Boundaries and Connection: Creating a Meaningful Meeting in Honolulu

Panorama of Menehune fishpond, aka Alekoko Fishpond, historic Hawaii, Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii, USA

Photo of Rebecca Lave

The first of AAG’s webinars in preparation for the annual meeting in Honolulu took place on Tuesday, July 25. Webinar participants Aurora Kagawa-Viviani (University of Hawai‘i-Manoa), Mahina Paishon-Duarte (Wai Wai Collective CEO and co-founder) and Ulalia Woodside Lee (Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i) shared stories, images, and songs to introduce Hawaiian culture and the central role of reciprocity; critiques of the impacts of imperialism and interlinked economic, environmental, and cultural struggles; and tools to help us organize the annual meeting in a way that positively addresses both. More than 130 AAG members attended the webinar, Aloha Aku, Aloha Mai: Aloha Given, Aloha Received.

These webinars are an important piece of AAG’s commitment to centering Kānaka (Indigenous Hawaiian) history, struggles and triumphs (see my July column for details on the other parts of that commitment), and to building a new locally engaged, justice-focused model for our annual meetings in Honolulu and beyond. This new model is an obvious step forward: in retrospect, it seems absurd that Geographers, the academics most centrally focused on space and place, have engaged so little with the areas outside our conference hotels. With the notable exception of field trips, our annual meetings have mostly focused inwards.

Yet this new model raises big questions, which Aurora, Mahina, and Ulalia crystalized for me in their comments on the 25th.  It is relatively straightforward to engage intellectually with Kānaka scholars, and even some local thought leaders, via key notes at the annual meeting. Economically, AAG has committed to waiving fees for Kānaka vendors during the meeting and providing lists of Kānaka-owned businesses to visit. But even a quick look at the chat log from the webinar shows that attendees also wanted to build meaningful relations while they were in Honolulu. How do we enable annual meeting attendees to build genuine connections with local communities without placing burdensome demands on their time and resources? How do we enter communities in respectful ways? In Ulalia’s words, how can we “level up expectations for guests” in Hawai’i?

There are no simple answers to these questions.  My hope is that we will develop a collective response via the webinar series, and discussions among Specialty and Affinity Groups, the local organizing committee, and Kānaka community engagement facilitator Neil Hannahs.  A few initial options mentioned during the webinar were:

  • Embracing our kuleana as guests: carefully considering what skills and connections we can bring to the local community, and being intentional about ways we can be useful and reciprocal.
  • Land engagements: field trips that enable conference attendees to contribute labor and resources to existing workdays for Kānaka community groups (rather than asking for special events for us).
  • Events for school groups: offering workshops for local schools, perhaps at the schools or in the Convention Center.

I look forward to adding to and refining this list in conversation with you to develop new practices for our annual meetings.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0136

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.


The 2024 Annual Meeting in Honolulu

Green triangular sign saying "Aloha visitors, please check in at office"

Photo of Rebecca Lave

Over the last year, I have heard from geographers on four continents, voicing concerns about the 2024 annual meeting in Hawaiʻi in relation to cost and accessibility, climate change and carbon emissions, and Indigenous self-determination and legacies of settler colonialism. These issues of economic, climate, and Indigenous justice are deeply important to me, and I love being part of a discipline that foregrounds them and their interconnections. Thus, I deeply appreciate the people who took the time to reach out, and I am dedicating my first column as AAG President to these concerns.

The decision to hold the 2024 annual meeting in Honolulu was made in 2016, long before the current Executive Director, Gary Langham, or any of the current Council members held positions of authority at AAG. That said, we take responsibility for deciding to move forward. Our decision wasn’t made lightly, and it took into account the real costs of cancelling, as well as the inherent responsibilities in proceeding, especially in terms of climate action and attention to the wishes and wellbeing of the Kānaka Maoli, the sovereign people of Hawaiʻi.

I’d like to address these considerations one by one, although they are of course interconnected.

Indigenous Sovereignty

The concern I heard most frequently was about Indigenous self-determination, often citing tweets from Deondre Smiles, former chair of the Indigenous People’s Specialty Group, stating that Indigenous Hawaiians (Kānaka Maoli) did not want visitors to come to Hawaiʻi, and contemplating a boycott of the annual meeting. I reached out to Deondre in response to his statements on Twitter, and we decided the best way forward was to convene a conversation between Indigenous Geographers and AAG. After much consultation about who should be part of that conversation, we met on March 10 with a group of Hawaiian geographers, most of whom were Kānaka. They made two points that changed my thinking about the annual meeting:

  1. Kānaka Maoli are not a monolithic group, and they have a range of views about and relationships to tourism; and
  2. AAG was welcome as long as we were good guests. This second point is guiding a range of actions I’ll describe below, but the key is this: Rather than viewing Hawaiʻi through kitschy-touristic lenses (Grass skirts! Drinks in pineapples! Sun-bathing between sessions!), we need to do the work of learning about and attending to Kānaka history, struggles, and successes.

