah! drawing. Now, that was in the late 80s and ealry 90s before neoliberalism had really started to reshape the Canadian economy in earnest. I wonder what things would look like now? Here's a couple of articles from that time about the Ah Hah Seminar:
And here's a couple of pictures i stumbled on of Dennis Howlett (one of the creators of the Ah Hah seminar) leading an anti-poverty workshop:
As i've learned about community mapping i have come to see Ah Hah drawing as one method of a large set of participatory mapping processes. Thanks in large part to Hannah i now know dozens of examples of community mapping (a surprising number in British Columbia) and we are now part of a couple of projects here in Toronto applying community mapping to the situation of food security in various neighbourhoods.

As Hannah writes in her 'zine: "Maps are powerful. Maps have interests or an argument to make. Maps are socially constructed." There exists, not surprisingly, a massive literature on mapping. But i would risk the educated guess that it is a literature largely devoted to understanding how to wield this tool in the interests of the powerful. But, while community mapping is still a young practice, a significant aspect of the practice is the challenging of dominant power relationships. Some community mapping uses the new technologies of GIS (geographic information systems) and GoogleMapping - technologies that require a fair amount of training. Though not to exclude popular use of such technologies, my interest in community mapping is as a popular education tool - one that is committed to resisting oppression, promoting critical thinking, building solidarity amongst the powerful, developing popular knowledge. Here's a couple of sites devoted to community mapping:
A closely-related practice, if somewhat different, is asset mapping, most strongly represented by the work of Asset Based Community Development in Chicago. This practice has also been picked up and developed by the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. And here's an excellent article by Alison Mathie and Gord Cunningham (also available as a PDF here). Finally, here's a description of asset mapping from a youth conference site: Capable City.

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