Revolutionary Geographical Lessons from Mississippi Freedom Schools

Two young African-American girls look down from window in front of the Freedom School Photo by Ken Thompson, ©The General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, Inc. Used with permission of Global Ministries.
Freedom School Photo by Ken Thompson, ©The General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, Inc. Used with permission of Global Ministries.

By Derek H. Alderman, University of Tennessee and Joshua Inwood, Pennsylvania State University

Derek AldermanJosh InwoodThe 60th anniversary of Freedom Summer is upon us. In the summer of 1964, several civil rights organizations, with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) often leading the way, carried out a bold campaign uniting volunteers from across the country with oppressed, often forgotten, communities in Mississippi. This effort not only combated racial discrimination but also led to widespread changes, including expanding American democracy. The campaign’s grassroots, participatory approach empowered Black people through voter registration, community organizing, and education.

Freedom Schools were a transformative innovation of the Mississippi Freedom Project. SNCC workers and their local allies transformed churches, backyards, community centers, and other meeting places in Black communities into 41 Freedom Schools that served over 2,500 students of color. These schools provided a powerful alternative to a segregated and poorly funded state-run school system that sought to reproduce passive and demoralized Black communities—what SNCC organizer Bob Moses called the “sharecropper education.” Freedom Schools have their origin in the history of Black citizenship schools and a tradition of educational self-determination and “fugitive pedagogy” in the face of severe oppression dating back to the days of enslavement.

Freedom Schools met the basic educational needs of Black youth long denied an adequate education under racial apartheid. These schools also fostered African American creative expression, critical thinking, and appreciation for Black history and literature. These insurgent classrooms were spaces of open dialogue, encouraging students to question and challenge the ideologies and effects of racism, white supremacy, and inequalities in U.S. society. They built the self-esteem and activist skills necessary for students to participate in their own liberation. Historian Jon Hale notes that many Freedom School students worked to integrate public spaces and businesses, organize demonstrations and boycotts, and canvass communities to encourage voter registration. Although these schools operated for just six weeks in the summer of 1964, they proved influential in creating a revolutionary cadre of young Black Mississippians ready to take on the role of citizen leaders in their communities. Freedom Schools have continued to inspire educational models of social justice that are still found today.

Although scholars have often overlooked this fact, Geography was a pivotal part of the Freedom School curriculum.  Freedom Schools offered revolutionary spatial learning and inquiry, focusing on Black students and their families’ often-ignored struggles and needs. Though not explicitly stated, the curriculum developers sought to spur students to develop an ‘anti-racist regional knowledge.’ This regional knowledge was not just a collection of facts and figures but a tool for understanding and challenging the power relations undergirding the building of the Deep South as a racially unjust region. It was an embodied and visceral form of geographic learning in which SNCC empowered students to reflect on their personal experiences with Jim Crow discrimination and identify the social and geographic forces behind their oppression. Running through the Freedom School curriculum was an idea made popular many years later by Clyde Woods, who argued that racialized underdevelopment in the South did not simply happen. It resulted from a monopoly of white power, what Woods called the “plantation bloc,” arresting the development opportunities of Black people – even as these oppressed communities found ways to survive and create.

Clyde Woods…argued that racialized underdevelopment in the South did not simply happen.

In our National Science Foundation-funded research, we have examined the Freedom School curriculum closely regarding geographic education, finding that these pedagogical ideas went beyond how Geography was taught in many schools and universities at the time. While top academic geographers in 1964 debated how to make the field more scientifically precise and the merits of systematic versus regional approaches, SNCC was in Mississippi creating course content that directly connected U.S. racism and segregation to broader regional and national analysis and putting its organic geographic intellectualism in the service of racial equality. The disconnect between Geography in Freedom Schools and what was practiced by ‘professional geographers’ speaks not just to the path-breaking nature of Freedom Summer but also to the complicity of our disciplinary spaces and practices in historically ignoring and excluding Black communities.

Along with colleagues Bethany Craig and Shaundra Cunningham, our paper in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education delves into Freedom Schools as a neglected chapter in geographic education. We highlight the curricular innovations they deployed in producing geographic knowledge accountable to Black experiences, communities, and places. Freedom School curriculum called on students to critically use geographic case studies to conduct regional comparisons — both within the U.S. and internationally — to situate Mississippi and the South within broader racial struggles and human rights geographies to raise the political consciousness and expand students’ relational sense of place.

At Freedom Schools, students developed skills using data from the U.S. Census and other sources to understand racial disparities in income and housing across communities in Mississippi and concerning their own families. Freedom Schools engaged students in interrogating the material landscapes of inequality to ask probing questions about the unjust distribution of resources from place to place. The curriculum frequently used maps, not just as passive locational references. Black students were given opportunities to produce “power maps,” which charted the social and spatial connections and networks between institutions and influential people undergirding the oppressive conditions in their community. Plotted on these unconventional but important cartographies were the larger geographic scales of power driving white supremacy—from the local to the national.

The disconnect between Geography in Freedom Schools and what was practiced by ‘professional geographers’ speaks not just to the path-breaking nature of Freedom Summer but also to the complicity of our disciplinary spaces and practices in historically ignoring and excluding Black communities.

As the nation remembers Freedom Summer, we encourage colleagues to delve into the revolutionary Geography lessons at work in Freedom Schools. This curriculum offers a window into the Black Geography knowledge production that always undergirded the Civil Rights Movement. It is an essential counterpoint to popular treatments that give too little attention to the intellectual labor and sophisticated planning behind the Movement. Black geographies of education, such as those found in Freedom Schools, provide an important avenue for recovering too easily forgotten activists and activism and how educational reform remains unfinished civil rights work.

Yet, examining the Freedom School curriculum is of more than historical importance. It directly inspires a question of importance to contemporary geography educators: How can we design a curriculum that serves not just the intellectual debates and interests of the field but responds directly to the everyday experiences, needs, and well-being of students and others from historically marginalized groups? When we publish critical research on equity and social justice, do we actively consider how that scholarship could translate to and impact educational praxis? As our field struggles with addressing issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and broadening participation as well as the relevance of Geography in an environment of education retrenchment, it is essential to note that students of color yearn for an educational experience that responds to their humanity and daily struggles.

Toward a Geography of Freedom

Freedom Schools provoke us to ask: Are we doing enough to articulate a vision of geographic education that addresses and intervenes in the struggle for freedom? Do we project within our classrooms a geographic perspective that helps historically excluded student groups make sense of and challenge their oppression and recognize their historical and contemporary contributions to building the nation and the wider world? As a discipline, are we doing what Freedom Schools did in helping our students develop the skills to identify and resist structural inequalities?

More and more geographers are committed individually and departmentally to these questions. Still, Freedom Schools provokes us to consider whether a more systemic approach is needed to rebuild Geography education and curriculum. Freedom Schools provide a moment for our field to re-evaluate and broaden what counts as geographic learning, whose lives matter in our curriculum, and what social and political work geographic pedagogy should accomplish. Several years ago, a group of educational specialists developed a set of widely distributed National Geography Standards called Geography for Life, which stops short of prominently promoting peace, social and environmental justice, and anti-discrimination. Don’t we need a new set of curricular standards borrowed from 1964 Mississippi, called Geography for Freedom?

Black geographies of education, such as those found in Freedom Schools, provide an important avenue for recovering too easily forgotten activists and activism and how educational reform remains unfinished civil rights work.