The geographers in that meeting asked AAG to walk away from typical annual meeting practices which, other than field trips, are only lightly tailored to the place where the meeting takes place. Instead, they asked us to center Kānaka issues throughout the conference, from the vendors to the keynotes. Among the most important things that we have agreed to and begun to implement are:

  • Kānaka vendors will have free space in the Convention Center.
  • Kānaka-owned restaurants and other businesses will be prominently highlighted in our visitor information, so that meeting attendees can support them.
  • Kānaka geographers and local people with a range of knowledge will be engaged directly in developing themes for the annual meeting that center their issues and concerns, such as US militarism, food sovereignty, and colonial legacies.
  • Field trips and events will be paired with these themes to create meaningful experiences of the Island.
  • Kānaka Maoli and other Pacific Basin Indigenous groups can attend the meeting free of charge.
  • AAG will work with interested specialty groups to select Hawaiian keynote speakers and foreground Kānaka themes.
  • AAG will develop a series of webinars to help attendees learn more about these themes in the run up to the annual meeting.
  • The AAG Indigenous People’s Specialty Group will have free space to run its own programming during the annual meeting.

Our discussion also resulted, in this meeting, in AAG hiring a Kānaka event coordinator, Neil Hannahs, the founder of Hoʻokele Strategies LLC, to help with all of the above, to ground us in Indigenous Hawaiian values, and help attendees to be good guests.

Climate Impact

We are still thinking about how to address the climate impacts of holding the annual meeting in Hawaiʻi, but there are a few things we can say with certainty now.

First, given the excellent and damning work geographers have done about the ineffectiveness of carbon offsetting, we know that is not a realistic option.

Second, thanks to the vision and persistence of former AAG President Emily Yeh and the members of the Climate Action Task Force she convened, the willingness of AAG staff to think outside of conventional conference models, and the impressive efforts of geographers in Fullerton, CA and Montreal, we now know that nodes offer a viable alternative to attending the annual meeting in person.

In 2021, AAG released a report to aid in decision making for its meetings. Based on those projections, we know that AAG 2024 in Honolulu could have much higher emissions than typical meetings if no options are provided (35k vs. 16.5k tCO2). Adding additional hubs can reduce emissions impacts dramatically, however, which is why we are seeking to scale up nodes dramatically. The current plan is to have at least 10 nodes next year, offering much lower-carbon and lower-cost ways to view, and even participate in, the annual meeting.


AAG’s early response to concerns raised about the meeting was to look into the cost of cancelling. Doing so would have cost over $1 million, or about 1/6 of AAG’s annual operating budget. Particularly because AAG has spent millions of dollars over the last few years of virtual and hybrid meetings, there is no way to absorb that cost without laying off staff and cutting back on activities that support and promote geography and geographers. We have opted to instead invest resources—funds and people—in hosting the most robust, ethically responsive, and locally (and virtually) engaging 2024 meeting we can host. As with actions we have had to take over the past nearly four years, AAG’s stance is a thoughtfully risky one.

We know that traveling to any AAG meeting is costly, disproportionately so for our many members who do not have access to departmental or other funds to attend. That’s another reason it is so important to us to keep the virtual option in place, and to do what we can to secure competitively low hotel rates. While Honolulu is one of the most expensive places the annual meeting is held, it’s worth noting that travel costs vary markedly by geography; I heard from geographers from Aotearoa New Zealand who were delighted that they could actually afford to attend the annual meeting this year. For all AAG members, we provide a number of options that can defray travel and registration expenses including the Community College Travel Grants, AAG Student Travel Grants, and AAG-GTU Travel Grants.

Looking Forward

I have learned much by working through the concerns raised by our members, particularly in terms of Kānaka Maoli wishes and sovereignty. I have also been surprised and very pleased at AAG’s response to both criticism and constructive suggestions. Over the last few months, I have shifted from being worried and uncertain about the Hawaiʻi meeting, to actively looking forward to learning more about Kānaka history, struggles and victories. Land acknowledgments, where many organizations stop short, have been criticized (appropriately, in my view) for merely naming histories of dispossession and death; AAG’s planned approach in Hawaiʻi feels like the beginning of an answer to how disciplinary societies can do more.

