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in a world where the world ends at the end of your block…

March 18, 2011

"the chief" she was a big influence in the early years of my personal geography construction

the title of this post is the opening line to a song by p.o.s. (head here to see/hear the song ) and is also the foundation of an aspect of geography that i’m pretty passionate about.  there’s a lot of programs out there geared towards preventing the world from ending at the end of someone’s (particularly kids) block.  whether we realize it or not this is often the crucial component of programs like outward bound, or the many programs that have popped up around the world that take kids from the inner cities and favelas (and their non brazilian equivalents) out surfing.  is it to empower them?  to try to get them stoked on surfing and to get them to spend their time surfing instead of running drugs and gang banging?  for sure.  but what it’s really about is broadening their personal geographies, and their geographical imaginations.  it’s about sparking curiosity and showing them that the world doesn’t end at the end of their block.

i was first introduced to the concepts of personal geographies and geographical imaginations in 2005 via a lecture by carolyn finney but i actually didn’t become super interested in them until a few years later while taking a youth and social justice class in the sociology department.  it was one story, one paragraph even, in a book we were reading called the road to whatever:  middle-class culture and the crisis of adolescence by elliott currie.  i highly recommend it.  they interviewed a lot of kids who had at one point or another taken a very high risk path.  some were still on that path, some were dead, some were finding their way off and a a few had successfully moved on.  one of the success stories was a young girl and when asked about what had woken her up, made her change her life, she replied that it was a book about a young woman in india.  the book piqued her curiosity, it opened a door to some unobtainable  fairy tale world but to a very real world, to the world she lived on, no matter how far removed she was from india.  the girl realized how much was out there to explore and to do, how many people out there whose experiences she could relate to.

this sparked in me a desire to look at how we build our personal geographies and our geographical imaginations and how they manifest in our lives.  it turns out that not only are we natural born makers but we are natural born mappers and geographers as well.  according to an article* i came across regarding geographic learning, “cross-cultural and developmental research on the untaught mapping abilities of children aged five through ten suggests that mapping behavior is a normal and important process in human development, and that map learning begins long before the child encounters formal geography and cartography… ”

so from an early age not only are we creating reference points for our physical location, and the location of things of importance in our life relative to that location, but also our roles within those geographies.  so what sorts of things most strongly impact how we see the world and how we see our place in that world?  it admittedly involves a bit more psychology and sociology than i’m able to be excited about but…i’m hoping to find collaborators.  certainly traveling outside of our neighborhood, physically experiencing the larger world around us, is a huge and obvious one.  but this is not an opportunity that is available to everyone, and as resources (particularly fossil fuels) dwindle it’s going to be available to an even more privileged few.  so what are the other ways in which we build these geographies?  the ones that don’t require so much money and resources?  even if you can’t physically go past  the end of your block…how can you mentally?  how can you relate and identify to a world you have no first hand experience of?  how can you imagine it, and how can you imagine your place in it?  how do changing and expanding personal geographies and geographic imaginations change how we see and identify with the world around us?  i’m particularly interested in how youth are impacted and influenced.  but not exclusively.  i assume at some point we will do a month on labor/work and i will probably post a link to this again then but it also feels appropriate for this post.  it’s a pretty awesome (i think) photo project called “to be” and, well, just go here and scope it out for yourself.

i’d initially had the idea to start a project that had kids building “geography journals.”  essentially books filled with words and pictures (their own or clipped from other places) that they created that might reflect how they see the world at various scales, and themselves within those worlds.  my idea is to have them doing entries for their family, neighborhood, their city or town, their state, region, country, etc…slowly expanding the scale.  after seeing the “to be” project i think it would also be really interesting to have the kids do the same thing…have them set up a portrait.  ideally it would be a project that would span a few years…it could follow a similar pattern to the itbs (i can’t believe i just referenced that retarded and dreaded standardized test)…working on the project throughout the year in odd grade years.  or even years.  essentially every other year, to see how their ideas of the world around them changed (via the creation of the journals) and also how their view of their place within that world changed (via both setting up a portrait and their journal).

obviously one of the questions that i’m curious about is what are the impacts of these personal geographies and of someone’s particular geographic imagination.  i’m convinced, primarily through personal experience and first hand observation, that they are important.  i don’t have “proof” per say, and there’s not a lot that i’m particularly stubborn about, not a lot i’m sure of…but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that they don’t matter.  you could throw all the data and research and numbers in the world at me proving that they don’t matter…i’m probably not gonna believe you.  this goes against my scientific and logical nature but i’ve found that “data” and “facts” are not necessarily “proof” for or against anything.  for a long time we had “data” and “proof”  both refuting and supporting climate change (we still do)…but let’s face it, first hand experience has trumped all that.  and on the topic of the importance of personal geographies and geographic imaginations, first hand experience tells me that they matter…that they are important aspects of our lives and the journeys we take.  i’m convinced, though again i have no concrete proof outside of my own observations and experiences, that these geographies manifest themselves in our ability to show compassion, to empathize, to relate, to imagine, to care, to function on a human level in an increasingly globalized and conflicted world.