Crafting a Geography for Freedom curriculum should be a shared responsibility and involves collaborating with K-12 educators. Our K-12 colleagues have been hit especially hard by growing pressure from states, school districts, and parents to limit the very kind of discussions about racial injustice once held sixty years ago in Freedom Schools. Many university professors wrongly assume that their jobs and programs in higher education are somehow separate from and not impacted by Geography at the primary and secondary levels. The chilling, if not the absolute loss, of the right to tell and teach truths in classrooms can spread to higher education, and there are signs that it already has done so.

Reforming and rewriting the geographic curriculum taught at educational institutions is crucial. Yet, the Freedom Schools’ legacy of operating independently of and in opposition to the state should provoke us to expand the spatial politics of where teaching and learning happen. It is necessary to move beyond the traditional classroom to develop a Geography for Freedom curriculum within what Jacob Nicholson calls “alternative, non-formal educational spaces” — whether that be teach-ins, reading and writing groups, afterschool and summer programs,  teacher advocacy workshops, people’s schools or assemblies, mobile geospatial/citizen science labs, community radio shows, film screenings, or producing zines, infographics, and pamphlets.

Looking back upon Mississippi’s Freedom Schools and ‘discovering’ the role that Geography played in its educational activism should not be a feel-good moment for us in academic or professional geographic circles. Instead, it should push us to engage in a sober reckoning about what more our field can and should do to embrace the ideals and spatial imagination of Freedom Summer. We are 60 years behind, and it is time to catch up.

Perspectives is a column intended to give AAG members an opportunity to share ideas relevant to the practice of geography. If you have an idea for a Perspective, see our guidelines for more information.


A Toolkit for What Resists Fixing: Creating a Culture of Care

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By Risha RaQuelle, Chief Strategy Officer

Photo of Risha Berry

I most recently had the privilege of presenting a beta version of our TLC GRAM toolkit at the 2024 GFDA Department Leaders workshop with Dydia DeLyser of California State Fullerton and Daniel Trudeau of Macalester College. The TLC GRAM Toolkit is a compressed, operationalized approach to the AAG’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee’s strategic plan. I was excited to share this newest version of the strategy, which we piloted with our JEDI Committee working groups, as a potential tool for geography departments and program leaders at a time when such tools are very much needed.

Briefly, I invited the participants to walk through the toolkit and consider their own justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion strategies in one of the seven domains: Training, (Focused) Listening, Communications, Governance, Reports, Advocacy, and Membership. Although created for use by geography education leaders, we hope that anyone could adapt these tools to a wide variety of settings. We have also taken care to prepare this for many contexts, knowing that some campuses and states are pushing back against JEDI programs in explicit ways. For program leaders in states where JEDI work is being challenged, the TLC GRAM framework provides a universal outline to consider how to do the work within these limitations, by emphasizing management and training approaches that have broad relevance for good governance and student support. For example, in the workshop, participants were invited to match existing and planned strategies with the TLC GRAM categories the activity aligned with.

This “inventory” approach is helpful for identifying a range of strategies and approaches that are already in place, viewing them through the lens of TLC GRAM “best practices,” and then identifying new methods they’d like to try.

The TLC GRAM inventory is a process designed to encourage leaders to identify and build on the JEDI practices they have planned or underway.

The TLC GRAM inventory is a process designed to encourage leaders to identify and build on the JEDI practices they have planned or underway. This approach also leads the participant to round out their JEDI practices by developing strategies within each of the seven domains of the toolkit. Through this process, a participant will begin to see opportunities for alignment, areas that overlap, and gaps in planning. When a team co-creates this list, it can be even more powerful, as they refine their brainstorming into clear and actionable steps, celebrating the opportunity to collaborate in accomplishing their identified aims.

In other words, the toolkit is designed to take the guesswork out of identifying the “perfect” strategy.

Why Seeking the “Perfect” Strategy is Not the Best Way

The request for a toolkit often comes with an expectation of highly specific steps to take, and this is understandable. Who wouldn’t want a quick and straightforward way to identify actions to take, find clear categories we can get right the first time, and co-create strategies that are seamless and efficient? However, a toolkit is just that: tools. Try as we might, we can’t make the tools themselves into the end. They are only the beginning of an intention toward change. Uncertainty, learning, trial and error are not only unavoidable, but necessary to facilitating change.

The work we do to intentionally create opportunities for systems change is not a short game. This work is deeply systemic, unpredictable, and requires long-term commitment. The temptation is to identify ALL the strategies that anyone has ever taken, listen to how they utilized them, and consider if those strategies may work in your own context. While there is value in considering many options, you as leader and your team are the best candidates for identifying what you want to accomplish and what might motivate you.

Knowing that this work requires patience, we can still motivate and energize ourselves by engaging in quick exercises to jumpstart our thinking.

Knowing that this work requires patience, we can still motivate and energize ourselves by engaging in quick exercises to jumpstart our thinking. Doing so allows us to become time delimited, listing activities that might be possible in each domain. Of course, fear and anxiety might emerge as the pressure builds to find the “perfect” strategy. The purpose of this exercise is to identify “a” strategy. Carving out 10-15 minutes together with your team will jump start a process to co-create and refine each strategy, as time permits. The goal is to see what might be possible. For example,

  • In the Training domain — I might want to identify what training courses are available to support faculty and staff or students in undertaking justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion work. An inventory of what exists in the department is a first step toward finding out who is already doing the work on our team. In states where constraints are being placed on many kinds of DEI programming, I might think creatively about ways to strengthen existing mentoring and leadership training programs and faculty development.
  • In the Focused Listening domain, a participant might say they will create opportunities to have discussions about a justice, equity, diversity, or inclusion strategy that the department might want to undertake. This could be during a staff meeting as a quick exercise. Again, this can take other forms, like a special listening activity for students to talk about their needs and experiences on campus. You could also regularly assess the departmental climate to ensure that it is ideally free of tensions and hostility and that it fosters a healthy, constructive and inclusive environment for all groups — students, faculty, and support staff.
  • In the Communications domain, one might identify who is represented on our website and why. Who is missing? Developing a strategy around gaining stories from scholars that you do not see on your website, personal testimonials, and narratives about their lived experiences in their research journey, could be a first start.
  • In the Governance domain, one might start with adding a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion item (or a similar item focused on creating a culture of care, addressing full student needs, etc.) on every agenda to discuss opportunities for alignment and support. This way you will be certain to address this topic each time you meet.
  • In the Reports domain, you may want to identify what demographic reports exist for your department, who may have access to this and what might the trends be that you see as you disaggregate the data by demographic categories. You could also pair the demographic trends that you see with lived experiences of those that may not be represented in the data. What do we want to accomplish together and why, could be a first start.
  • In the Advocacy domain, you could identify what your advocacy aims are for your department, how you might support them and who might want to get involved.
  • In the Membership domain you might want to identify who makes up your department, team, or classroom, taking an assessment of who is missing and how you might find new opportunities to engage or recruit those that are not present.

While we can quibble over aspects of what is represented in the toolkit — and this matters — the first attempt is to take the first step, write something down and commit to doing the work. Pull the list together, with your team, co-create and consider the possibilities and limitations, with others, and start somewhere. You will be surprised at what you will accomplish when you take this first step. Please contact me so that we may celebrate your success. I am rooting for you!