I hope you will be part of the 2024 meeting, and I encourage you to be in touch with AAG concerning any questions. Email,.

*   *   *   *

Join us in learning more. At the annual meeting in Honolulu the AAG will pilot a new approach that connects the conference more strongly to the place where it is held. To do that respectfully and well, we need to learn more about Hawaiʻi before we go. Between July and March, the AAG will be hosting a virtual learning series featuring Hawaiian speakers and perspectives on a broad range of environmental, political, and historical topics including Indigenous ecological knowledge and sovereignty. We are excited by these opportunities and invite you to join us. You can register for free for the first webinar in this series.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0132

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at rlave [at] indiana [at] edu to enable a constructive discussion.


Richard L. Forstall

Richard L. Forstall died on May 30, 2023, while in palliative care at Goodwin House for heart disease since March. His passing was sudden and peaceful with family present. He was born October 8, 1926, in Chicago, the son of James Jackson Forstall and Nellie Louise (Lothrop) Forstall. He lived in Alexandria for 48 years. He is preceded in death by his parents and also his siblings, Jackson L. Forstall, Philip L. Forstall, and Jean (Forstall) Peneff, and survived by nieces Marilyn J. Peneff, Anne (Peneff) Albert, nephew Nicholas J. Peneff, and many cousins.

Mr. Forstall’s achievements include the development of official standards for defining United States metropolitan areas for the U.S. Census Bureau from 1972 -1995 based on extended work for Rand McNally & Co. since 1951.


Program Profile: California State University Long Beach

Group photo of CSULB MSGISci students
Group photo taken by a drone of MSGISci students at the River Ridge Ranch field site (with Scott Winslow, UAV and GIS Lab Manger front left and Dr. Wechsler front 2nd from left).

AAG staff recently sat down for a virtual interview with California State University Long Beach (CSULB) faculty members Dr. Suzanne Wechsler, professor and department chair; Dr. Lily House-Peters, associate professor and undergraduate advisor; and Dr. Paul Laris, professor and former department chair. When asked how their department demonstrated the value and relevancy of geography, a theme quickly emerged — actions speak louder than words.  Everything the department does is exemplary of demonstrating the importance of geography.

The department is keen on community engagement that provides research and learning opportunities for both students and faculty, adapts their program to ever-evolving geospatial technology and industry standards, and emphasizes the importance of field experience in the coursework across the program’s various concentrations. It’s obvious that CSULB’s Department of Geography is demonstrating the value and relevancy of geography daily, not only to their students, but to their university colleagues and local community members as well.

“One of the things that’s kept us going and relevant is that we’re always trying something…we’re constantly trying out and innovating,” says Laris. His response reflects the overall spirit of a department where innovation is the norm. As Wechsler puts it, being nimble and responsive is what has fostered the program’s success.

Professor and student perform field work with coastal sage scrub.
Professor Laris gives student Alexandra Trujillo a few tips on how to use a quadrat to sample coastal sage scrub vegetation at the PVP Land Conservancy.


Student and professor perform fieldwork together.
Student Cannon Hanson and Professor Laris prep a site for line transect sampling of coastal sage scrub habitat.


Creating stand-out programs to foster student success

Suzanne Wechsler has carried on this tradition in her current role as department chair where her responsibilities include directing the M.S. in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) program. The M.S. was created 12 years ago when it was discovered that M.A. students were dropping out because they’d found work in the geospatial industry before they graduated. The problem was, that while students were obtaining excellent geotechnical skills within the M.A. program, they were taking internships that turned into the jobs they wanted, leaving them with little time or motivation, to complete their thesis. Wechsler and her colleagues realized there was a need to provide an analytical and application-based training for these students to fully prepare them for a career in the highly competitive geospatial industry, rather than the more theory-based approach of the M.A. program.

It’s about being agile and responding to the moment as best as possible, and you can’t do that without a core faculty that are dedicated and get along well…[and]…work together to…figure out how to address the moment.

—Suzanne Wechsler

The result is a vibrant graduate program which includes both a traditional Master of Arts (M.A.) and a Master of Science in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) that received an Honorable Mention for the AAG’s Program Excellence Award in 2019, among other ranked achievements. Students can expect a small, yet strongly networked cohort environment, research and publishing opportunities with faculty that focus on local and global issues, and lectures from community leaders, activists and industry professionals to inform on current best practices and skills.  Research partnerships are built into seminars and culminating activities provide students with opportunities to gain specialized skills and competencies, and, for example, to investigate how issues such as social and environmental justice play out in community settings.

