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Race and place come together in various ways that generate different outcomes for different people. Too often, this results in racial inequity and social injustice. And none of this happens solely at one moment in time. These outcomes are a consequence of decades, generations, and centuries of policies, practices, assumptions, and actions.

A screenshot of the gateway to Esri’s racial equity website, showing a map and a photo of people’s hands stacked on top of one another
Esri’s racial equity initiative uses the power of location intelligence to address issues that revolve around race.

Understanding entrenched inequities and injustices is complex and figuring out what to do is a daunting endeavor. But GIS is a technology that breaks down complexities and reveals patterns over space and time, which can go a long way toward guiding action. To help scholars and policymakers leverage the full power of location intelligence to address issues that revolve around race, Esri has launched a racial equity initiative.

“We have users in every sector that have expressed interest in using GIS to tackle racial equity and social justice—and that’s not to mention our users who have already been doing this work,” said Clinton Johnson, a solution architect at Esri and the racial equity team lead. “Though our efforts in this space really started about two years ago, formalizing this racial equity initiative demonstrates that Esri is stepping into those conversations more intentionally, building solutions and providing resources to help users in the United States and around the world take on long-persisting racial disparities.”

Examples of GIS applications exploring racial equity issues
Many GIS users are doing pioneering work to tackle systemic racism and the myriad problems that stem from it.

“Similar to how GIS is synonymous with environmentalism and conservation and how the technology is critical to that movement, we want GIS to be synonymous with social justice,” said Margot Bordne, an account manager who is also part of the racial equity team. “There are so many examples of this already. Many organizations, from governments to nonprofits, are doing pioneering work when it comes to addressing systemic racism and the myriad problems that stem from that. So we’re listening to their needs, learning, and working with them to make sure everything we do is grounded in best practices for racial equity.”

Much of the initiative has so far focused on looking at the range of tools already available and developing a racial equity workflow that fuses well-established best practices with GIS and location intelligence. “The four major elements of the workflow are to automate and spatially enhance community engagement, map and analyze inequities, operationalize racial equity best practices, and manage the performance of racial justice initiatives to achieve more equitable outcomes,” said Johnson. “And this cycle revolves around engaging with various stakeholders, from those who experience inequities to community organizations, partners, and leaders who are rallying together and helping to address these challenges.”

Maps are useful for visualizing racial disparities. Organizations can use their own data or curated datasets accessible through the Racial Equity GIS Hub. Analytical tools are useful for exploring practical ways to create more equitable opportunities and services for people. “If you’re trying to figure out where to place a new hospital or grocery store, you can use GIS tools to apply a racial equity lens to the site selection process,” Johnson explained. “This can help you ask questions like, Will this create benefits for communities of color or more barriers?”

Screenshot of Esri’s new racial equity website showing links to two additional resources—the Racial Equity GIS Hub and relevant data sources
Available resources include the Racial Equity GIS Hub and authoritative data sources.

For example, an organization can use GIS workflows to better understand the needs of the community it serves as well as engage with both internal and external stakeholders. Dashboards enable the organization to show clearly where inequities are and how it is actually working to enact change in those places. And map-based storytelling is a great way for the organization to formulate and share narratives that revolve around racial equity and social justice.

In addition, the Racial Equity Community Outreach solution helps government agencies communicate their progress on defined racial equity initiatives. The solution makes it easy to set up a hub to promote racial equity programs, build surveys to collect information about community sentiments, and create a dashboard that shows workforce diversity metrics.

To help build GIS skills aimed specifically at strengthening racial equity and social justice, lessons are available on the Racial Equity GIS Hub. Several lessons are rooted in health topics, such as mapping breast cancer cases by ethnicity and showing which US counties need to improve newborns’ health outcomes. Forthcoming learn lessons will likely explore activism, police reform, the digital divide, and food access.

A colorful dot density map that shows the population broken down by race in and around Los Angeles, California
Applying a racial equity lens is key to finding ways to create more equitable opportunities for people.

Esri’s racial equity team is also looking to develop solutions that help organizations build a pipeline of new job candidates by connecting them with institutions that serve underrepresented populations, including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs); tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and women’s colleges. And because businesses that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) face additional challenges from systemic and structural racism that can make it difficult to thrive, Esri plans to eventually release some tools to help promote and support BIPOC-owned ventures.

While in most cases, racial inequities are weaved into long-standing systems and structures, there are moments when people’s awareness of these social injustices peaks and public outcry demands swift action.  “This work that we’re doing is important in a different way than anything else we’ve ever focused on at Esri,” said Johnson. “We are responding to a disaster, really, and it’s one that’s entwined with so many other issues, from climate change and public health to education and the workplace. Racial equity and social justice are central to so much of what we do, so we want to provide solutions to help Esri customers around the world who are stepping in and taking action.”

Learn more about how GIS and location intelligence can help address racial inequity and social injustice. 

Featured Articles is a special section of the AAG Newsletter where AAG sponsors highlight recent programs and activities of significance to geographers and members of the AAG. To sponsor the AAG and submit an article, please contact Oscar Larson olarson [at] aag [dot] org.