The AAG Culture of Care column is an outreach initiative by the AAG JEDI Committee. Don’t forget to sign up for JEDI Office Hours. The current theme of Office Hours is An Ethos of Care in the Research Enterprise.


Responding to the Critical Moment

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By Risha RaQuelle, Chief Strategy Officer

Photo of Risha Berry

This month, we are sharing more information about AAG’s Research Partnerships Initiative, and specifically the current Request for Partners (RFP) for Targeted Mentoring Networks. During AAG’s months of development around these initiatives, as well as the discussions and insights offered by participants at AAG 2024, I was reminded of a term that is often used and sometimes comes under fire, yet is seldom fully understood. That word is “critical.”

In her recent column on the importance of language and terminology in education, outgoing chair Dr. Caroline Nagle of the AAG’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) committee discussed the temptations and pitfalls to “rebranding” a word or concept that is attracting pressure and attention. She was speaking primarily of the terms associated with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), but could easily have been speaking of a word  like “critical,” which has been a flashpoint for ideological attacks on everything from educational goals for critical thinking to the development of critical race theory, a legal concept widely misidentified with all race-conscious educational efforts.

It turns out that “critical,” like the discipline of geography itself, is a complex, multi-faceted concept, oversimplified in the public eye. Its surprising origins and shades of meaning are worth exploring as we become more proactive and responsive to ways to strengthen and support the talented people who should be—and stay—in our field.

In last month’s column, I spoke of the fact that cultures of care do not, typically, simply come together because someone just thought it was a good idea. All too often a critical incident reveals the harmful inadequacy of a system or community to meet the needs of all people, whether in a department or program or at an institution itself. A culture of care is initiated because something happened, someone was excluded or harmed, and care must be prioritized to prevent the event repeating. Here, the root meaning of critical matters greatly: from the Greek medical word krisis, meaning a point at which a patient can either improve or worsen. These incidents are decisive points in which we can choose to address harm and strengthen our support systems, or permit the harm to metastasize instead. Notably, crisis and critical are also related to krinein, meaning “to separate, decide, judge…distinguish.”

These meanings suggest a specific perspective for our work of care and transformation in geography. We are challenged as never before to reflect, respond, speak, and intervene where we can by using observation and discernment; to collectively and individually identify the critical moments that point to an urgent need for action.

Collective Care in a Time of Constraint

The reality now is that many of us are working in environments where it can be hard or impossible to meet these needs directly because the very act of speaking up, naming issues and specific incidents, or confronting systemic issues has been hampered by formal or informal silencing, policies against DEI training and activity, and the like. That is why it will be ever more important for the AAG to support and lead proactively, to put the elements of care in place and monitor progress through our JEDI Committee and research partnerships.

We know that critical incidents do not magically go away in the memory or in the present reality of our lives. They remain part of the work—hopefully a catalyst, but often an obstacle. We must support one another with caring strategies to help us share knowledge, co-create, organize, and make the discipline better.

Explore the AAG Targeted Mentoring Network Effort

Mentoring is one of many important areas of educational and professional support, with powerful potential to detect, correct, and hopefully prevent critical incidents, along with its value for the important decisions about research and careers. Yet mentoring is often thought of as one-dimensional, as a classic one-to-one and one-way relationship of an experienced sage to new acolyte. AAG is seeking new ways to energize the practice of mentorship, and specifically to seek partnerships to co-identify grant funding to seed and support ways to mentor geographers with more sensitivity to their identities, needs and aspirations, life experiences, and backgrounds through creating partnerships to develop Targeted Mentoring Networks.

With the leadership of the Targeted Mentoring Network (TMN) Working Group, and the support of the incoming AAG president Patricia Ehrkamp, chair of the AAG Mentoring Task Force, we have issued the first formal Request for Partnership (RFP) of our Research Partnership Initiative, focused on targeted mentoring networks (TMNs). We are open to your ideas for a variety of TMNs, and we believe in a plurality of answers that allow participants to acknowledge certain aspects of their career identity, inclusive of their positionality, and intersectionality.  Finding guidance through the unbeaten pathway of our interdisciplinary field often requires more than one mentor. Through the options explored in the TMN initiative, we hope that geographers will be able to connect to any number of TMN they identify with, helping them build their “Mentor Map.”

Join us in exploring what the Targeted Mentoring Networks effort can become. The RFP is active through August 5. We encourage you to learn more and apply.

This award is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. 2324401 and Award No. 2324402. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

The AAG Culture of Care column is an outreach initiative by the AAG JEDI Committee. Don’t forget to sign up for JEDI Office Hours. The current theme of Office Hours is An Ethos of Care in the Research Enterprise.


Annual Meeting 2024: Expectations and Anticipation

Person holding their hands in the shape of a heart with sunlight in background

By Risha RaQuelle

Photo of Risha Berry

As I reflect on AAG’s work from last year’s annual meeting to this year’s, one word of many come to mind: Transition.

We, members, leaders, and staff of AAG, are living and enduring many transitions, both globally and locally. Yet these transitions require us to continue momentum: Momentum in our reflection and commitment to our core value systems and in our collective call to action through our research, teaching, and service.

It is hard enough to effect transition in the institutions, systems, and ethical frameworks in which we operate. Added to this are the personal and professional transitions always churning in our own lives, sometimes all at once. It can be hard to see a clear dividing line for some, as for example the campuses and organizations where we work experience challenges and shocks to their traditional ways of doing business, challenges in which we too can be caught up.

None of our efforts are possible without you. We are grateful for your partnership.


Opportunities to Get Involved

The annual meeting offered us numerous opportunities to elevate our  voices, particularly within the framework of research and scholarship. A throughline is the set of opportunities to partner with AAG in research and to elevate a care ethic in research, particularly at institutions that sometimes have challenges to their ability to compete with larger R1 institutions. Here are just a few possibilities for you to get more involved in effecting this kind of change in our discipline:

  • Request for Partnerships (RFP). We hosted a session and a set of workshops to acquaint participants in the new AAG Request for Partnerships initiative, as a direct result of our commitment to care in the academy and our collective community at the AAG. The first formal RFP is active through August 5, and focused on targeted mentoring networks. Learn more and apply.
  • Convening of Care. Culminating in a forum of 30 participants in September, the Convening aims to shift the presumptive practices of the research enterprise toward policies and systems informed by an ethos of care. Although the first open round for participation closed May 1, we continue to seek applicants representing specific cohorts of experience among researchers. Find out more.

One of the most valuable discussions that grew from our sessions were the observations of participants who pointed out gaps in our proposed approach, which does not explicitly acknowledge how often a precipitating event creates the need to consider and enact a care ethic. Care is an act of benevolence, but more than that, it is an act of concern that stems from a root cause that has revealed an uncaring environment. As participants observed, a precipitating event is often the catalyst toward creating a caring environment. These are what I call critical incidents. These critical incidents are lived experiences that scholars and professionals experience as they navigate access to organizational or institutional resources.  In our discussions at AAG 2024, this was illuminated by participants who shared their lived experiences during the session, including experiences they have had at the AAG.

Our Core Value of and Ethos of Care

This discussion of care, what it means and how best to bring it to the foreground,  brings us back to our association, our membership, our community of values in geography, the value of membership, convening, and collective action. Beyond the career advancement, networking, and ability to stay apprised of development in the field, being part of AAG offers the possibility–the beauty—of making an impact in the work we each do.