Wechsler adds that equally important to the research experiences we facilitate is the network and community we strive to develop while students are in our program, and after they graduate. With over 200 MSGISci graduates 96% of whom are working in the geospatial field, these networking opportunities are an especially important component of our program. We hope that by building a sense of community while students are here encourages them to stay connected and serve as a network and resource for future graduates.

CSULB students performing GPS data collection
MSGISci students prepare GPS units for data collection at the River Ridge Ranch study site in Springville, CA.


How campus visibility maintains relevancy

The value of geography is enhanced by interdepartmental relationships within the university, according to Laris. Geography faculty often collaborate on cross-listed courses with other departments or stay on the university radar through the reception of grants including an NSF REU. Additionally, some programs such as the M.S. in Geographic Information Science generate income, attract students to the university, ultimately highlight the discipline’s relevancy.

“…we’re [the geography department] a good team player,” says Paul Laris. But it’s Suzanne Wechsler  who places the credit for this success. “That’s largely due to leadership,” she says. “Paul was instrumental in fighting for geography’s place within the college.”

Building this highly felt presence within the university is something that has taken time, but it has become a win-win for the department. At the end of the day, the department leadership’s dedication has benefitted the students, faculty, and long-lasting relevancy of geography.

Put me in, Coach!

The department’s overall success reflects its outstanding faculty. To be successful, both Laris and Wechsler emphasize the importance of creating an environment where faculty are enriched and able to succeed. Drawing on their experiences, the department chair is tasked with the difficult balancing act of distributing teaching loads at a University with a heavy teaching load (12 units per semester) combined with research and service expectations.

“I’m a sports guy,” Laris confesses with a smile. But with the confession comes an important analogy: “If your team’s going [to] do well, you’re only going to do as well as each of your players. If you put them in a position where they can do the best they can do, then maybe you’ll succeed in a place like Cal State Long Beach.”


Member Profile: Eden Kinkaid

Eden Kinkaid points at their name as part of the Against Nature exhibit

It seems like everything is possible in geography

“It was one of those cosmic coincidences that I ended up in geography,” says Eden Kinkaid, who recently earned their doctorate in the field from the University of Arizona. “It is really a great intellectual home for me. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. l have all kinds of critical concerns about geography as a discipline, but as an intellectual space, the geographic imagination totally suits me. I love how interdisciplinary and sort of anti-disciplinary it is — when folks ask me what a human geographer is, I tell them that I am one-third social scientist, one-third philosopher, and one-third artist. In a certain sense, intellectually at least, it seems like everything is possible in geography.”

Kinkaid has invested deeply in exploring just how far the possibilities of geography go: as a creative geographer; co-editor of the journal You Are Here; creator of installations and sculptural inquiries; editor of @wtfisgeography, a playful, wide-ranging Twitter account “offering brief definitions of big words in geographic theory;” and as an investigator of the exclusions of the discipline and limitations of geography curriculum.” Kinkaid is also devoted to creating dialogues about the nature of geography and about how feminism and queer/trans thought can interact and strengthen one another.

“…as an intellectual space, the geographic imagination totally suits me.”

Kinkaid’s curiosity and generosity of vision came in handy during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they were one of the many graduate researchers who had to pivot their work in light of travel restrictions. “I was six years into graduate school and just about to leave for my final stint of fieldwork in north India on a Fulbright fellowship when the pandemic began. I had to literally change my project overnight.” The change led Kinkaid to study food systems, food culture and development in Tucson, where they were in school.

“Working in my own country of origin and in my first language made research much more simple,” says Kinkaid. “I had never done collaborative research, so I learned a lot. Whereas before I would never think to do qualitative research collaboratively, now collaboration is my first impulse. Doing research in my own community enabled me to use my research to actually influence some kind of change in that community. For example, our research on the pandemic’s impact on local food systems was turned into a public research report that folks working in the local food system used to advocate to the legislature for support for food assistance that would also help local farmers. They also used it for a local food system strategic planning process. So that was cool to see.”

Kinkaid’s dissertation research on the cultural politics and political economy of food-based development in Tucson has also prompted local dialogues about whiteness, social justice, and equity within Tucson’s gastrodevelopment project.

