The Serious Business of Public Communication

If you have not yet examined the AAG Long Range Plan, 2015-2025, then I encourage you to do so. It provides a useful update on the Association’s progress since its 2002 strategic plan and offers 20 specific recommendations important for the future of AAG and the discipline of geography. One of those recommendations calls on us to “promote outreach and engagement,” which includes encouraging and training AAG members to write and speak for general audiences to maximize the contributions of geography to public debates, policy initiatives, and the broader civic society.

Many of my presidential columns over the coming year, including this one, will focus intently on offering some ideas on how geographers can further enhance their level of public engagement and outreach, communication savviness, and skills in advocacy and disciplinary promotion. Much of my time and energy will be spent developing an initiative I call “Geography is REAL” (Responsive, Engaged, Advocating, and Life-Improving). With the approval and help of the AAG Council, I hope this initiative will yield concrete programmatic results.

The purpose of REAL is to create and open spaces within our discipline to demonstrate the larger public value of a geographic perspective to a wider world. Making Geography REAL is also about supporting geographers as they move beyond simply analyzing issues and problems to making informed and ethical interventions in how public groups understand, debate, and act on those problems.

An important part of any effort to enhance the engagement and outreach focus of our discipline must address the centrality of public communication within the scientific process and its importance to the health of geography as a discipline competing for resources, practitioners, policy position, media recognition, and simply respect. The purpose of this column is to characterize public communication as “serious business,” meaning that the consequences of effective or poor communication should not be taken lightly. Moreover, writing and speaking to wider publics is indeed work and it requires strategies. The AAG can play a key role in training members in these strategies while also carrying out its own impressive communication efforts with social mediaSmartBriefs, and the new Data Dashboard. I conclude this column with some specific suggestions to help start this process.

Before moving on, allow me to make an important point. I emphasize “publics” as plural, recognizing there are a vast number of community groups, governmental agencies, educational institutions, media outlets, non-profits, and private firms within which the work and perspectives of geographers can and do make a difference. The public is most assuredly our colleagues and students in the academy and our co-workers in the industry workplace, but I am especially mindful about engaging non-academic communities who are often unhelpfully lumped together as “the general public.”

While the AAG long-range plan is correct in arguing that “[g]eographic scholarship is increasingly influential beyond academia” (p. 13), there remains a great need to elevate and clarify geography’s wider public identity and to communicate more effectively and broadly the case for geography as a transformative and uniquely integrative field. At grocery store checkout lines, at my local bar, and even at family reunions, I find ordinary, everyday people blissfully unaware of what geographers do and what they bring to addressing social and environmental issues and problems. As my colleague Josh Inwood (at Pennsylvania State University) is known to say in working with public groups: “Geography is the most important thing that most people have never thought about.”

Public Communication as Matter of Science and Survival

Pubic communication is not something that comes easily or naturally to everyone, and individual scholars and academic programs have not traditionally prioritized it. Many of us have viewed efforts to engage and communicate with public groups as simply a matter of marketing or service rather than the “real” work of scientists. The process of translating and disseminating one’s scholarship to popular audiences is actually an important form of scientific work. Public communication is central to scientific process because it legitimizes the social relevance and broader implications of the science. Good science, in my view, does not stop at the publication of a journal article or book chapter, but seeks to make those findings understandable, relatable, and useful to a larger world.

Has science ever been about just the work in the laboratory, in the field, or in the archives? Very seldom do we carry out science merely for the purposes of testing hypotheses, formulating new social theory, or mapping change across the landscape. We undertake our scholarship to affect change, whether that means changing the conversation about a scientific issue, often of public importance, or going as far as resisting what we see an injustice within society. Demonstrating the broader impact of research is a now an established evaluation criteria for grant proposals submitted to funding agencies such as the NSF. Offices of research and deans at universities now employ communication staff who work with faculty and students to promote public understanding and appreciation of scholarship. Such outreach efforts are essential when we recognize that many lay communities are not reading research papers—even if they could get behind the paywall of publishers.

Higher education increasingly faces questions about its relevance, particularly in these disruptive times of tightening budgets, program elimination, and increased public hostility toward universities. This has further raised pressure to improve communication outside the academy. Our discipline has a vulnerable position at some of these institutions. Moreover, geography is not a major selected by students right when they enter college and geography curriculum has been weakened in many state public school systems in the US. It is imperative that geographers help direct what public groups hear and know about our discipline rather leaving it to chance or to non-geographers. Greater public communication from and about geography is critical for our discipline to thrive if not simply to sustain itself. A more communicative geography is not necessarily about political activism, although it can be. Yet, effective communication of evidence-based and theoretically informed scholarship is a key tool in challenging the current “post-truth” environment.