In the wake of an amazing meeting, meeting new people and current colleagues both virtually and in person, I ask that you continue to reach out.  Continue to show up. Continue to respond to the calls to actions.

Specifically, we will seek new members for the JEDI Committee and its seven TLC-GRAM subcommittees. Find out more about what we are doing, what we aim to do, and how your vision can be integrated into that work.

Our commitment is to be intentional about identifying timelines for engagement and involvement.  By this meaning, when we ask for your service, we will set deadlines for completion of that service and apply our own principles of care to the whole person you bring to the work.  We understand that all of us are being pulled in many fruitful and challenging directions.  We strive to respect your time with respect to these efforts.

With many thanks and inspiration, as I close out this column and continue to issue the call to action and collaboration.

The AAG Culture of Care column is an outreach initiative by the AAG JEDI Committee. Don’t forget to sign up for JEDI Office Hours. The current theme of Office Hours is An Ethos of Care in the Research Enterprise.


Community College Geography and Geographers: An Opportunity for Elevating the Discipline

Apples lined up on a flat surface; Credit: Isabella Fischer, Unsplash

By Mike DeVivo
Grand Rapids Community College

Mike DeVivoOften underemphasized in higher education is the important role played by community colleges, which continue to be responsible for the education of 38% of all American undergraduates enrolled in public colleges and universities. Although David Kaplan’s presidential address and the AAG strategic plan have accentuated their importance, two-year institutions largely remain an untapped resource for our discipline. Enlisting community college faculty as fellow partisans engaged in the fight to keep geography as an imperative discipline on the higher education landscape has merit, for enrollment declines have occurred across the U.S. and geography programs remain at risk of termination; in many regional institutions, which nationwide have seen a 4% drop in enrollment during the past decade, this is a critical issue. Moreover, community colleges do much in contributing to the mission of advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

The demographic attributes of community college students contrast sharply with those in traditional institutions of higher learning; 30% are first generation, 16% are single parents, 5% are veterans, and 21% have disabilities. In terms of undergraduate underrepresented populations overall, community colleges enroll 52% of Native Americans, 48% of Hispanics, 39% of Blacks, and 34% of Asian Pacific Islanders. For a majority of community college students, working one or two jobs while pursuing studies is a way of life.

Community college transfer students make up 20% of the overall undergraduate enrollment in public four-year institutions; in California, it is 25%, and in Florida, it is 33%. Once community college students have transferred to four-year institutions, their retention rate of 81% is higher than that of other transfer students, as well as those who began as freshmen; 68% of associate degree recipients are awarded bachelor’s degrees within four years of entering their selected transfer institution.

Although the average student in a two-year institution is 28 years of age, community colleges are also responsible for the education of many high school students; 34% of secondary school students complete college courses prior to their high school graduation. The number taking geography courses at community colleges is not small, and their interest in pursuing geography as a major at four-year institutions is growing. Certainly, their exposure to the discipline contributes to an expansion of geography majors in transfer institutions, as does the exposure of our field to the non-traditional students making up the lion’s share of enrollment in community colleges.

Non-traditional students are increasing in importance as traditionally aged college students are declining. The National Center for Education Statistics has forecasted a 2.1% decrease in high school student enrollment between 2020 and 2030; further declines are likely in the following decade. Geography programs in both two-year and four-year institutions stand to benefit much from establishing close partnerships, which is likely to increase undergraduate enrollments in each; but it is more than just a numbers game. Expanding the presence of geography enhances opportunities to diversify the discipline, demonstrate its value to society, and educate knowledgeable public citizens. As the onus of responsibility in building these relationships must be placed equally upon the shoulders of the faculty at both two-year and four-year institutions, discussed below are some prudent considerations.

General Education and Transfer. Geography can play an important part in the general education curricula of the institutions in which the discipline persists, for unlike most disciplines, geography courses can be listed among those meeting Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Diversity requirements. Moreover, general education course enrollments often validate the presence of geography programs and provide opportunities for attracting majors. Expanding the number of general education geography courses at four-year institutions increases the discipline’s exposure, and developing corresponding courses at two-year institutions does the same. Ensuring their transferability is imperative.

Distance Education. Enhancing distance education at both community colleges and their corresponding transfer institutions is a must; creation of online, hybrid, and short-term residency courses can accommodate student needs. More than 40% of community college students complete most of their coursework online, and for some it is a necessity; 12% do not have the means to commute to the classroom and 9% must care for a family member. As bachelor’s degree distance education programs in geography are limited, developing affordable options to meet the needs of community college transfer students brings considerable benefit to the discipline.

Teaching and Mentoring. Not only is interactive engagement expected, but teaching and mentoring are also attributes that enhance learning, such as empathy, understanding, and compassion. Likely, most college students are characterized by three or more adverse childhood experiences, which can markedly affect academic performance. Faculty are tasked with adopting some level of flexibility while also maintaining academic rigor. By establishing mutually respectful academic relationships, geography faculty in community colleges can assist promising students to gain awareness of the opportunities the discipline has to offer, which should not only include entry-level employment prospects, but also graduate school assistantships and fellowships. Of course, collaboration with transfer institutions does much to facilitate success.

GTU & VGSP. As one of the few honor societies endorsed by the Association of College Honor Societies that charters chapters in community colleges, Gamma Theta Upsilon’s presence can play a role in elevating the status of geography. A GTU chapter not only enhances the visibility of the discipline, it provides students a forum in which they can plan conference presentations, raise funds for travel, and make contributions to the local community, such as spearheading food drives for children in poverty, and engaging in service in other ways. Moreover, the Visiting Geographical Scientist Program, administered by the AAG and funded by GTU, provides an opportunity for faculty and students in two-year and four-year institutions to collaborate in co-hosting visiting speakers. These kinds of partnerships can be effective in recruitment of majors and showcasing geography to administrative leaders and members of the public. As two-year institutions tend to have close ties to local communities, community college geographers can play an important role in facilitating the town and gown relationships with geography faculty in local four-year institutions.

Academic Conferences. Annual meetings of the AAG in addition to those of its regional divisions, and state geographical societies (e.g., California Geographical Society) provide opportunities for faculty and students from academic institutions of all types to confer, present their research, and engage in the relationship-building that contributes to the success of academic geography.

Indeed, the AAG plays a critical role here, for among other things, elevating the discipline tasks the organization’s leadership to elevate the status of regional division annual meetings. Moreover, the organization must demonstrate both vitality and value to all academic geographers, many of whom have been on the hinterlands of American higher education for years. Urgent action is needed to address some of the 21st century changes in higher education that can adversely impact academic geography and the “health” of departments.” Developing community college-university alliances will not resolve all—or even most—issues facing geography programs; but these kinds of partnerships carry the potential to do a lot in the shaping of healthy departments.


American Association of Geographers. 2023. AAG Strategic Plan: 2023-2025. Washington, DC: American Association of Geographers.

American Association of Geographers. 2022. The State of Geography. Washington, DC: American Association of Geographers.

American Association of Community Colleges. 2023. Fast Facts 2023.

Brenan, M. 2023. Americans’ Confidence in Higher Education Down Sharply. Gallup (11 July).

Fry, R & Cilluffo, A. 2019. A Rising Share of undergraduates are from Poor Families, Especially at Less Selective Colleges. Pew Research Center (May).