Probing the Discipline’s Boundaries and Absences

Kinkaid’s incursions into the narratives, inclusions and exclusions of geography developed concurrently with their interest in feminist and queer thought. “I never set out to study feminist theory or queer theory — it was not really on my radar. I was introduced to feminist theory by my mentors and later encountered queer theory. When I entered graduate school, I didn’t call myself queer. This identification actually emerged at the same moment I started studying geography, when I moved to central Pennsylvania and started in a program there. And the funny thing is that my identification as genderqueer emerged because of a kind of misfit within the culture of both geography and the town I was living in. The way I thought, the way I moved, the way I presented myself seemed at odds with the spaces I was in, intellectually and institutionally. Then I happened into queer theory and found a language for everything I was feeling — the way that I experienced space and my body — and a name for this growing awareness of my body as a source of dissonance in these very cisheteronormative surroundings. I became a queer geographer because I had to — I needed this kind of self-knowledge, epistemology, and theory to navigate what have often been stuffy if not toxic intellectual and institutional spaces. Along the way, I found that being queer and trans is a powerful vantage point for thinking about a lot of geographic questions.”

Kinkaid says that it is hard to draw a common thread across all of their work, “But in this moment, I am reflecting on how my intellectual and institutional work I do in geography are inseparable from the fact I am queer and trans. In a certain way, that is the common thread across lots of work that, on the surface, is not necessarily about that. For example, the way I encounter various philosophical traditions and my critiques of those traditions emerge from the fact that I don’t have the same body as many of my colleagues, that my experience of space and subjectivity is radically different than theirs, and that my experience of my body and self seems to be at odds with the world and its ‘common sense.’ I am challenging my colleagues to rethink their intellectual investments because, a lot of the time, those intellectual stances encode forms of erasure, exclusion, and domination that I experience as constraints on my body, on my world, on my life. My work on queer and trans life obviously emerges directly from the same place — from the unique vantage point afforded by being trans in spaces that are oblivious to trans existence, if not actively hostile to trans life.”

Kinkaid’s intellectual and institutional work around diversity, equity, and inclusion, comes from the same place. “The work finds me,” they say. “It is the work I have to do to render myself and the harm I and others encounter here legible.” My experience of being queer and trans in geography has opened up what feels like a kind of institutional shadow world that I have to navigate — the kinds of professional problems that confront me here (many of which I have written about) are completely bizarre and unrelatable for my peers and mentors. I have encountered a lot of cultural and institutional problems in geography that many don’t see, or refuse to see, which has raised my awareness of the kinds of so-called invisible barriers — cisheteronormativity, cultures of whiteness, ableism, class culture, etc. — that prevent minoritized people from thriving in these settings. So I have become an ethnographer of that shadow world and tried to render it legible to my colleagues — and to call out the logics that produce such inhospitable spaces, not only for queer and trans people, but also for people of color of all genders and sexualities in the discipline and other minoritized people.”

Kinkaid’s artistic work — including their recent natural history, with its nod to Enlightenment-era specimen collection and featuring Kinkaid’s months-long transformation into a satyr — comes from a rejection of the world as it is currently presented and mediated through cisheteronormative terms, and “a yearning for another space, one in which queerness and transness are not so circumscribed and subject to misrecognition and violence.” Kinkaid brings together their spatial understanding with artistic practice to quite literally create space, a space to “challenge and scramble the logics that frustrate my existence, to experiment with a new kind of grammar of existence and build a world that feels more like a home.”

Asked if they have advice for graduate students, Kinkaid counters with advice for faculty: “Learn from your students and junior colleagues. The climate of higher education has drastically changed over the last couple decades, and it is currently in freefall. We’re also in a moment of generational change, where a much more diverse group of people is moving into the discipline and struggling to find space here. So it is necessarily a moment of upheaval and change: the status quo of geography — which, to be clear, is racist, colonialist, sexist, and queerphobic — is getting unsettled. So it is crucial that the people with institutional power and various forms of privilege — senior professors, particularly the cis-het white ones — keep learning, embrace discomfort, and enter into real solidarities with graduate students and junior faculty so we can make space for minoritized people here and create more just futures for geography.”


Wayfinding: ‘Mapping Justice’ GIS Course Empowers Teens to Highlight Issues in their Communities 

Map developed by Mapping Justice student team Oluwaseun Ogundimu and Ruhe Solomon shows how fast food outlets correlate with poverty in Philadelphia. To make the map, the coordinates of fast food locations were layered over Census tracts showing race and income. See the original StoryMap.
Map developed by Mapping Justice student team Oluwaseun Ogundimu and Ruhe Solomon shows how fast food outlets correlate with poverty in Philadelphia. To make the map, the coordinates of fast food locations were layered over Census tracts showing race and income.