Public Communication Not Same as Academic Communication

A growing number of organizations recognize the great value of publicizing scientific results and perspectives, but they also realize that many scholars are poorly prepared to engage and communicate outside of their academic cultures. These organizations have established programs and resources to help train faculty, students, and other professional researchers. For example, Compass, which recently led a workshop for department heads/chairs at the 2017 AAG meeting in Boston, helps researchers refine their messages to be meaningful to non-scientists while also connecting scientists to journalists, policy-makers, and other audiences. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science hosts media training and improvisation workshops for scientists. It, like Compass, stresses the importance of scholars moving beyond the dry presentations of data to tell great, evocative stories about themselves and their work. Both organizations will tell you that this story-telling draws upon skills not a part of a traditional college curriculum.


University of Georgia’s Marshall Shepherd, former President of the American Meteorological Society and a past recipient of the AAG Media Achievement Award, has an envious career built upon not only important basic research but also the translation of his work and passion for atmospheric science to large segments of the American public. In a 2016 Forbes column, Marshall offers nine helpful tips for communicating science to non-scientists. His tips are an effective primer for geographers thinking of taking their work and perspectives more public. He emphasizes the importance of offering non-scientists a concise and jargon-free message that is not generic but tailored to one’s audience. As he writes: “Scientists need to work hard to make their message memorable, meaningful, and miniature.”

Of special note is Marshall’s point that researchers and public audiences have inherently different styles of communication. While scholars frequently present considerable amounts of background information and theory before delivering results, the public and policymaker need and expect key findings to be provided early on and in a straight-forward fashion.

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, effective engagement and communication with wider publics requires us to be good listeners as well as compelling speakers. To carry out a wider communication of science simply for the sake of self-promotion without allowing ourselves to be enriched by the experiences and knowledges of non-academics is a lost opportunity to generate the mutual benefit that is the backbone of public engagement. Finally, it is critical that these moments of public communication be made into moments of disciplinary advocacy in which we clearly identify ourselves as geographers and speak directly to why our field matters in today’s world. I would encourage you to be good stewards of not just your sub-field but the whole of geography.

I am interested in knowing how AAG members are engaging in public communication and outreach. Please share your thoughts and experiences by emailing me (dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu) or share on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman
University of Tennessee
Twitter: @MLKStreet



Expanding and Empowering a Culture of Mentorship

The Geography Faculty Development Alliance (GFDA) Early Career Workshop class of 2017 gathered for a photo at the close of the conference on June 24 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn

Words cannot adequately capture my excitement and honor to be able to serve as President of the American Association of Geographers. I look forward to working hard on behalf of AAG members and supporting and contributing to the excellent work of Executive Director Doug Richardson and the wonderful staff at Meridian Place.

I have some big shoes to fill in following the recent presidencies of Glen MacDonald and Sarah Bednarz. Both have worked tirelessly in serving the Association. Please join me in thanking Glen and Sarah for their superb leadership.

For my first presidential column, I wish to focus on the power of mentorship and the innovative ways that geographers are approaching the social practice. I encourage further expansion and empowerment of the Association’s culture of mentoring and identify some strategies for doing so.

Careers as Social Relationships

Mentorship has been on my mind a lot lately. No doubt, my own career would have faltered long ago without the positive and patience “coaching up” I received from experienced colleagues, work supervisors, community partners and other collaborators. Mentorship need not be restricted to a one-way, hierarchal structure. Students have taught me some invaluable lessons. One of my doctoral advisees, Jordan Brasher, recently reminded me of this fact. He said something germane to this column: “While teaching and publishing are important in and of themselves, as well as communicating those ideas to the public, people and relationships are ultimately the currency on which we borrow, trade and accumulate value in our lives. We are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with and the people we impact.” In other words, one’s career, although it can feel like a lonely, solitary pursuit, is constantly defined by social relationships, with mentorship being one of those critical points of impact.

As a Department Head for the past five years, I have become acutely aware of the consequences of good and poor mentorship. It affects not just the individual professional but the larger health of the program and the discipline. As I write this column, we at the University of Tennessee are in the midst of hosting for the second time the Geography Faculty Development Alliance (GFDA) Early Career Workshop, a long-running immersive mentoring program for beginning faculty and senior graduate students. In the Knoxville workshops, we maintain the tradition of stressing active learning, tenure and promotion readiness, good practices in publishing and grant writing, work/life balance, and the advancement of diversity. But GFDA participants now also learn about media relations and public advocacy, civic-engaged teaching, and addressing controversial topics in the classroom. And workshop goers participate in improvisational (“improv”) games to sharpen their skills in listening, communication, and team-work and to help them let go of the “self-judgement” that often compromises their creativity and confidence.

The Call for More and Better Mentorship      

Particularly striking from my two years of hosting and co-directing the GFDA workshop are the strong opinions that participants hold about their mentoring needs. They seek mentors who can help them establish networks in the discipline, speak candidly about job-related issues, and provide peer-based feedback and accountability. A number of early career colleagues ask for assistance in navigating what I call the “egosystem” of departmental politics and personalities. They have mixed experiences about the availability and effectiveness of mentoring at their home institutions; but all are united in saying they want more and better mentorship.

