The Power of “Youth Mapping”

At the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.  While most people focus on the conclusion, to me, the most powerful part of the message resides in the first two minutes.  Dr. King explains that he and the throngs of people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial had come to the nation’s capital to cash a check for the people of color in this country.  However, America defaulted on the promissory note and instead gave them a check marked “Insufficient Funds.” Forty-two years later, the American government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath made it abundantly clear that the balance was still due.

The events of the last week of August 2005 had a profound effect on my life and my mission.  I felt a powerful need to help in the rebuilding effort and to assist in the revitalization of New Orleans.  However, I wanted whatever I was involved in to be community-led and meaningful to residents of the city.  Three months earlier I had accepted a position as the project director of Youthline America, an organization dedicated to providing young people with the tools to organize and advocate for themselves and their communities.

As Youthline America expanded and engaged communities around the country in resource mapping projects, mapping in New Orleans was always a priority for me.  Mapping is the process of empowering youth to discover the resources available to them and providing them with the tools to advocate and organize around their needs. With the countless stories of the youth of New Orleans looking to reclaim their identity, mapping seemed like a perfect fit.

One Saturday in February 2009, 25 youth mapped their first neighborhood in New Orleans.  I had high hopes for that day but I also knew the conditions that we all faced.  For example, during mapping we discovered that a very prominent youth recreation center was not open for use by the community on a Saturday.  While our staff and partners were outraged, the young people did not see it as a problem.  Over the course of that day and throughout mapping, they discovered that they deserved better and began to demand it.

Due to an amazing collaboration with the Afterschool Partnership of Greater New Orleans and the hard work of 75 young people throughout the city, mapping was completed a year later and the neworleans.ilivehere.info website was launched, highlighting over 1,000 resources collected, vetted and maintained by the youth and the community.  With this information, advocacy has begun, led by the youth of New Orleans, working towards collecting the balance due people of color in this country.  The incredible work being done on the ground led me to relocate to New Orleans to become more actively involved in the work and to assist in taking the work to the next stage.

With support from the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the youth of New Orleans were able to take their experience and knowledge of mapping to Jackson, Mississippi, working with The Young People’s Project.  The mappers in Jackson were trained by the youth from New Orleans.  This knowledge transfer was led by youth actively involved in mapping from the beginning of the New Orleans project.  The knowledge and experience gained through this mapping initiative will further strengthen the work in New Orleans and is a key step to our goal of mapping the entire Gulf Coast.

While I am energized by the work of the young people in all of Youthline’s projects, the work in New Orleans and Jackson especially resonates with me because it is creating a cadre of organizers and advocates in a birthplace of the civil rights movement and in a place that was abandoned by our government in its time of need.  These empowered young people will be the leaders of a new throng who will also descend on Washington, D.C. but this time I believe the check will be cashed. Thank you, Dr. King.

3 Comments

As director of Green Map System, I am especially delighted to read this blog post. Since 1998, we have been working with youth of all backgrounds, helping them share discoveries of their community's ecological, social justice, cultural and sustainability resources through Green Mapmaking.

We continue to be amazed at the power of Green Mapmaking to express and engage a sense of appreciation and responsibility for one's home place. A recent example that uses our interactive social mapping platform and video to capture Red
Hook Brooklyn's past, present and future can be seen at http://GreenMap.org/consulting/youth. Short videos about youth-led Green Maps in several countries can be found at http://GreenMap.org/youthmedia.

Whether participating in an 'all-ages' community Green Map project, utilizing our free modules (see http://GreenMap.org/youth) with a school
class or after school club, or creating a mural or a folding map, Green Map resources can change the way youth see and respond to their home towns!

Thanks, Wendy, for your post about the power of youth mapping. The process is such a dynamic youth development and educational organizing tool that it should be a part of the school curriculum!

Shawn, thank you as well! We would be delighted to talk further with you about our adaptable curriculum tools designed for a variety of learning objectives, school environments and students' needs. Perhaps we can create something new together for your program.

If you are ready to get started on your first Green Map, please click http://GreenMap.org/join and register - or download our Energy & Environment Exploration Modules at http://GreenMap.org/youth (as mentioned above).

Add your voice