With a donation of $50,000 from Esri, AAG has embarked on a partnership with the new educational platform trubel&co, aiming to connect college geography departments with high school students in their area who could take part in Mapping Justice workshops. AAG and trubel&co debuted the partnership at AAG 2023 in Denver, and are growing the concept to help AAG members discover the program’s potential for attracting high school students, especially students from historically and currently marginalized groups in the field of geography, whether because of racialization, economic status, family history of access to college, or gender or sexual identity. 

With the goal of leveraging spatial analysis as an integral part of STEM learning and civic innovation, Mapping Justice began as a 2020 course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC). Founder Nick Okafor encouraged students to connect their concerns and passions with the communities and landscapes they knew—and to see those places in entirely new ways through the power of mapping. Topics included transportation inequities, climate change, discrepancies in food access, gentrification, the digital divide, voting disparities and gerrymandering, and educational inequities. Students work collaboratively, usually in pairs, on every aspect of their projects.  

“STEM is extremely collaborative,” Okafor told an interviewer for Esri in 2022, “so I want them to start building these skills early.” 

In 2022, Okafor and co-founder Alani Douglas formally incorporated trubel&co (pronounced “trouble,” as in “good trouble”) to scale the project up throughout the United States. With a team of six other practitioners, trubel&co has an ambitious vision to “champion diverse high school youth to design geospatial tools for social change, using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to promote equity within their community.” The Mapping Justice curriculum is one effort of the rapidly growing organization, and is intended to build core technical competencies, critical thinking, spatial thinking, data fluency, self-direction, collaborative skills, and cultural awareness. 

The team at trubel&co is also branching out into service learning, notably through the month-long Resilient Civic Futures hackathon in Fall 2023, which mobilizes college students with GIS skills to work with truble&co and cosponsor Earth Hacks to “tackle environmental justice challenges in partnership with community-based organizations through the creation of geospatial tools.” 

Submit this online form to inquire about hosting a Mapping Justice workshop by trubel&co. For further questions, please contact

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0135

StoryMap source of featured map image of fast food outlets correlating with poverty in Philadelphia.


Welcoming a New President to AAG: Interview with Rebecca Lave

Illustration of gavel with digital lines and points. Credit: Conny Schneider, Unsplash
Credit: Conny Schneider, Unsplash

Photo of Marilyn Raphael by Ashley Kruythoff, UCLA

For the last President’s Column of her term, President Marilyn Raphael sat down to interview incoming President Rebecca Lave about her experiences within the discipline and her aspirations for her upcoming leadership at AAG. The following conversation offers insight into the new directions for the 2023-24 presidency. 

MR: What brought you to geography, Rebecca? 

RL: I came into geography from a rather naïve understanding that geography was the place that put physical science and social science together, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write and think about the political economy of stream restoration and how policy physically changes the landscape. I wanted a discipline where I could really understand and focus on the interaction of physical and social forces. It felt to me like geography was the obvious place to go for that. This was for my PhD; my earlier degrees were not in geography. 

So I applied and I got in, and then I went to my first committee meeting, where they were quite shocked and not pleased that I wanted to do physical geography coursework. But because there were physical geographers in the department and I knew them, I could go to them and ask if I could take their classes, and they said yes. So it did end up working out, but there was an initial shock of discovering that the field of geography was actually more balkanized than I had understood from the outside. 

I think that it’s very helpful that I was 30 when I started my PhD. I took time to do other things between high school and college, and college and my masters, and masters and my PhD. So it meant that when my initial committee said no, I thought, “Well, you’re not the boss of me. (Laughter from both) I’m here for my own intellectual path, and I’m going to figure out how to do what I want to do.” I don’t think I would have had the confidence to do that at age 21—speaking just about myself at 21.  

MR: I had a similar experience from the opposite side when I took a political geography course in graduate school. The human geography professor was very welcoming, and it became one of my favorite classes. My physical geography professors wondered aloud — why was I doing this? I didn’t get the pushback that you did, Rebecca, because I didn’t ask permission, I just signed up. It’s so interesting to see the kneejerk responses from the two sides of the discipline. 

MR: What would you tell students about what makes geography so relevant to the questions and issues of the day? 

RL: The first thing I tell students is that geography is the field that has the most intellectual freedom of any part of the academy. To me the beautiful part about geography is that you have no excuse for ever being bored. Every week, when you go into colloquium, you’re hearing about something totally different and outside of the normal academic arena that you’re used to, and I love that about geography.  

I can’t think of a really pressing issue in the world today that geographers don’t study.  

In addition to the intellectual freedom, geographers are talking about everything from urban environmental justice to migration and immigration to natural hazards to causes of and responses to climate change. I can’t think of a really pressing issue in the world today that geographers don’t study. And that, to me, makes it an incredibly vital discipline. 

