Civil Rights Featured Theme of 2017 Geography Awareness Week: A Call for Participation
Established by a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1987, Geography Awareness Week (GAW) is observed the third week in November every year. GAW promotes what geography is, why it is important, and the relevance of a geographic education in preparing citizens to understand and debate pressing social and environmental issues and problems. This year’s celebration is November 12-18, marking the 30th birthday of what has become an important tradition in our discipline.
National Geographic’s Network of Alliances for Geographic Education recently met in Washington DC and designated “The Geography of Civil Rights Movements” as a featured theme for the 2017 Awareness Week. The American Association of Geographers (AAG), the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), the American Geographical Society (AGS), and the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) have endorsed this focus on civil rights. The AAG’s endorsement is consistent with its long time initiative to mainstream human rights within the study of geography. It is hoped that other organizations will lend their support in the coming months.
Our remarks offer some thoughts on this bold and progressive decision made by the Network of Alliances. We encourage colleagues—both within the K-12 and higher education realms—to embrace this initiative and teach civil rights in broad and critical ways within communities, schools, and colleges. We end this piece by calling for the creation and dissemination of pedagogical innovations necessary to make the upcoming Geography Awareness Week a success.
The theme of civil rights is a timely choice in 2017. The past few years have seen numerous milestone anniversaries of major civil rights campaigns and victories. Ironically, hate groups are on the rise and highly publicized incidents of racialized violence dominate the news—suggesting that civil rights movements remain a salient and necessary fact of life rather than just pieces of history. In addition, recent studies have documented the uneven and frequently missing place of civil rights education within the standards and curriculum of many public school systems within the United States. The same critique could be lodged against many of the introductory geography textbooks used in our universities.
A civil rights-themed Geography Awareness Week can be an important moment, especially during these turbulent political times, to come to terms with the nation’s unreconciled legacies of oppression and domination. These legacies are not just of academic importance; they frame heated, ongoing public debates over citizenship, opportunity and survivability within society and thus have real life consequences for people and places. These consequential legacies are felt in our own discipline. Despite admirable recruitment efforts, geography continues to struggle to attract and resonate with under-represented groups. Fully embracing diversity and inclusion requires action beyond mere representation but rather engaging these legacies at core intellectual and pedagogical levels. GAW 2017 offers us a key opening to reconsider what and who we think is important within geography.
Geographers are well equipped to document and analyze the development, spread, and distribution of civil rights issues and movements across communities and regions. Following the lead of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, we can leverage GIS and other tools to carry out a counter-mapping of stories and sites of social struggle, oppression, and resistance that are normally ignored in mainstream media, educational and tourism accounts. Geography Awareness Week offers a powerful opportunity to engage our students in a hands-on reconstruction and interpretation of civil rights geographies found in their own cities, states, and campuses—all of which is important in creating the empathy and solidarity necessary for them to ask critical questions about their own positions of privilege and marginality within networks of social power.
But geography can do more than speak to where civil rights struggles occurred. The geographic building blocks of social life—e.g., location, landscape, movement, sense of place, global interdependence, and the natural environment—are fundamental to how rights become materialized and realized within daily lives. The claiming of spaces, spatial processes, and resources underlie the broader processes of discrimination or equality. Geographers are poised to examine civil rights beyond strict questions of political access to consider a wide array of terrains of social and spatial struggle—from transportation racism to water and food security, from the prison industrial complex to energy poverty, from place naming rights to the right to housing, from climate justice to gender equality.
By focusing on civil rights, educators can shed valuable light on the historical and contemporary struggles of people of color, contributing to a growing focus on Black Geographies in our discipline. Yet, the efficacy of the new Awareness Week theme requires that we recognize that civil rights movements are by their very nature plural and do not represent a monolithic experience. For example, the African American struggle for freedom, which has been effectively reduced in the popular mind to a single, top-down national story of civil rights, demands to be re-conceptualized and taught as a collection of struggles operating at different scales and involving diverse activists, ideologies, and tactics of resistance. Particularly important is exploring the role of local, ordinary people—including youth, women, and LGBTQ people—as civil rights activists and strategists and not just the foot soldiers of “the Movement.”
Civil rights movements encompass a wide range of historically marginalized social actors and groups—found both in the United States and internationally—who have faced and fought discrimination on the basis of age, class, disability, ethnicity, gender, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. For example, the social justice struggles of immigrants, indigenous populations, women, the poor, and workers should have a prominent place in Geography Awareness Week. Importantly, the teaching of civil rights is not confined to examining and celebrating past movements but can and should examine the geographic dimensions of contemporary struggles for social, economic, political, and environmental justice.
It is also necessary to help our students understand how the oppression/resistance of one disenfranchised community is tied interdependently—spatially and socially—with the struggles and identities of other groups. This prompts a sober discussion of how the forces of inequality, racism, and injustice have been foundational to the world system we have today rather than merely an aberration from the geographic and social norm. Awareness Week offers a space for civil rights to be taught as set of processes and practices that matter to all of us and shape all of our geographies rather than reducing it to an abstract concept, a single moment of protest, or a narrowly defined group of people or interests.
Recognizing that civil rights and social justice will be new territory for some of us in geographic education, we encourage the members of the AAG and NCGE to begin developing relevant programs, lessons, and resources for November 12-18, 2017. The Kansas Geographic Alliance, located at Kansas State University, has graciously agreed to assemble a web resource to share lessons, resources, and ideas related to building and disseminating materials for the GAW 2017. Those who wish to contribute should email the materials to Tommy Larsen at tblarsen [at] ksu [dot] edu. These collected resources will be important in making civil rights a year-long initiative and (re)claiming it as a geographic concept and tradition.
Derek H. Alderman
Vice President of AAG
University of Tennessee
Chair of AAG Black Geographies Specialty Group
Middle Tennessee State University