Gardner, L. 2023. Regional Public Colleges are Affordable—but is that enough to draw students? The Chronicle of Higher Education: 28 July.

Kaplan, D. 2023. Who Are We? Redefining the Academic Community. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 113 (8): 2003-2012.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2024. Digest of Education Statistics, 2022. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Velasco, T. et al. 2024a. Tracking Transfer: Community College Effectiveness in Broadening Bachelor’s Degree Attainment. New York: Community College Research Center.

Velasco, T. et al. 2024b. Tracking Transfer: Four-Year Institutional Effectiveness in Broadening Bachelor’s Degree Attainment. New York: Community College Research Center.

The Healthy Departments Committee provides engaged guidance and action that enhances the future health and excellence of academic geography departments across the country. Take advantage of our resources and get your voice heard.


Call for Participation for the Convening of Care in Washington, DC

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By Risha RaQuelle

Photo of Risha Berry

I’m excited to share with you the Call for Participation for the upcoming Convening of Care, scheduled to take place in Washington, DC, September 19-20, 2024. Funded by the National Science Foundation and in partnership with the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) and the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP), the convening will bring together 30 participants from three different, key perspectives within the research enterprise: funding officers at colleges and universities, department chairs, and early-career geographers.

If you would like to attend, take a look at our Call and start your application.

The convening will lay the groundwork for alternative standards in the research enterprise — defined as the systems and activities that lead to funding and research — by asking participants to reconsider their work through an “ethos of care” framework. Based on work by Principal Investigator Emily Skop of UCCS has led, an ethos of care seeks to enhance practices and processes within the research enterprise and enable collaborators to confront and address the accepted norms of power and bias, and to “resolve to disrupt and transform those norms in a mutually beneficial, evolving and inspiring manner.”

We are especially eager to see participants from Emerging Research Institutions (ERIs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and community colleges, who are often under-resourced yet most qualified to address the much-needed change to align institutional research activities with the goals of belonging, access, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (BAJEDI).

Questions? You can sign up for Friday Office Hours to meet with me as one of the two Principal Investigators.

This award is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. 2324401 and Award No. 2324402. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

The AAG Culture of Care column is an outreach initiative by the AAG JEDI Committee. Don’t forget to sign up for JEDI Office Hours. The current theme of Office Hours is An Ethos of Care in the Research Enterprise.


Positioning Your Academic Unit for Success: Advice from Senior Administrators

Apples lined up on a flat surface; Credit: Isabella Fischer, Unsplash

By Jon Harbor and Risa Palm

Risa Palm This column is the second in a series from the AAG Healthy Departments Committee that is focused on ways to ensure higher education futures include robust, healthy geography programs. In this column, Risa Palm and Jon Harbor, two geographers who have served as deans and provosts across several types of institutions of higher education, provide their perspectives on positioning an academic unit for success. In the previous column, David Kaplan set the scene with “Departments in Peril: How Can the Healthy Departments Committee Help?” He noted that “while the promise of geography is great and the demand for geography is clear, our overall institutional health is in jeopardy,” and provided a thoughtful review of recent and long-term trends, strategies, and actions.

It is essential for leaders of geography units (departments, schools, programs) to ensure that their senior administrators understand the significance of their unit’s contributions to achieving the overarching goals of the institution, including their key accomplishments, stable management, and performance on key metrics. This understanding and the data that support it are key to maintaining the investments that drive positive outcomes. In this column, we will suggest 10 strategies to position an academic unit for success.

1. Clearly Articulate Your Unit’s Mission and Vision

Ensure that your unit’s mission and vision are well defined and easily understandable by people outside of geography. Craft a clear and compelling narrative that communicates how your unit contributes to advancing the institution’s goals — and always be ready to give a well-practiced ‘elevator pitch’ version of this when a senior administrator asks about your unit.

2. Align with Institutional Priorities

Stay informed about your institution’s strategic priorities and initiatives and participate in the planning for setting those priorities, whenever possible. Regularly assess how your unit’s activities align with these priorities and be among the first to volunteer to engage in key new initiatives. Senior administrators are more likely to invest in areas that they know are delivering on the institution’s strategic goals and are leaders and early adopters in new initiatives. Stay particularly involved in any work to update core requirements, so that the department is positioned to maintain healthy undergraduate enrollments.

3. Communicate Achievements and Impacts

Regularly provide evidence of your unit’s achievements and the impact geography is having on students, the community, the institution’s priorities, alumni, and other key audiences. Share success stories, awards, breakthroughs, and noteworthy collaborations — this is not a time to be shy. The institution’s news and communications staff need good stories all the time: if you regularly reach out to them, they will start to seek out your unit for future highlights. Use unit newsletters and social media to showcase ongoing projects and accomplishments of students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Invite administrators to unit events and send them the unit newsletter and social media highlights. Keeping administrators informed fosters a sense of transparency and helps them understand the value geography brings to the institution.

4. Work on Key Metrics

Be fully aware of your unit’s performance on the key metrics that administrators track and use as data to drive decisions. And work to improve these metrics relative to other units on campus and national comparative data. If you are not sure what these metrics are, ask your dean and the institutional data office what is on the dashboards that are regularly viewed by senior administrators (see #5, for example). Be prepared to present performance data on key metrics as they compare to national benchmarks such as the Delaware Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity. If your performance is lagging on a key metric, develop and implement strategies to address this (if you’re not sure about strategies, reach out to peers and the AAG Healthy Departments Committee).

5. Grow Enrollment

Many institutions are heavily dependent on tuition income, so student credit hours per faculty member and numbers of majors are likely to be among your key metrics (#4). Be proactive in efforts to grow your enrollments in collaboration with your advising, admissions, and marketing units. For example, implement targeted marketing campaigns as well as activities in introductory courses that highlight the career opportunities geography offers. Explore partnerships with local government, businesses, and industries to create internship opportunities and showcase practical applications. Introduce flexible scheduling options, such as asynchronous online courses and summer and evening courses, to accommodate diverse student needs. Organize informative and engaging events, such as workshops, webinars, and unit tours, to provide high-school teachers, counselors, advisors, and prospective students with a firsthand experience of all that geography has to offer.

6. Engage Alumni

Build relationships with key alumni and donors, especially those who are active in college or university-level boards and so who can talk to senior administrators about the importance of geography. Establish and use an alumni board and work with the institution’s foundation to establish alumni engagement and fundraising priorities and processes for the unit. Invite senior administrators and alumni to an annual event that includes recognition of alumni and donors. Active alumni participation is an additional way to make geography more visible to senior administrators, provides role models for students, and diversifies your unit’s income sources.

7. Demonstrate Fiscal Responsibility

Senior administrators prioritize units that demonstrate fiscal responsibility and a clear return on the investment of institutional resources. Develop a transparent budget that clearly outlines how funds are used and how budgeting is focused on driving key metrics and outcomes. As a unit leader, you should be the expert on your unit’s budget. Be proactive in regularly reallocating funds to top priorities, and sunsetting work that is no longer as important. Demonstrating efficiency and accountability will enhance your unit’s credibility.

8. Be Professional About Workplace Conflicts

Strive to be well-managed and stable. Handle personnel matters within the unit and with the help of the professionals in human resources, rather than letting them spill over to the offices of the dean, provost, or president. AAG’s Healthy Departments Committee and programs can help with strategies and leadership development.