MR: Yes, I have to agree with you. What prompted you to run for office in the AAG? 

RL: It was not something I’d ever considered doing. I was quite surprised when I got the email from the nominating committee, asking me to talk to them about running for the presidency. I thought about it for a while and thought it was only worth doing if I had a serious intervention I wanted to make — and in fact, I have two — so on the basis of that, I decided to run. But it was quite unexpected for me. 

MR: Do you want to say more about what those interventions were? 

RL: The first is that for the future of geography as an institution and intellectually, it’s important to have multiple strong bridges that connect human and physical geography. I think we already have one strong one in land change science, but until pretty recently, I would say that land change science hasn’t incorporated the more critical end of human geography. So one of my goals in running for AAG president was to promote more interdisciplinary bridges in geography. 

The second intervention I want to make springs from having heard repeatedly from younger scholars and graduate students that they wanted to do community-engaged work but the penalties for doing so were so strong in terms of time to completion of dissertation, in terms of number of publications for tenure, all these things that stood in the way of doing community-engaged work.  

One of my goals in running for AAG president was to promote more interdisciplinary bridges in geography.

Because those kinds of community-oriented, justice-based work are so important to me, I felt really saddened by that. So my second big initiative is to encourage AAG and anglophone geography more broadly to open up avenues to value and protect public and engaged scholarship. 

MR: What would you say to a member considering volunteering? 

RL: The first thing I would say is, even if you are coming from a department that hasn’t been involved before, the door is much more open than it looks from the outside. There are a number of avenues for getting involved, starting at the task force and committee level, then moving on to Council. I would really encourage it, because the organization is only as strong as the people it involves and the representation it achieves. I have now learned from being involved that it’s worth it, and really important to all of our futures in the field to support the organization that we belong to. 

The second thing I would say is that it’s very interesting [to volunteer for AAG]. That’s another reason to do it! I have learned a whole lot about how AAG works. Also, the other councilors are coming from so many different institutions and regions, and I am learning so much about what geography looks like at other institutions inside and outside academia. That’s been really great. 

MR: I really appreciate having been able to serve. I think, as you said, service to the organization is really important. It’s for us: the organization supports us, and we support it. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Now, my last question is what initiatives and projects you are most excited about right now? 

RL: I’ll say four things. 

First, I continue to be really excited about the work of the Climate Action Task Force. I’ve become a member of that task force and I will be working on ways to continue to make AAG less impactful on the climate. 

Second, with the hiring of Risha Berry as the new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at AAG, there will be a lot of exciting stuff happening around diversity and inclusion, and I am excited to keep pushing on that and helping support it. 

Then, on things that I am taking more of a lead on, we started a Task Force on Public and Engaged Scholarship six months ago with the goal of doing several things: 

  • Developing an AAG policy in support of public and engaged scholarship as a legitimate form of geography research. 
  • Developing sample guidelines for tenure and promotion and for graduate theses and dissertations that departments could adopt or tailor to their own purposes, that value and protect public and engaged scholarship. 
  • Creating similar documents for non-academic organizations such as research agencies or nonprofits that do that kind of work. How do we better support public and engaged scholarship in personnel reviews? 
  • Reaching out to federal funding agencies who are increasingly encouraging researchers to include some element of public and engaged scholarship in their work but may not be as clear on what a good project looks like. 

Finally, as part of being Vice President, I visited the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and graduate students there suggested having a day at AAG with a stream of events that is just for undergraduates and early graduate students to focus on things like professionalization and the many things you can do with a geography degree. This is a way both to support our students and to build ties across physical-human geography divides because everyone would be in the same workshops and getting to meet people from other campuses. This is a common sort of event at peer organizations, and it seems like something AAG could do. 

MR: Thank you for sharing your vision with us, Rebecca. I know this is going to be a great year. 

RL: Thank you!  

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0131

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at raphael [at] geog [dot] ucla [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.


Connecting with Our Community to Bridge Divides and Raise Our Voices

Marilyn Raphael and her panelists Tianna Bruno, Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes and Kelly Kay posed for a photo after the 2023 AAG Presidential Plenary, Toward More Just Geographies. Credit: Becky Pendergast, AAG
Marilyn Raphael and her panelists Tianna Bruno, Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes and Kelly Kay posed for a photo after the 2023 AAG Presidential Plenary, Toward More Just Geographies. Credit: Becky Pendergast, AAG

Photo of Marilyn Raphael by Ashley Kruythoff, UCLA

It is now almost a month since our Annual Meeting in Denver concluded and I can still feel the glow. More than 6,000 AAG members converged on Denver ready to re-engage with their geography family. We were at first tentative about being with people in person, yet eager to restart the social-intellectual experiment that these meetings embody. I met many more members than I would normally — not simply old friends and colleagues, as delightful as that was, but also new members, in particular, early career geographers (students, postdocs). Everyone, from seasoned AAG members to brand-new ones to AAG staff, expressed to me how happy they were to be meeting and to be in conversation with each other.

