Use Your Knowledge for Good: Laura Smith '90 on How a Mapping Class Sparks Change

Use Your Knowledge for Good: Laura Smith '90 on How a Mapping Class Sparks Change
Amy Barnard

Geography Professor, 
Civic Engagement Projects
Macalester College


I teach a class where geography students use their mapping skills to help real people in Minnesota.

What It Looks Like
Each year my students look for a community partner they can serve. Recently, we worked with a Saint Paul city council member to map access to early childhood education. The students did a lot of "grunt work," calling childcare centers and preschools to learn about their capacity, offerings, and tuition, and mapping those centers. Then they asked: Where are the children? What are the barriers (distance, transportation, access, cost, language, cultural needs)? What can we do to improve this system?

How Mapping Sparks Change
The students’ work helped to convince others of the need to address a long-standing problem: Access to early childhood education. A previous CEP project even made its way into a presentation in Washington, DC. 

Scroll down to see examples of these projects.

Your impact doesn't have to be global, it can be local. It doesn't have to rely on wealth, multiple degrees, or physical ability. I love maps. That's what I use to do good. Every talent, every skill, can be put to good use.


Q. You are very passionate about geography. Why is that?

Geography is about places and spatial patterns. It’s studying how people interact with their environment or affect their place, and vice versa. So it's everything, right? It's very real world, because it's both human and physical together. It's making that bridge [between the human and the physical world] and considering the intersection of humans and their environment.


Q. What exactly is a civic engagement course, and what does it have to do with geography?

Civic engagement courses are my favorite, because those are courses where I have my students partner with a community organization. It’s a place where they take their mapping skills and find a way to use those skills to assist a person or organization in our community.

A prerequisite for this class is GIS (Geographic Information Systems), where they learn to work with computer-based tools that store, visualize, analyze, and interpret geographic data. So they come with a basic understanding of how these tools work, and then they put those tools to work in a very practical way.


Q. One of your classes provided maps for ten of the eleven American Indian tribes in Minnesota. Can you explain what they did and why it was important?

One of my personal research areas is tribal land reacquisition in Minnesota. This is actually an older project that we did, but the work is still having an effect. We partnered with the ILTF, which is the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. They work nationally, but they're based in Little Canada here in the Twin Cities. Their mission is reacquisition of tribal, ancestral, and reservation lands, that is, putting lands back into American Indian hands.

For this project we had two Civic Engagement classes collect data about land tenure and map it for 10 out of the 11 tribes in Minnesota. ILTF has this daunting task of educating the public about the complexities of tribal land ownership, as well as the story of loss. You can write all day about how much land was lost from tribal ownership over history, but when you show a map of current times, where just a miniscule amount is left in tribal ownership, that's really impactful.

So ILTF wanted to harness that power of visualization to tell this story and to help tribes analyze what lands they might be able to reacquire.

This was a really big project, but it was very satisfying and successful. 

At the end of the term, the students had come through and made a map of land tenure for each of the 10 tribes, as well as all kinds of other maps, socio economic conditions, land values, all sorts of things.


Q. How were those maps used?

The ILTF still uses them in their materials and in their education. They have a curriculum about Indian land tenure for K-12 Education that they used this for.

The maps were also included on the big touchscreen display in the All My Relations gallery on Franklin Avenue.

The best outcome, though, happened just recently: both the Fond du Lac and Bois Forte Ojibwe tribes in northern Minnesota have had some successful land back agreements, and these maps were part of the materials used.

Both the Fond du Lac and Bois Forte Ojibwe tribes in northern Minnesota have had some successful land back agreements, and these maps were part of the materials used


Q. You mentioned that one of these maps even made its way to Washington, DC?

Yes, I heard from an alum that one of the maps from this project got used in a case that their dad was working on in Washington. They showed up and there was their map! They couldn’t believe it.


Q. Can you share a little more about the Early Childhood Education Maps?

Saint Paul City Council member Rebecca Noecker is very interested in improving access to early childhood education in Saint Paul. She’s been working on the Saint Paul 3K Initiative. The goal is to make high quality preschool available and affordable for all St. Paul residents, but she needed supporting data and visualizations to help her push this with the City Council.

So we gathered a lot of primary data: Where are the kids? Where is thereneed? Where are the current facilities? How much capacity do they have? There was no database with this information. The students had to call childcare centers and find out what services they offered, what their capacity was, what the cost per child was, things like that.

We looked for the mismatch of kids to childcare centers. Like, there's kids here, but no early childhood education. Here's some facilities, but they're only serving the high-income neighborhoods. We looked for those spatial inequities.

Then the students in the class mapped their findings: Where are the children? Where's the current supply? Where are the barriers (whether it's distance, transportation, access, cost, language, cultural needs)? And then we asked, what can we do to improve this system overall?

We can talk about this all the time in words, but the map has the power. The visualization is the most powerful way to tell the story.


Click on this link to see the full Saint Paul 3K project and maps.

Click here to see maps for specific wards.


Q. So what did Councilwoman Noecker  do with the student’s work?

We placed all of the information we had gathered into a quickly digestible, one page map and infographic that we made for each ward. That way, each council member had their own map and could go to their constituents and say look at this issue, we can do something about it. 


Q. What specific skills do you see students gaining from this class?

One of the biggest benefits of these types of courses for the students is not just that they're continuing to learn how to do geography, but they're learning how to communicate with communities, with organizations, and with non-academic groups. 

They're learning how to manage a project: they have a semester, and they have to deliver. So they have to figure out timelines, small group work, who's going to do what…it's a real world experience within a college classroom.

They're learning how to manage a project: they have a semester, and they have to deliver. So they have to figure out timelines, small group work, who's going to do what…it's a real world experience within a college classroom.

It's also beneficial to the students in recognizing that there's not immediate gratification…in the real world, sometimes you work on a project that doesn’t fully bear fruit for years. Often the fruit doesn’t come during the semester they are working on the project, but later, as the maps get used in the community.


Q. Talk about your vision of partnership with communities.

We want to be reciprocal. We don't want to just extract from the community or use them as a laboratory, or operate with some kind of very selfish approach. We want to be in relationship with the community and accountable to them, serving their needs and asking, where is a place our mapping skills can fill a gap?

For these projects, most communities we work with wouldn’t be able to do them on their own. They either don't have the software or don't have the skills in GIS or don't have the human power to do this much data collection, processing, and visualizing. So getting twelve to fifteen students to work on a project for them for a semester is huge, but it has to be a project they want, not something we foist on them.


Q. You are using a rather unexpected skill to do good in your community. If you were to speak to MA students about this idea of using your skills for good, what would you say?

There is great power in seemingly simple things, like making a map.

Sometimes when people say, “I want to go do good in the world,” you automatically are thinking about something huge, right? That’s global in its impact. But the local matters just as much. You can make a difference at any scale. The local is just as important as the global. If you have something that's kind of a specific or different interest (I love maps), guess what? You can do good in the world using that. You don't necessarily need wealth, multiple degrees, physical ability, or whatever. Every talent, every skill can be put to a good use.

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