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Smiling woman against treesWe’re celebrating the accomplishments of geographers during Geography Awareness Week (November 14-20) and beyond. Find out more about this year’s theme, “The Future Is Here: Geographers Pursue the Path Forward” at our GeoWeek StoryMap, and follow the celebration at #GeoWeek or #GeoWeek2021. 

Sophia Garcia, the GIS and Outreach Director for Redistricting Partners in Sacramento, CA, understands how maps can start necessary conversations. In her current role, she sees redistricting efforts and community involvement as the “perfect intersection of talking about community, uplifting the community and letting them know what’s happening.” In her work she focuses on the imperative that we bring light to the redistricting process, engage communities, and empower them to get involved. 

Garcia graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from Wellesley College in 2015, and now works for Redistricting Partners from her base in Bakersfield, California. Garcia came to her current role from her previous work as a GIS Analyst for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, where she saw firsthand how she could uplift the work of her colleagues and community organizers through  mapping. GIS software has great potential to start a dialogue and Garcia knows that “data is more than just numbers; there’s a story behind what’s happening.” 

“Data is more than just numbers; there’s a story behind what’s happening.” – Sophia Garcia 

Although she grew up with a father who worked in the GIS field (she attended her first ESRI User Conference when she was 10 years old, and mainly remembers the refreshments), Garcia did not see the full potential of GIS until college. Along with her classmates, she was tasked with figuring out how people living in a certain census block could do something sustainable surrounding food and grocery shopping. After knocking on doors and having conversations with people in the neighborhood, she found that not everyone had access to the nearest grocery store because of factors such as affordability, distance, and access to transportation.   

Woman in hardhat, paddling a raft
In addition to her work with GIS and redistricting, Sophia is a skilled rafter and rafting guide.

Because of the geographic nature surrounding the factors of access to food and sustainability, Garcia had an “aha moment” and realized the stories of everyone she had talked to could be conveyed using a map. She started to work with GIS on the project, and eventually went on to intern with the GIS departments in Kern County to learn more about the different ways that the departments utilized GIS. 

At Redistricting Partners, Garcia has been very successful in using mapping technologies and outreach to emphasize the real-world implications of redistricting, and advocate for a more fair process. She was part of the group that sparked the passage of the California Assembly Bill No. 849, which mandates rules to increase transparency in the redistricting process in cities and counties across California. This bill, which Garcia hopes to see similarly implemented in other parts of the country, requires localities to have specific redistricting websites and mandates redistricting to be talked about during long public meetings, among other components. 

When asked how younger geographers can explore new, interdisciplinary possibilities in geography, Garcia urges them to find a project they are passionate about and make use of mapping technology which is often available from ESRI to college and K-12 students. She recognizes that you can categorize pretty much any data geographically, and urges young geographers to “find whatever you’re passionate about, or mad about, or excited about, and learn to map it, make it as a poster, share it with someone, and you can have a discussion about it.”