Changing the Map: Foundational Practices for Youth Civic Hacking

by Eve Tulbert


Students at the Whitney Young Eco-Fair design green transportation game in a Freedom Games workshop.

As a community-based researcher interested in ecology and environmental learning, I have been collecting strategies that get youth talking about their surroundings.  This short talk was prepared for Public Allies Community Innovator’s Circle, Summer 2013…

This summer, Freedom Games is creating a design laboratory for youth in order to answer this question: How can kids learn science and serve the Earth in parks, wild lands, and recreation sites?  We want to bring STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts/design and math) home to the tree outside your window and to the park down the block.

Having access to a map–and the right to change it– is the beginning of all social change moments.  When we have a map, we can use it to make complex decisions about our pathways, our food ways, our waterways and our built habitats.  These patterns are often taken for granted before we study the map out and try to suss out how a system works. From photography to site mapping, these projects engage our knowledge of maps–but not the just the map of the Cartesian plane.  There are also experience maps, maps of design and desire, maps of story lines and social exchange.

With today’s mobile web technology, we have become the first generation to carry the map of the world map with us always.  Like Atlas, who balanced the Globe upon his shoulders, we must consider the obligation we have when we see and interact with the whole world map all at once.  We know that our everyday habits and routines are liable to impact those far away places…that have suddenly become much closer.

​How can place-building, map-reading, and impacting our cities become playful and engaging practices?  These innovative artists, designers, and community leaders show us how.


Get Every Voice Involved

Participatory Rural Appraisal is a widely practiced set of development tools that allows communities to map out and re-imagine the impact of a public works idea or agrarian plans.  Urban artists and design innovators add new twists on the practice, getting communities involved with personal narrative and imagination.​


Site cake map, by Public Workshop.

​​Public Workshop (Philadelphia) has an excellent approach to the problem of site analysis. Pull out a table on the sidewalk and get some easily available materials.  Let the passers by in the neighborhood record their experiences as they build a site map together…a map that they can then eat.  (Any recipes for a healthier version with less carbs?)

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I wish installation, Candy Chang.

​Candy Chang is a New Orlean’s based artist and designer who has recently gained notoriety her compelling talk “Before I Die” on the TED network.  Her simple yet evocative solutions could be used in any public planning process.  Chang places blank stickers, placards, and chalk boards on abandoned wall space to create community conversation; topics range from rent prices, wishes for empty storefronts, and intimate dreams.   Through her simple, effective strategies, the walking public can connect in new ways with the process of urban planning.

TRY THIS:  Does your organization or school have a mis-used or under-used space?  Let youth cover one wall with post-it notes stating what they wish the space could be.  Collect community resources (not just money, but skilled helpers and material donations) to change the space.


Use a Camera, Map a Network

Creative community development relies on the buy-in of local change makers.  Use asset mapping strategies and ask this:  Who are the leaders in the community, and how do you identify valuable expertise that can contribute to a successful, beneficial change?  This is a critical kind of mapping activity–mapping a social network in a place.

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Check out Photovoice’s photo gallery to see more pictures from this and other projects.  

“Photo-voice” as a community mapping tool can be traced back to the fields of rural China.  There, women were given cameras in order to explain child-care problems with work in the rice industry.  Having a camera to document the landscape allowed illiterate, marginal women to participate in a new way in the rural development process.  Through photography, discussion, and pointed advocacy, the rice workers became seen as mothers with power, not just hidden agricultural workers.

​The tool has been used all over the world as a strategy for giving young people a visual voice–through documentation, discussion, and advocacy, young people can use photo-voice to understand conundrums that they face everyday.  In the above photographs, teen photographer Aparicio Martinez documents life for displaced indigenous teens.  By partnering with Amnesty International, these photographs help to make a map around needs for improved human rights and land tenure.

TRY THIS:  Buy a cheap digital camera and allow each participant in your program to take five to ten pictures on it.  Create a photo voice worksheet, asking your photographers to answer specific questions with their photographs, such as “what do you see as the best asset in this community?”  “What is your biggest challenge in this space / neighborhood?”  Then, collect all of the photographs together and project them on the wall.  Have participants discuss and comment on the emerging themes.  Create a set of key word tags and publish the collection on a photo sharing site.  Use this information to design a new program or to advocate for a policy change that the group wants to see.  Data can be easily quantified from photo-mapping strategies if it is coded.


​Use Video to Spread the Story

​Participatory Video is a practice that engages community members in story-telling about the landscape in order to impact a practice and spread an idea.  It has been used to spread grassroots innovation in permaculture and land maintenance (such as “how to plant mangroves to stop erosion in Mexico”).  it has also been used to spread information to the international community when dams or mining projects threaten indigenous tenure, leading to displacement.


Insight Share trains communities around the world in protecting and preserving land through video making and screening.  To view some of their videos, click here.  

The practice has impact if communities have tools to continue to spread, view and make videos, and insert their voices into the political dialogue over their land.

TRY THIS:  Create a video that can impact the environment.  Identify a local stake-holder community (such as moms that leave car engines running while picking up kids).  Now, create short, instructional promotional videos and share them.  Document the impact of the videos through behavior changes you witness.​


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