The call for increased mentorship is especially critical for those from historically under-represented groups within geography. Enhancing the efficacy of mentoring has a direct bearing on the ability of geography programs and other workplaces to recruit and retain talented women and people of color and to achieve greater representation and inclusion in the discipline. Yet, increasing mentorship activities is unsatisfactory if simply for the sake of checking off a human resources box or serving the growing push within universities and other workplaces to achieve peak performance or “return on investment” from employees.

“Mentoring by and for the numbers” is part of a political arithmetic that reduces our responsibility to each other to purely legal and market imperatives. A more helpful and ethical approach recognizes that mentorship can and should play a role in enhancing the sense of place and belonging, psychological and professional well-being, and social equality of others.

Mentoring Innovations in the AAG

There are noteworthy efforts within the AAG to encourage mentorship. The Association bestows annually the Susan Hardwick Excellence in Mentoring Award. Along with early career training, the Association helps support an annual department leadership workshop that meets in the same place and at the same time as the GFDA summer event. The AAG Department Leadership Workshop provides senior colleagues a chance to mentor each other in issues of program assessment and review, budgeting, personnel evaluation, student recruitment, and the nomination of faculty for awards—another key but sometimes neglected dimension of mentorship. Meanwhile, the AAG-ESRI ConnectED GeoMentors Program is assembling a large number of volunteers to go into K-12 schools to assist teachers with using GIS in the classroom. The new AAG Fellows Program, in addition to recognizing those who have made significant intellectual contributions to the field, is also about identifying mentors for faculty.

Speed women mentoring session held during the 2016 AAG annual meeting in San Francisco. Photo courtesy the AAG Committee on the Status of Women in Geography
An impressive recent effort is the Mentoring Network for Women in Geography, organized by the AAG Committee on the Status of Women in Geography. SWIG leaders have organized a database of women seeking mentorship as well as available mentors. They organized an onsite mentoring session at the 2016 San Francisco meeting and held an assessment of the Mentoring Network at the 2017 Boston meeting. To date, the number of female geographers in need of mentoring greatly out numbers available mentors (by as much as 2 to 1). The large demand for mentorship at 2016 San Francisco conference forced organizers to resort to “speed” mentoring sessions. According to Women’s Mentoring Network organizers Jessica Jacobs (Queen Mary University of London) and Lisa Davis (University of Alabama), female geographers express an overwhelming desire to receive more mentoring at annual AAG meetings. If you are interested in becoming part of this worthwhile mentoring project, then feel free to contact Jessica and Lisa.

Rethinking the Who, When, and Where of Mentorship

Geographers are making important strides in growing a culture of mentorship within the AAG and beyond, but more can certainly be done.

First, a culture of mentorship recognizes that mentoring is a career-long need, although most mentorship has focused traditionally on students and early-career faculty members. There is far less attention paid to guiding Associate Professors to (full) Professors or to mentoring non-academics entering private industry, government agencies, and the not-for-profit sector. Professionals as they transition to retirement are also in need of mentoring and these retired colleagues are an untapped resource as mentors. A broader “whole-life” approach to mentorship can help manage anxiety and success at these career and life changes.

Second, a culture of mentorship recognizes the insufficiency of the traditional, single “guru-mentor” model for most people. Effective and meaningful mentoring happens by drawing from the expertise, experiences, and opinions of a community of mentors who can address the many varied needs of our professional and personal lives. My colleague Latoya Eaves introduces GFDA early career workshop goers to the idea of a “mentoring map,” an innovation available from National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity to assist faculty in cultivating networks of mentors, sponsors, and collaborators.

Third, a culture of mentorship recognizes that experience and professional success do not necessarily mean that a senior colleague is ready to guide and assist another professional. Mentoring is not the same as directing a student thesis or being someone’s supervisor. In this respect, it would be helpful to create “mentor the mentors” workshops to connect new mentors with veteran mentors and training materials for a variety of institutional settings.

Finally, a culture of mentorship recognizes the need to sometimes alter the conventional balance of power within the mentee-mentor relationship. Early career professionals are critical for helping their senior colleagues stay fresh on latest disciplinary, technological, and social trends. Taking a page from the Women’s Mentoring Network, we might consider creating more mentoring and workshop sessions at annual meetings to help coach and retool veteran geographers in cutting edge theories, methods, and issues. This would be a decidedly different environment from the formality of conventional paper or poster sessions.

If you have some thoughts about mentorship, then feel free to email me (dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu) or share on Twitter #PresidentAAG.