this is a journey and project i haven’t really officially begun…and by officially i mean scholastically or academically.  it’s something i think about a lot…when i’m working with kids, when i’m traveling, observing people, when i’m reading, listening to music…i’m constantly scheming.  what are the experiences that most impact someone’s construction of their geographies?  i don’t by any means think that we are all equally impacted by the same experiences…but i would guess that we could track down a collection of experiences that most impact us, particularly youths.  i’m quite certain we could find some way to quantify geographic imaginations and personal geographies…we could give kids tests.  but i’d rather let them build journals…we tend to convey experience more aptly through words and images than through filling in bubbles or answering questions.  my goal would be to insert particular experiences into the kids’ lives and to see if, and how, those journals change after those experiences.  if we have them do service learning projects both inside and outside of their neighborhoods, if someone goes on a family or school trip, if we study and listen to various kinds of music, if we read and discuss events in other parts of the world, if we read stories (both fiction and non) that happen both locally and on a broader scale, even as we study more typical location based geographies…how do the journals change…how does how we visualize the world around us and our place in it change?

like making, mapping is something that, based on the research i’ve tromped through, is innate.  this desire to both make and to begin mapping, to begin attempting to quantify and qualify the world around us and our place within it, starts at a very early age.  we are born makers and also born geographers and i believe these are traits that need to be nurtured and that environments need to be geared towards allowing and encouraging both activities in schools and at home.  but we need to know what experiences, what activities are most influential in building our geographies.

i know for me there are certain reference points that i am keenly aware of but i’m sure there’s many others that i’m unaware of.  i’ve always been a reader and a music listener and i know that books i read and music i heard when i was younger certainly had an impact (though admittedly for awhile this reading was dominated primarily by hardy boys, encyclopedia brown, and archie comics).  i know that listening to my dad’s bluegrass music as well as my own rap music raised curiosities in my mind.  tagging along on my dad’s kayaking trips, spending easters at the back country ranch managed by aunt and uncle, watching and playing where in the world is carmen san diego (we need to bring that show back, though admittedly it will never be the same without lynne thigpen.  and while we’re at it remake that computer game, preferably in 3d.  and also while we’re at that i’d be game for some oregon trail in 3d), looking at the pictures in national geographic and smithsonian magazines, building lego lands (i know this sounds weird but i really do think it played an important role in my ability to imagine other places), watching 60 minutes on sundays with my dad (though i remember being oddly terrified by the show…i recall it being a “scary” show), various pbs programs (we lived in the boonies, we only got cbs and pbs), romping around our home and a friend’s home on moscow mountain, playing at our family farm…and  in more recent times books by amitav ghosh (particularly the hungry tide and the glass palace), taiko drumming (and music in general), food, southeast asian martial arts, the articles in the previously mentioned national geographic and smithsonian magazines, travel, surfing, and more than anything, the ymca expedition club, have all been a part of creating my personal geography.

the castle lego system, particularly the forestmen sets, were by far my favorite.

that’s enough.  in quick closing i’d like to share some info in regards to the ymca expedition club that i mentioned above.  it’s a huge part of my life, as well as sam’s, and perhaps more than any other event in our lives has led us to where we currently find ourselves.  we both started out as student participants before becoming team leaders and i think both of us are looking forward immensely to our future roles with the program.  i won’t go into detail because this post is already long enough and because just the thought of trying to explain overwhelms me and induces a clammy palmed anxiety attack.  words and images will always be inadequate.  that being said i’d at least like to introduce you to it now and hopefully over time sam and i will be able to begin to build on this introduction.  so to learn more about it head to the ymca expedition club website and also check out this article:  expy club which is a nice introduction to the program.


*J.M. Blaut and David Stea.  Studies of Geographic Learning. Annals of the Association of American Geographers.  Vol 61, No 2. p387-393.

One Comment leave one →
  1. samnowak permalink
    March 19, 2011 12:25 am

    Cheyenne…this is a great post. it has soul. I absolutely agree with the carmen san diego thing…also…the forestmen were my favorite too. although they were a little before my time. they popped up every once in though and when they did i was always super stoked. like hanging out with guys from an era past. rare…anyways. excellent post.

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