9. Foster Collaborations and Interdisciplinary Initiatives

Collaboration is often a priority for senior administrators, and geographers are very well positioned to work with colleagues from many disciplines. Actively seek opportunities to collaborate with other units, research centers, or industry and community partners. Highlight geographers’ abilities to develop and lead interdisciplinary collaborations so that you can position your unit as an invaluable resource for innovation and problem solving.

10. Engage with Senior Administrators

Establish and maintain open lines of communication with senior administrators. Attend relevant meetings and be an engaged and positive contributor, participate in strategic planning sessions, and actively seek other opportunities to engage with institutional leadership. If you believe some of the institution’s strategies and priorities are misguided then, as a unit leader, you should be an engaged, thoughtful, and constructive participant in your institution’s planning and leadership activities to drive future strategies and priorities.

Gaining continued support for your academic unit requires that you adopt a strategic and proactive approach. By aligning your activities with institutional priorities, and by effectively communicating your unit’s impact, performance on key metrics, and capabilities in fostering collaboration, you can position geography as essential to the overall success of the institution. When senior administrators understand the key role geography plays in achieving the institution’s goals, they are more likely to prioritize its continued success.


Learn more about Healthy Departments Initiative

Will we avert geography’s ‘trans failure?’

“…geography’s trans failure is a problem because geography is missing out on our amazingness!”

—Sage Brice (2023, p. 593)

By Eden Kinkaid

It was Friday night when I saw the news. The Governor of Ohio had just made an announcement that the state would be revising the protocols for accessing trans healthcare. This time it wasn’t for youth (though they were dismantling that too); it was for adults, making Ohio the second state to take measures to restrict adult care. The Governor was now proposing to change the administrative rules at the Ohio Department of Health — against all serious medical and professional opinion — to make trans care more difficult to access, regardless of your insurance. The Governor said it was for our protection, though a month later a broadcasted conversation between Ohio and Michigan GOP lawmakers said the quiet part out loud: the endgame was to end trans healthcare access for everyone.

Every day I see news like this. In the first month of 2024, 431 anti-trans bills have been introduced around the country. Many of these bills will become laws: laws targeting trans youth, laws regulating which bathroom we can legally access, laws that would legally punish us for “fraud” for diverging from our sex assigned at birth, laws that are ending the legal recognition of trans people in this country. This news seems to never stop and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. As a trans person, I have learned to compartmentalize it, to become desensitized to it, to register the information but not to feel it. But this news hit differently.

It hit hard because I was preparing to fly out for a campus interview in Ohio on Sunday morning, in 36 hours. It was, in many senses, a dream school for me, one that aligned with my pedagogical vision and my values. The majority of the student body identified as queer. I got the sense that it could be a place for me, a reprieve from the intellectual and emotional labor of making myself legible to my colleagues and my institution. I thought it was the kind of institution that might know how to recognize and value me, both as an intellectual and as a human being.

But in an instant, my hope in the prospect collapsed. I knew that flying across the country and interviewing all day would be exhausting and ultimately futile. I went anyway, holding onto the vague hope that the new rules might not come to pass, or if they did, that the bigger clinics might survive and manage to maintain access. No one knew what was going to happen. And I knew there would be no way to know if I could access care by the time I would have to make a decision. Would I knowingly move to a state that had announced its intentions, and begun taking steps, to eliminate me?

The interview went really well. I felt present and at ease, despite the existential static occupying my mind and body. At the end of the day, I sat in the Dean’s office for the final interview of the visit. Our conversation felt unusually deep and intimate; there was no question in either of our minds that I belonged there. “What would it take for you to see a future for yourself here?” he asked. “There is only one problem,” I told him, “I am not sure if I can live in your state.”

A couple weeks later I would have another interview, this time in Missouri, which wasn’t looking much better. During the week of the interview, the legislature was entertaining eight bills in a special legislative session focused solely on “transgender issues.” (Activist Alok Vaid-Menon clarifies that there are no such thing as “trans issues:” “There are just issues that nontrans people have with themselves that they are taking out on us.”)

I anxiously scrolled through news articles online, deciphering various maps indicating which states were safe and which weren’t. Missouri was headed in a bad direction, but St. Louis was across the river from Illinois, which could be safe, at least for now.

The position would only be for two years. I thought maybe I could outrun it. But I could not ignore the fact that the doors to my career were slamming shut like dominos falling, day after day, bill after bill, state after state.

U.S. map showing anti-trans legislation by Erin Reed
Anti-trans legislative risk map (, Credit: Erin Reed, February 2024


*   *   *

Anyone who has spent any time in academia understands the difficulties of the academic job market. You don’t get to choose where you end up. Maybe you have to move around for a while, maybe you have to take a less than ideal temporary position on your way to a stable career.

I had more or less accepted this fact; my passion for geography overruled the inconveniences of building an academic career. I always thought it would work out some way or another. Yet as my job search intersects with a rising tide of anti-trans legislation, I’m no longer sure it will. The obstacles are too much: exhausting, demoralizing, overwhelming. As Sage Brice describes:

repeatedly uprooting our lives and relocating for short-term insecure contracts is a challenge for anybody. But it hits particularly hard when at each new juncture you have no idea whether or when you will be able to access healthcare, housing, or even just safe access to toilets in the workplace. When you do not know if you will encounter hostility from your institutional leadership, or in the labour union that is supposed to protect you. When your employers host public speakers who agitate against your basic human rights and dignity. When you know you might wake up one morning — any morning — to find yourself splashed over the front page of a right-wing tabloid, the next hack-job victim in a raging culture war. When it might take months or even years to find other trans and nonbinary colleagues in your workplace, by which time you will likely be leaving again. (2023, 595).


That’s what we are up against. The invisiblized yet momentous barriers most of my colleagues have never even had to perceive, let alone navigate.

[We are up against] invisiblized yet momentous barriers most of my colleagues have never even had to perceive, let alone navigate.

The problem is that this career path assumes the mobility of scholars, especially those early in their career. Trans people’s mobility is increasingly limited, whether it be by access to healthcare or other discriminatory legislation, or just the fatigue of having to renegotiate care at every turn. It assumes material resources, which, statistically, trans people tend not to have (29% of trans adults live in poverty, compared to 16% of their cis-hetero counterparts. 38% of Black trans adults and 48% of Latinx trans adults live in poverty). It assumes a level of social and emotional resilience – which trans people certainly have — but which is difficult to access when you face compounding forms of precarity, violence, discrimination, and structural impossibility; when your literal right to exist is being targeted every single day by people and processes that you have no control over.

Weathering these obstacles to build a career here requires a sense of belonging and support in this discipline. Yet one faces further obstacles within the spaces of geography. As I and others have described, geography is deeply cisheteronormative and transphobic (Gieseking 2023, Kinkaid et al. 2022, Kinkaid 2023, Rosenberg 2023).

Forging ahead regardless requires hope. Yet as I take a clear-eyed look at the discipline I love, the career I dream of, I wonder if there is any reason to have hope.

*   *   *

My hope falters on the reality that the current discourse and practices of ‘trans inclusion’ in geography are so out of step with the escalating precarity of trans life in the U.S. and elsewhere (see Todd 2023) that they do not mean much. Over the years I have grown increasingly fatigued by trying to educate my colleagues about basic concepts like pronouns and everyday transphobia, concepts I need them to understand — things I need them to take responsibility for — so that I can have a career here, so that I can stay here. The rate of uptake is slow, and the resistance in many quarters is surprisingly high. I’m starting to wonder if it is true, the message I’ve been getting all along: that people like me simply do not belong here (Kinkaid 2023b).