— Derek Alderman
University of Tennessee
Twitter: @MLKStreet


DOI: 10.14433/2017.0008


Op-Ed: Make Civil Rights a Geography Awareness Week Theme

We have thought for some time now that it would be educationally productive to have a Geography Awareness Week theme devoted to civil rights. Tragically, events over the summer—especially the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina—convince us that such an event is now socially and politically necessary. Across the country—from the fires of Ferguson, Missouri, to the most recent controversy surrounding the unjust arrest and suspicious death of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas—racialized violence, discrimination, and white supremacy demonstrates the power racism has over the lives of our communities, including the students in our classrooms. We encourage the National Geographic Society (NGS) and other prominent disciplinary organizations such as Association of American Geographers (AAG), American Geographical Society (AGS), National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), and Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) to seize this moment and organize this initiative. Continued silence not only demonstrates tacit approval of inequity in U.S. society, but calls into question the very relevance of Geography to solve the most pressing social issues in U.S. society

Observed every third week in November since 1987, Geography Awareness Week is a national and international opportunity to promote the importance of geography education and the relevance of spatial perspectives and tools to studying contemporary issues. To use a famous term recently invoked by AAG President Sarah Bednarz, Awareness Week is Geography’s “bully pulpit,” one of only a handful of times during the year in which the discipline has the full attention of school administrators, news media, government leaders, and the general public. Making civil rights the theme of Geography Awareness Week sends a strong message that we, as geographers, feel strongly about the need to address the historical and contemporary struggles of people of color in the United States as well as the general importance of human rights and social justice as they apply across a wide range of social groups, identities and issues—here at home and in other countries.

According to a 2011 Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report, the United States has done a “dismal” job of including discussions of civil rights history, racism, and discrimination into state curriculum and educational standards. All 50 states were evaluated and graded. You might want to check out how your state fared. Even if your home state passed, it is important to note that SPLC’s expectations were somewhat modest—states received an “A” if their curriculum and standards included at least 60% of the recommended content related to the civil rights movement. No state included more than 74% of recommended content—a “C” in most of our own schools. In Sandra Bland’s Texas—which included only 35% of the civil rights content recommended by the SPLC—there is a tradition of the state school board revising textbooks in ways that “whitewash” human injustices. In the Texas history textbooks that will take effect in fall 2015, little mention is made of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. Students will barely read about racial segregation, and slavery will be downplayed as a leading cause of the American Civil War. These developments parallel the frightening material reality that the strides of the Movement are being eroded away with the ongoing racial and economic re-segregation of schools. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised given that, according to the SPLC report, “only 2% of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision” (p. 7).

Our own state of Tennessee did marginally better (39%) and it has had its own embarrassing moment of curriculum reform, when Tea Party groups demanded that state history textbooks remove references that would connect the founding fathers to slavery and the removal of indigenous peoples. The efforts of politicians in Tennessee and Texas speak to the continued marginalization of persons of color within our curriculum (an issue addressed recently by past-President Mona Domosh), which has important implications for the ways in which black lives (amongst other persons of color) not only do not matter, but are expendable, disposable and dangerous for those in power. What is the lesson we should take from Texas and Tennessee? Raising the quantity of civil rights teaching is critical, but it is even more crucial to address the quality of those ideas. There is a desperate need to teach about certain topics and issues in a frank way that challenges the normative power of white supremacy and to discuss issues that are potentially uncomfortable for students—both white and black. Again, continued silence on these issues demonstrates our tacit approval of these actions.

For these reasons we argue the civil rights theme is timely, especially in light of the growing amount of work that university and K-12 geographers are doing on social and environmental justice, peace geographies, and minority political empowerment. It is a theme that is well supported in geographic theory, case studies, and student interest and activism. Indeed, we teach a course in the Geography of Human Rights here at the University of Tennessee. Our in-state colleague, Esra Ozdenerol, has used GIS to map civil rights sites in the city of Memphis, funded in part by a grant from the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Geography students and faculty from across the country have had teach-ins on #Blacklivesmatter, and led campaigns to challenge the legacy of white supremacy on college campuses (e.g., UNC-Chapel Hill).   Additionally, David L. Butler of the University of Southern Mississippi is leading a NSF-funded group of researchers from six universities—including an HBCU—to investigate how the southern plantation heritage tourism industry has traditionally done the same type of erasing of slavery that we now see in Texas history books. Yet, this team is also finding evidence that the representation of slavery at plantations is changing, creating important yet still high contested moments to discuss racism, white supremacy, and black resistance. No doubt, there are many other examples of geographers who could contribute to civil rights pedagogy, some of whom might not have thought about participating in Awareness Week activities until now.

Giving civil rights an official place in our Awareness Week not only opens up space in classrooms to teach about tolerance, diversity, and anti-racism as core geographic values, it also sends a powerful message about the relevance and commitment of geographers to be active participants in making the world a better place. Furthermore, broadening the participation of historically under-represented groups in Geography and other STEM disciplines has emerged as a top priority over the last several years, and AAG has taken a leadership role in this initiative. Put simply, it is time to take the next step. Imagine the kind of “sense of belonging” that can be communicated to underrepresented persons in our classrooms and across the academy when they hear that the discipline of Geography values civil rights and we are willing to devote an entire national campaign to the theme. Highlighting civil rights creates a strategic moment for public engagement, another principle of growing importance in the Academy. Such public engagement can take the form of inviting local activists and community leaders to deliver guest lecturers and workshops in our schools and the organization of service-learning and engaged scholarship partnerships with historically marginalized communities and civic groups. Many geographers are already engaged in a public geography projects with a strong civil rights and social justice dimension. Geography Awareness Week offers an opportunity to highlight and build upon those efforts while also further charting a progressive vision for our discipline. In that vision, geographers do not simply study critical social and environmental issues but make an active intervention in the welfare of communities.