I’ll mention three (of many) special moments:

There was one conversation that I overheard while having a quiet coffee, in which the members were saying how much they were enjoying the meeting, expressing the excitement of realizing that the author whose work you were citing in your presentation was actually sitting in the audience and that the meeting was totally worth the effort that it took to get there. I couldn’t help myself I had to go over and introduce myself as their President and confess that I had overheard them. They were delighted.

Another experience that I will cherish came at our opening reception on Thursday. I was greeted by a quartet of young African geographers who came together to meet me and be photographed with me. They were so excited that their president was a Black woman, they wanted it on record. Their excitement drove home to me how important diversity and inclusion are to inspiring and encouraging young people, not just in our discipline but in their decisions and ability to persist in their work and lives.

A third was attending [part of] the Bridging the Digital Divide networking session, which brought a number of students to the Denver meeting. I mention this because it is an initiative that AAG created in 2020 in “to quickly address the technology needs of geography students at minority-serving institutions, as COVID-19 disrupted their learning environments.” Actions like these move us towards a Just Geography, and the presence of these students at the meeting drove that point home.

The highlight of my meeting experience was the Presidential Plenary I led: Its theme, you will remember, was “Towards a Just Geography.” The plenary brought together ideas that AAG, and you as its members, have been working on for some time. The three panelists, geographers at different stages of their careers, suggested directions arising from their own study, experiences, and hopes. They reflected on the spatial and temporal dimensions of justice, the potential of critical physical geography, and the importance of mentoring our early-career geographers. These are only three facets of what is a multifaceted concept. However, the ideas passionately expressed by the panelists demonstrated a renewed understanding of how transformative the work of addressing justice must be, challenging our mindsets, frameworks, and assumptions.

This call for a renewed understanding stayed with me as I sat in on a number of themed sessions over the ensuing days. As I listened to the presentations, I was struck by the urgency of the voices of geographers as they discussed their work. I saw not only the value of their interdisciplinary and cross-cutting perspectives on the grand challenges of the world, but also the real need for the taking those perspectives into the public realm.

To meet that need, AAG has launched a major initiative, Elevate the Discipline, aimed at amplifying geographers’ voices with training and resources for media relations, public scholarship, and advocacy. In addition, AAG recently completed its Strategic Plan for 2023-2026, which features eight areas of innovation and effort. Woven directly into the new plan are the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiative goals, which will receive a significant infusion of members’ input and guidance this year with the launch of seven new working groups. I’d like to tell you more about these areas of AAG’s work and encourage you to get involved.

Apply: Elevate the Discipline program. May 5 is the last day to apply for AAG’s first-ever Elevate the Discipline training cohort. Elevate the Discipline is designed to provide training, learning resources, and a platform for geographers to be heard in the media, as voices for public policies, and in advocating for change.  In addition to the week-long training program this summer, AAG is developing webinars to be provided in 2024, and has curated a free suite of resources available year-round. This year’s theme for the week-long training is “Climate Change and Society,” which is particularly relevant to the focus on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Join: Working Group for AAG’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) initiative. If you attended the Annual Meeting, you may already have had a chance to find out about the seven JEDI working groups that AAG is forming to enable members to advise and collaborate on the AAG JEDI plan. The groups will address governance, communications, focused listening, membership, reports, advocacy, and training. There are still spaces open on some of the committees, and you can use this link to apply.

In an article for ArcNews last year, I called for renewed efforts to suit our methodologies and research to the very real human needs and inequities that the climate crisis reveals: “There is so much more that physical and climate scientists, including geographers, need to learn about how we practice and use our science. We have made great strides in our understanding of the physical nature of climate and climate change. However, our understanding is limited by the fact that we do not incorporate the human element well enough.” Something similar can be said for our efforts to communicate what’s at stake: Do geographers have the tools they need to not only translate their research to public information, but also to connect the science with social impacts and possibilities? Both the JEDI working groups and Elevate the Discipline are powerful, member-driven opportunities to help AAG illuminate and amplify the social and physical dimensions of this current moment on our planet.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0130

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at raphael [at] geog [dot] ucla [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.