Reflecting on my time in geography, I wonder: Why has it been my responsibility, as a transgender graduate student, to do this work? Why do I have to perform this intellectual and emotional labor in order to access a baseline of professional dignity and recognition here? If I do not do this work, who will make and hold space for those who will come after me?

I wonder if I am wasting my energy trying to activate my colleagues into caring, into taking action. When they cannot be bothered to go to a single workshop, to pick up a single book on trans life, to speak up for me even in the most obvious cases of transphobic bias and discrimination, how can I ever expect them to fight for me? To fight for my life?

I am afraid that the time for such appeals is running out. If there is to be a future for trans people in geography, we must take immediate and bold action to ensure that future is possible. Now the struggle is not only about departmental climates and trans ‘inclusion’ or ‘belonging’ (though that matters too) — it is quickly becoming about trans survival within and beyond the halls of the academy.

It is about making geography a home for trans people, making geography a place to imagine trans futures and affirm trans life. It is about activating our stated commitments to justice, to advocacy, to critical knowledge, to cultural critique, to transformational change. No amount of cutting-edge scholarship, no amount of diversity training — however well-meaning — will get us there. We must address the compounding forms of material and political precarity trans colleagues face if we are to have the luxury of a future here. And we must do it now.

The AAG and our departments must take immediate and meaningful action to ensure that future if we are truly committed to social justice and inclusion.

The AAG and our departments must take immediate and meaningful action to ensure that future if we are truly committed to social justice and inclusion. What might that look like? It would require departments in relatively ‘safe’ states using every tool at their disposal — including targeted hires — to attract and retain trans scholars. The AAG can utilize its existing networks with department heads to educate and advocate around this issue. We must do this now, as pipelines for underrepresented faculty are under threat as DEI becomes a target of legislators.

It would mean putting material resources and institutional weight behind mentorship programs specifically serving trans geographers, not only to affirm our ‘belonging’ but to develop networks through which we can find advocates and achieve some measure of career security to rise above the engulfing forms of precarity that shape our lives and too often lead to our deaths.

It would require asking our trans students and colleagues: “What would it take for you to see a future for yourself here?” and being ready to listen very carefully. This question is not a light or casual one — it is freighted with the existential weight that burdens our lives and forecloses the possibility of those lives, the weight that stops us from even being able to imagine the future (Malatino 2022). If we are to ask this question — which we must — we must be prepared not only to listen, but to commit ourselves to action. The current “trans moment” (Brice 2023, 592) requires nothing less of us. Let us do it now, before it is too late.

Acknowledgements: A heartfelt thanks to Nick Koenig, Lindsay Naylor, and Wiley Sharp for their feedback on this article.

Works cited

Brice, S. (2023). Making space for a radical trans imagination: Towards a kinder, more vulnerable, geography. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 41(4), 592-599.

Gieseking, J. J. (2023). Reflections on a cis discipline. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 41(4), 571-591.

Kinkaid, E. (2023). Whose geography, whose future? Queering geography’s disciplinary reproduction. Dialogues in Human Geography, 20438206221144839.

Kinkaid, E. (2023b). The Feminist Killjoy Handbook: Sara Ahmed. Dublin, Ireland: Allen Lane, 2023. 323 pp., notes, bibliography, index.£ 20.00 paper (ISBN 978-1541603752).

Kinkaid, E., Parikh, A., & Ranjbar, A. M. (2022). Coming of age in a straight white man’s geography: reflections on positionality and relationality as feminist anti-oppressive praxis. Gender, Place & Culture, 29(11), 1556-1571.

Malatino, H. (2022). Side Affects: On Being Trans and Feeling Bad. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

Rosenberg, R. (2023). On surviving a cis discipline. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 41(4), 600-605.

Todd, J. D. (2023). Trans Liberation in the UK is Under Threat: How Geographers Can Respond.” Antipode Online.

Perspectives is a column intended to give AAG members an opportunity to share ideas relevant to the practice of geography. If you have an idea for a Perspective, see our guidelines for more information.


Language Matters: Communications for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Person holding their hands in the shape of a heart with sunlight in background

Caroline Nagel, JEDI Committee Chair

Caroline NagleOver the next several months, we’ll devote space in this column to the perspectives of JEDI Committee chairs as they continue implementing AAG’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) plan through the framework of TLC GRAM, which stands for Training, Listening, Communications; and Governance, Reports, Advocacy, and Membership. Caroline Nagel is the chair of the JEDI Committee and also chairs the JEDI Communications subcommittee.

As geographers, we are often reminded that geography means earth-writing. Put another way, we are in the business of words. The identification of communications as a pillar of the JEDI strategic plan acknowledges explicitly that our words are important—that the messages we convey among ourselves as geographers and to the rest of the world matter.

As chair of the AAG Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee, as well as chair of its Communications subcommittee, I am charged with overseeing a process that has ever more importance: enhancing AAG’s capacity to achieve greater diversity, equity, and inclusion within the discipline, whether on college campuses, in private sector work, or in government agencies. Before I discuss some of the committee’s specific activities, I’d like to comment on the context in which we are doing our work.

TLC GRAM logoThe weeks and months following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis saw an outpouring of public support for racial justice in the United States. America, it seemed, was ready for a long overdue ‘racial reckoning’.  American corporations, government agencies, and academic institutions hurried to introduce an array of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) measures designed to address institutional barriers to equality.

The backlash against DEI efforts, however, was swift, and, in hindsight, not entirely surprising.  DEI opponents in ‘red’ states moved to cut spending on DEI activities at public universities, while well-financed conservative legal groups successfully challenged the vestiges of ‘race-conscious’ admissions policies.

As chair of the AAG JEDI Committee, I have watched these disheartening developments closely and have pondered what they mean for the AAG’s DEI efforts.  In this fraught moment, my thoughts turn to how words are laden with political meaning. DEI opponents often argue that DEI, and the critical scholarship that underpins it, is a form of ideological indoctrination that limits freedom of thought and expression.  Their response, ironically, has been to restrict or to eliminate narratives around race, gender, and sexuality that they associate with ‘wokeness’ and to replace them with other, more ‘acceptable’ narratives—for instance, that America is a colorblind society.

As the so-called ‘war on woke’ has gained momentum, some organizations wishing to preserve elements of their DEI programs have looked for new, less overt, ways to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion.   At my university, for instance, the administration preempted pressure from conservative legislators by folding DEI activities into a new Office of Access and Opportunity.  Although this new office does much of the same work that the old DEI office did, I was struck by how our university president, in explaining the name change, emphasized outreach to first-generation students and to veterans and, in so doing, seemed to downplay the focus on students of color. This is not to discount the validity of any such outreach, but, rather, to indicate how certain signifiers of difference—especially of race—are viewed with suspicion despite evidence of their continued relevance in South Carolina and beyond.