In closing, we reaffirm our request to the Geography establishment to collaborate with us and many of our colleagues to work soon to make civil rights a theme of an upcoming Geography Awareness Week. In the meantime, before that goal is accomplished, geographers are encouraged to teach more about civil rights, anti-racism, and inequality in classrooms and to bring these issues to bear on whatever themes are chosen for Awareness Week. We ask that geographers in community colleges, universities and K-12 schools communicate their views about the need for a civil rights-oriented Geography Awareness Week to NGS, AAG, AGS, NCGE, and CAG. Doing so is important for winning support for the proposal, and we are confident that many leaders in Geography would welcome such an idea. Moreover, if we are to truly build a civil rights consciousness in the field of Geography, it is also important to let these leaders know who you are, what you already do in researching and teaching civil rights, and what more you hope to do along these lines in a late November week in the not too distant future. Let’s collectively break our silence.

—Derek H. Alderman
Professor & Department Head
University of Tennessee
dalderma [at] utk [dot] edu
Twitter @MLKStreet

—Josh Inwood
Associate Professor
University of Tennessee
jinwood [at] utk [dot] edu
Twitter @JoshGeog



AAG Newsletter Op-Eds

The AAG invites brief opinion pieces highlighting the contributions of geographical analysis to the understanding of important public issues and events. Submissions are encouraged from across the full breadth of the discipline. These pieces reflect opinions of contributing AAG members and do not represent an official AAG position on any issue. Op-ed pieces must be consistent with the AAG ethics policy to be considered for publication. Send submissions to newsletter [at] aag [dot] org.


Op-Ed: #KickOutTheKKK: Challenging White Supremacy at UNC

Figure 1. UNC students protesting for the renaming of Saunders Hall as Hurston Hall (courtesy of The Daily Tar Heel/Claire Collins)

On May 28, 2015, the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill voted to rename Saunders Hall—the building in which the Geography Department is located—following months of student protest that garnered national attention. Nearly a century ago, this building was named in honor of William L. Saunders (1835—1891), a white supremacist who played a leading role in the Ku Klux Klan of North Carolina during the nineteenth century. When the name was bestowed in 1920, the university’s Board of Trustees listed Saunders’ leadership in the KKK as one of his accomplishments deserving recognition. Naming a building for Saunders was therefore a clear attempt to inscribe the legacy of white supremacy into the very fabric of the university’s cultural landscape. And the fact that the building’s name endured for over 90 years speaks to how legacies of anti-black racism are a largely unquestioned and taken-for-granted aspect of our everyday surroundings, both on and off university campuses.  We say “largely” because the power of every racialized landscape never goes completely unchallenged, and Saunders Hall was no exception.

Over the years, students led various efforts to have this building renamed, particularly during the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s and early 1990s. For example, 25 years ago, students published an op-ed about Saunders’ legacy in the independent student newspaper at UNC, declaring: “Building should not be named for former KKK grand dragon” (Robinson and Hafer in Daily Tar Heel, 1990). These calls to rename Saunders Hall encountered institutional resistance and were largely ignored by university administrators (Chapman, 2006; Babatunde, 2015).

When resistance to renaming places is articulated, it usually takes the form of an argument that the act of renaming will “erase history”—an argument that surfaced, in recent debates over renaming Saunders Hall, among some progressive as well as conservative voices. Yet a distinction must certainly be drawn between acknowledging the past and bestowing honor upon a historical figure through commemoration. The naming of university buildings after individuals is, without question, a case of the latter. As UNC’s Policy on Naming University Facilities and Units states, “[t]he act of naming a University facility or unit for a person … is the conferral by the University of a high and conspicuous honor.” Maintaining a building named in Saunders’ honor, particularly in the face of anti-racist calls to remove it, thus signified the university’s ongoing commitment to honoring the legacy of white supremacy on campus.

Even in 2015, the campaign to rename Saunders Hall was hard fought and proponents, who included geography faculty and students among others, faced considerable opposition. The student activist group, The Real Silent Sam Coalition, held protests on campus and via social media that galvanized national media coverage, drawing on a creative array of tactics—from performance art, the spoken word, poetry, a capella singing, artwork, t-shirts, banners, a manifesto, and the #KickOutTheKKK hashtag to the dramatic reenactment of racist speech from a 1913 Confederate memorialization on campus. The coalition also reproduced a document from the university archives, and regularly posted it around the building all spring, illustrating that the building had not been named despite William Saunders’ role in the KKK, but in fact because of it. Saunders’ position as “Head of the Ku Klux Klan of North Carolina” was indeed acknowledged in Board of Trustees’ proceedings in 1920 as one of his positive contributions, listed only after his status as a Confederate officer, and above his positions as Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Compiler and Editor of the Colonial Records of North Carolina. While the latter position has been the one most frequently identified by the university in recent years as the main reason for naming Saunders Hall, which then housed the History Department, it is evident that much more was at play in naming the building after Saunders as “one of the master minds of North Carolina,” amounting to a kind of victory lap for supporters of the KKK in the state and the university. Shedding light on this history of white supremacy in the campus landscape, the protests garnered support for change among UNC students, staff, and faculty, along with opposition, compelling the Board of Trustees to respond.

In May 2015, the Board of Trustees eventually approved the removal of Saunders’ name from the Hall in a 10-3 vote, but they also passed a 16-year moratorium on any further campus name changes and chose the generic and booster-laden name of “Carolina Hall” to replace that of Saunders, reflecting deep anxieties over the conservation of the university’s signature landscape at a moment of rapid cultural change. The renaming of Saunders Hall is an important achievement but in some ways remains a low bar to set for the naming of university buildings; that is, for students to take classes in a building that is not named for a KKK leader from a brutal period of racial terror in central North Carolina.

Student activists had demanded—and continue to demand—that the building carry the name “Hurston Hall,” to memorialize African American writer Zora Neale Hurston and challenge UNC’s gendered politics, as well as its racialized politics, of public memory (The Real Silent Sam Coalition, 2015). During the 1930s, Hurston was the first black student to attend UNC when she studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green. Since African Americans were not allowed to enroll during the Jim Crow era, there is no official record of Hurston’s attendance. UNC’s Board of Trustees used this fact to avoid consideration of Hurston’s name despite strong and vocal student support. Seventy-five years ago, when courts forced the university to desegregate (at least on a token basis), it was African American men who were first enrolled, revealing the complex entanglements of racism and sexism in the campus’ lived history. Even today there are only 16 buildings named for women at UNC, with the vast majority of cases being those of women who were part of a joint naming with their husbands. Only 8 UNC buildings are named for African Americans, and women of color are remembered in the monikers of a mere 4 campus buildings (or 2.5% of the total).

Importantly, the Real Silent Sam Coalition’s struggle in Chapel Hill is part of a growing movement to reconsider why college buildings are named after white supremacists (Svokos, 2015). Such debates are particularly active at schools in the South, such as Clemson, Duke, East Carolina, Radford, and Winthrop, yet similar efforts have arisen across the border in Canada as well. In British Columbia, for instance, students at the University of Victoria unsuccessfully lobbied to rename Joseph Trutch Residence Hall in 2010, which honors a politician known for dramatically reducing First Nations reserve lands in the province. One key challenge for activists is that momentum behind student-led movements is hard to sustain from one cohort of students to the next, a fact university administrators use to their advantage by simply waiting for collective amnesia to sink in again once a vocal group of students graduates. In such cases, faculty can help sustain the memory of past struggles by sharing the history and tactics of social movements with each incoming cohort of university students.

As the situation in Chapel Hill illustrates, geographers are especially well-equipped to play a leading role in social justice struggles over the production of commemorative landscapes on college campuses and beyond. In particular, the discipline of geography has much to offer to understanding and intervening within debates over the politics of place by challenging institutional authorities and university communities to reassess the meanings, values, and identities inscribed into campus geographies through place naming and other forms of commemoration. Even after name changes are made, the need among students for understanding both the contemporary and historical contexts of symbolic practices of naming are no less acute; perhaps more so, as the case of the newly dubbed Carolina Hall suggests.

While some of the most provocative ideas about anti-racism and social change originate at universities, academic geographers could surely do much more to challenge the complicity of their own campus landscapes in perpetuating racism and sexism. With this mind, we call on our fellow geographers at other universities to begin conducting close and critical readings of their own university campuses, engaging the student body and broader public in challenging the legacy of white supremacy that has been etched into the names of buildings, streets, stadia, and parks that collectively form the commemorative landscapes of higher education in America.

Reuben Rose-Redwood, University of Victoria
Derek Alderman, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Altha Cravey, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Scott Kirsch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Omololu Refilwe Babatunde, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Josh Inwood, University of Tennessee at Knoxville



Babatunde, Omololu Refilwe (2015), Black Liberatory Senses of Place: Creating from Abject Othernessundergraduate honors thesis, Department of Geography, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

Chapman, John (2006), Black Freedom and the University of North Carolina, 1793-1960, doctoral dissertation, Department of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, <>, last accessed on June 16, 2015.

Robinson, Keith and Claire Hafer (1990), “Building Should Not Be Named for Former KKK Grand Dragon,” The Daily Tar Heel, November 12, p. 11.

Svokos, Alexandra (2015), “Why Are College Buildings Still Named After White Supremacists?” Huffington Post, June 11, <>, last accessed on June 16, 2015.

The Real Silent Sam Coalition (2015), “The Real Silent Sam Coalition: Manifesto 2015,” The Siren: Online Magazine, April 6, <>, last accessed on June 16, 2015.