While tactics to “rebrand” DEI may be prudent, we should be wary of backing off from the language associated with DEI.  Justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are not the buzzwords of some woke agenda; rather, they are terms that speak incisively to empirical realities.  Take, for instance, the concept of ‘justice’, which has been part of the vocabulary of geographers for many decades.  In some corners of the social media universe, the term ‘justice’ has taken on almost pejorative connotations—hence, the widely mocked figure of the ‘social justice warrior’. But how else are we to talk about the dumping of toxic waste in poor communities, the lack of public investment in affordable housing, the devastation of communities and environments caused by the extraction of resources, or the dire impacts of climate change on countries that have contributed almost nothing to global warming?  If these aren’t matters of social justice, what are they?

This is not to say that concepts like justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion should not be held up to critical scrutiny. Geographers, for instance, have rightly been critical of diversity discourses in universities and other institutions, which often avoid substantive responses to systemic exclusions.  But critiquing these concepts and demanding more of them is different from discrediting them altogether.

I would venture that for most geographers, it is an obvious statement of fact that the world is replete with social inequalities that are reproduced through political structures, institutional policies, and everyday behaviors.  The aim of the AAG JEDI committee is to ensure that geography as a discipline can produce knowledge that captures these complexities; to do this, we need to acknowledge and to elevate perspectives and experiences that have typically been ignored; and we need to ensure that many different voices are shaping conversations within all disciplinary subfields.

Within the JEDI Communications Committee, we have focused on a heightened presence for JEDI activities on AAG’s social media and other platforms, as well as the work underway to help reorganize the AAG website and JEDI page so that they serve as a hub for JEDI-related resources and tools. This will involve collating resources from past DEI initiatives and making these resources more readily available for AAG members.  It will also involve creating profiles of departments that have successfully recruited diverse groups of undergraduate and postgraduate students; posting curricular resources that emphasize critical geographical thought; providing curated lists of sources that explain community engagement; and short videos of AAG members who are making a difference in their institutions and communities.  We also plan to post information about upcoming JEDI-related events (including AAG sponsored workshops and forums), and to highlight JEDI-focused conference sessions.

As we work toward the implementation of the JEDI strategic plan, we invite AAG members to get involved and to keep the principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion at the center of our mission as geographers.

The AAG Culture of Care column is an outreach initiative by the AAG JEDI Committee. Don’t forget to sign up for JEDI Office Hours. The current theme of Office Hours is An Ethos of Care in the Research Enterprise.


Departments in Peril: How Can the Healthy Departments Committee Help?

Apples lined up on a flat surface; Credit: Isabella Fischer, Unsplash

Photo of David KaplanIn many respects this should be a time of rising attention and support for geography. The concerns of the planet — global climate change, geopolitical turmoil, social and spatial justice — are those that speak to geography’s strengths. Geography scholars have been recognized with Guggenheims, MacArthurs, National Academy invitations and other honors. Geospatial technologies are standard throughout business and government, and geographers are best poised to educate geospatial practitioners and develop new technologies. We are also a STEM discipline, which puts us at a strategic advantage given the priorities of many universities these days.

Yet, while the promise of geography is great and the demand for geography is clear, our overall institutional health is in jeopardy. Consider these two markers. First, as the State of Geography report pointed out, and as I warned in my first presidential column, there has been a steady drop in the number of geography majors throughout the United States in the last dozen years. Lower major numbers reduce overall credit hours in geography programs. Second, several geography programs in the last several years have been eliminated or severely impaired. This has happened at both smaller, teaching-oriented universities and in larger research-oriented flagships. The number of programs in peril is higher than I have seen in my professional experience and constitutes a critical problem for our field.

Those of you reading this column are aware of some of the reasons behind these trends. Most colleges and universities across the country are looking at enrollment declines and entire institutions have been forced to close. Funding support is under threat In the face of stingy state budgets and some legislators casting universities as the enemy rather than emphasizing the benefits they offer to society. Moreover, as an academic discipline within the United States, geography carries its own unique disadvantages. We cannot always count on university administrators being familiar with what we do (how many times have we been called “Geology”?). As a discovery major that most students find only after having taken a class or two, we rely on core-curriculum requirements to bring in our students.

To counter these trends, we cannot afford to rest on our impressive laurels. As I see it, if nothing is done to turn things around, we could be looking at geography becoming a niche discipline at just a few, mostly larger, universities. Several states will have no geography programs within their borders. And as access to geography programs diminishes, ever fewer people will know of its value, leading to a vicious cycle of continued decline.

Unfortunately, there are no straightforward solutions to these challenges. In past years, overall increases in the number of college and university students provided all disciplines with a boost. Merely holding our own was enough to ensure success. The high-water mark was in 2010, when there were 21 million U.S. university students. Since then, the numbers have declined by ten percent; declines that will probably accelerate with falling birth rates. When overall higher education numbers decrease, budgets are stressed, and disciplinary success requires fighting against these larger trends. In a shrinking pool of students, Geography needs to prove its value over and again.

In keeping with this need, many useful ideas have been discussed in journals and in the pages of the AAG Newsletter. A couple of years ago, Stoler and others measured the effectiveness of various terms associated with the names of courses and departments. Several academics have noted the value and promise of the AP Human Geography exam, including Moseley et al and Solem et al, and AAG presidents have weighed in on some ideas to improve departmental health, including building an environment of respect (Lave), enhancing mentorship (Alderman), building community in geography (Foote), and creating a more equitable academic culture (Kaplan).

Fortunately, the American Association of Geographers has long understood the challenges departments face and has endeavored to help. The Healthy Departments Committee (HDC) was established in 2004 as an AAG standing committee composed of well-established professors and administrators from a variety of institutions. The HDC was intended originally to act on any requests from departments or programs threatened with closure. It was also meant as a resource for departments looking for external reviewers or any other form of assistance. Under the able direction of first Vicki Lawson and then Alec Murphy, the HDC has written dozens of supportive letters to university decision-makers. The HDC also initiated workshops for department heads, developed a set of materials for departments to utilize in their own promotion, and facilitated the launch of a department heads’ listserv.

These activities continue to this day, but we need to find ways for the HDC to become more proactive in anticipating the threats that departments face. It is always frustrating to discover that a program is slated for closure in a matter of just days or a few weeks, with no time to turn things around. In some unfortunate instances, closures have been announced out of the blue, but more often there have been warning signs, often in the face of low enrollments and a smaller major pool. As unfair as it might be, administrators will seize on these metrics to justify their actions. A program with large numbers of students and with a dedicated base of alumni, is much, much harder to cut.

The HDC can only be effective if geographers know who we are and what we can do. We are available to brainstorm ways to enhance the resilience of your programs, including course changes, curricular design, expanding outreach to potential students, and working more effectively with administrators. Sometimes a few tweaks early on can make a difference. Certainly, it makes sense for all programs to think carefully about their strengths and weaknesses and consider how these align with institutional guidelines.

In order to get a more granular look at geography programs in the United States, the HDC has been working with the AAG to expand its data collection on matters of relevance to departmental health. Look for a survey to be distributed to all program heads in April which will provide measures of departmental health. Strong participation will greatly improve the ability of the HDC to respond to departments facing significant challenges. We will identify those activities that the AAG can perform on behalf of departments, such as creating more relevant promotional materials and providing help for at-risk departments.

In the lead-up to the release of the AAG Survey and the Annual Meeting in Honolulu, we will be providing more information on the state of Geography and what the Healthy Departments Committee can do. Moving forward, we urge those of you who work in colleges and universities to reflect on your own programs and possible ways to build a more robust, healthier department.

I would be delighted to speak with you further about this. Please reach out at