What’s in a Nickname? In the case of Chiraq, a Whole Lot

Chicago goes by many nicknames—from the widely recognized “Windy City” and “Second City” to more obscure and seemingly puzzling associations, such as “Paris on the Prairie” and “The Smelly Onion.” Nicknames are important branding strategies used by civic boosters, and Chicago’s namesakes are frequently employed to market the city and its surrounding region as “The Jewel of the Midwest” and “Heart of America.” At the same time, urban monikers can arise from the wider public and they have sometimes been used to draw attention to negative qualities of Chicago life. With the help of a NWS meteorologist and social media, the city was rechristened “Chi-beria” during the record-breaking cold weather of 2013-14. The Wall Street Journal identified Chicago as “Beirut by the Lake” when reporting on the intense political infighting on the city council in the early- and mid-1980s.

Popular culture and artistic expression are important sources of nicknames. Some of Chicago’s best-known monikers are found in poems, such as “City on the Make” from Nelson Algren and “City of Big Shoulders” from Carl Sandburg. Other Chicago nicknames have originated from songs. Frank Sinatra popularized “That Toddling Town” and “My Kind of Town.” Famous blues artist Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home” captured the emotional geography of the Great Migration of African Americans from the racial oppressive South to presumably better conditions in Chicago. As of late, the local rap/hip-hop music scene has given rise to “Chiraq,” a controversial mash-up of the place names Chicago and Iraq. Chiraq has become shorthand for capturing the life and death struggles and feelings of anger and alienation that poor people of color experience within the city. The nickname stands in marked contrast to the optimism and sense of belonging found in Johnson’s portrayal of Chicago as home.

The emergence of Chiraq is an opportunity to think about the politics of how places are represented and made meaningful within the wider cultural arena of music and naming—both in general and specific to Chicago. City nicknames might appear at first glance to be gimmicky or superficial. Yet, we would suggest that this form of naming, like all toponymic practices, plays a critical role in socially constructing and contesting the identities of urban places and the people associated with those places. As increasingly suggested in research, place names are not confined to official nomenclature on maps, but also include competing, vernacular systems of naming. Chicago’s many nicknames provide insight into the different ways that social actors and groups frame and reconfigure the image of the city for visitors, residents, and the wider world. The case of Chiraq encourages us to recognize that historically marginalized groups such as African Americans can harness the power of naming to articulate a sense of place and a resistant place identity on their own terms and in their own words.

Music is an important signifier of place and the cultural power of hip-hop, or any musical genre for that matter, is the way in which it originates from and gives voice to the specific lived experiences and struggles of its artists. The term Chiraq was coined by local musician, King Louie, and debuted in his 2009 track “Chiraq Drillinois.” Rappers born and reared in the impoverished south and west sides of Chicago have collectively popularized the nickname, most notably Chief Keef, Young Chop, Lil Reese, and Lil Durk. This group of artists along with many others formed what is known as “Drill Music,” a subgenre of hip-hop known for its grim, violent depictions of Chicago street life, especially the Englewood neighbor. Chief Keef drew attention to the Drill music scene in late 2011 with a homemade music video released on YouTube entitled Bang. In 2012, after being signed to Interscope, he released his first album, Finally Rich, which pushed Drill music into the mainstream. In April of 2014, Chiraq become even more nationally recognized when hip-hop star Nicki Minaj featured Drill rapper Lil Herb on a single, titled Chi-Raq.

Chiraq can be understood in part by looking at the lyrics and the commentary that describe it. Lyrics written and performed by Drill artists frequently refer to rampant murder and the wide availability of guns, along with frequent references to Chicago as a militarized and besieged landscape. As King Louie put it in his seminal track: “rocket rocket gun fire, you hear that killer noise, this is…Chiraq Drillinois…we drillen, we killen…” In the recently released track Gang Members, Chief Keef and three other Drill artists employ sound-bites from televisions new reports about crime mixed with their own flows to describe the astounding level of violence and apathy they encounter in Chicago. Because the production and online posting of home-made music videos is a hallmark of Drill artists, Chiraq has opened up a space in social media for sharing the comments, reactions, and life experiences of locals as well as political discussions from observers/listeners well beyond Chicago.

For some commentators, Chiraq exposes the contradictions of living in a country that spends massive amounts of money to intercede in conflicts abroad but places less priority on the “war zones” at home, especially when victims are too easily reduced to the collateral damage of gang violence in minority neighborhoods. Some observers, including the FBI, attribute high levels of violence in Chicago to gang activity, although anecdotal evidence suggests the situation is more complex. Others argue that it was government efforts to dissolve gangs and close down federally subsidized housing that have destabilized communities and the support networks provided by gangs, thus putting already vulnerable African Americans further at risk and intensifying their struggle to survive (1:31-2:23).

As journalists report, a sense of fatalism pervades some of neighborhoods most harshly affected by high levels of violence. When interviewed, twenty-year old Chicago resident Jamal stated that he didn’t expect to live much longer after sharing that only two of his childhood friends were still alive. This message of hopelessness is echoed in an interview with another local resident who goes further to make a suggestion on how Chiraq might be changed, “I believe if people had availability of service, and something to do, more so in the community, if it was more… something to look forward to, maybe it [the violence] would subside” (11:57-12:13).

Renaming Chicago as Chiraq represents a form of resistance initiated by youth who are experiencing a lifetime of hyper-segregation, chronic poverty, poor education in crowded classrooms, and a regular loss of loved ones to both prison cells and gunshots. The nickname’s power, politically, is the way in which naming functions as a form of shaming, a way of challenging Chicagoans, especially those in power, to consider the harsh and dangerous realities of life that are so clearly at odds with the city’s positive promotional image. When a local news station interviewed Chicagoans about their opinion of the Chiraq label, shame was clearly an underlying feeling, as exemplified by this quote, “I don’t want them to think of Chicago, our beautiful city as a war zone.” The willingness of some residents to deny the extreme violence in Chicago, and in fact make excuses for it, are evident in the words of another quoted resident: “It’s a little violent, but then again it’s Chicago…I mean it’s one of the best places in the world.”

Chicago has a long and documented history of police violence against youth. Not surprisingly, the lyric of “F*** the (insert any derogatory term for police officer)” is frequently associated with Chiraq and it is the most blatant way that Drill artists shame local authorities and implicate the state in making Chicago a war zone. But the shaming goes beyond lyrics and musical performance, manifesting itself in the commentary attached to YouTube videos. For example, one observer wrote: “Apparently the police don’t give a f*** and are encouraging it…guess that’s why they inherited the raq in chi.” Comments such as these are not simply directed locally. The capacity of the Chiraq nickname to shame and evoke condemnation is also being exercised nationally. When 82 people were shot over the July 4, 2014 weekend in Chicago, a journalist asked of the city’s most famous resident: “Obama, Why Aren’t You in Chiraq?

Due in part to the exposure given by hip-hop star Nicki Minaj, Chiraq is growing in popularity as a point of identity and even a badge of honor among segments of Chicago’s African American community. The nickname can now be found displayed on an array of posters, T-shirts, and hats—many of which also display images of automatic rifles and handguns. Enthusiasts have gone as far as appropriating the icons of the city’s famed sports franchises, drawing a gas mask on the Bulls’ red charging bull and inserting the name Chiraq in place of “Cubs” within the baseball team’s logo. The growing popularization of Chiraq has sparked opposition to the nickname. Anti-Chiraq activists, including ex-gang members, have argued that Drill artists glorify and encourage violence, even as they speak to the truth of that violence. Some opponents assert that referring to communities as war zones creates a “punishment mentality” that limits how people think about the solutions to the systemic inequality and racism in Chicago. In the words of one commentator, “War can further dehumanize black bodies and count them as casualties.”

Not everyone in the Chicago’s black community has embraced the Chiraq moniker or used it in the same way as Drill artists. K’Valentine is part of a small but vocal group of female rappers using their music to speak out publicly against the nickname. She wrote and performed a track entitled Anti-Chiraq, a loose remix of Nicki Minaj and Lil Herb’s famous Chi-Raq track. Alonzo Jackson, a local fashion designer, sells anti-Chiraq shirts. By scratching out, literally and figuratively, the controversial nickname on apparel, Jackson hopes to alter the direction of the public conversation. On this point, he stated: “So don’t even call it [the city] Chiraq because the power of the tongue and you speak that, it’s like you’re embracing it and we don’t like that at all.”

Chicago activist Julien Drayton founded RIP Chiraq Foundation in 2012 to advocate for peace and to provide employment and career training to underprivileged people in the city. Yet, Drayton’s call for “No More Chiraq” is not necessarily a call to ban the nickname, but actually a call to end the structural conditions (poverty, joblessness, discrimination, and gun proliferation) that have given rise to Chicago’s violence, and he speaks pointedly to a goal of seeing the city growing “out of the shadow” of high death tolls. Chiraq encompasses many complicated layers of resistance and the name has clearly become part of the lexicon for framing discussions of problems in Chicago and broader urban America, even if everyone cannot agree on what the term means, what it is accomplishing, or whether it should be invoked at all.

Chicago is a city of conflicting identities depending on one’s social and geographic position in its networks of power and resources. Chiraq is not merely an alternative nickname for Chicago or hip-hop styling or personae; rather it marks larger geographies of exclusion, violence, and resistance within the city. Chiraq highlights important relations between local music, social media, and the racial and class politics of naming and claiming cities. Chiraq prompts us as geographers to consider the broader social and economic struggles at work in the cities where we hold meetings, helping us move toward a more critical and empathetic understanding of place that is perhaps not possible within conference hotels and session rooms.

Janna Caspersen
Department of Geography
University of Tennessee

Derek Alderman
Department of Geography
University of Tennessee

DOI: 10.14433/2015.0006