The Power of Mapping

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten titled “Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora”

Rev. Andrew Young and SCLC field organizers (Bob Fitch Photography Archive)

This past May, I had the privilege of attending the “Researching, Teaching and Embodying the Black Diaspora” workshop at Carleton College, which was sponsored by the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges. The workshop, hosted by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten was an innovative, generative space where faculty across a host of institutions grappled with a critical set of questions related to the viability of teaching the Black Diaspora. What does it mean to teach about the Black Diaspora at predominately white, elite institutions? What are the ethical and moral responsibilities of non-Black persons teaching about the Black Diaspora? What resources and relationships do faculty and administrators need to cultivate to support research done on the Black Diaspora?

Workshop conveners and participants grappled with these questions in light of the fact that 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Black Studies programs in the United States. For campuses across the nation, these programs serve as the primary intellectual repository for the examination of the Black Diaspora and most other forays into the life, history, culture, politics, and intellectual tradition. Given this reality, one of the central questions to emerge from the workshop was, “how do we grow and sustain Africana Studies programs?”

Whether you and your colleagues are attempting to build a program, a department, a certificate program — if you are trying to advance the work of studying the Black Diaspora in any way — it will always make sense to take stock of the obstacles and opportunities you will face in the process. One tool that may be of use is a process called Power Mapping. The concept is a fairly straightforward one; this is a process where you lay out the terrain of your campus to determine who are the people who support your initiative, the people who don’t, and the ones who are undecided. It is also a process to assess the relative power/influence of the people who’ve been mapped. Lastly, it is a process that enables you to visualize the networks and relationships in play on your campus. Generally, this is a visual tool — a literal map — that enables you to see and make sense of the information yielded by the map.

Power mapping is a tool employed by a wide range of folks: people in community development who need to assess the terrain of a neighborhood; activists working to advance an important issue; academics seeking to map structural and institutional power dynamics. Understanding the status quo of a community, city, or college is an essential first step in the process of shifting the culture of that entity. Though the term may be new to many, the basic concept is not.

During the mass-based mobilization phase of the Black Freedom Struggle, organizers and activists routinely took “the lay of the land” prior to the beginning of major campaigns. Organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) frequently sent in advance teams to acquire knowledge about the centers of influence and power in Black communities, the political orientation of community leaders, and get a sense of the people in that community who would welcome protests, those who would oppose them, and the extent to which local people would need to be persuaded to join the movement. Mapping also yielded information on the shape and nature of white resistance. Organizations then used this newly acquired information as they tailored their plans for the mass-based action. In a very real way, the mapping conducted by these groups shaped the outcomes of all the major campaigns we read about in our history books. Although the stakes may not be quite as high as they were in Birmingham, Chicago, or Memphis, mapping our colleges prior to initiating a new program can be an indispensable first step on the way to a new program.

There are a variety of methods to do the actual mapping. Many of them can be quite elaborate. For our purposes, I’ve chosen a process that is fairly simple, given the fact that a college/university is a hierarchical organization, with (fairly) clear lines of authority, influence, and power. In most instances, if the president gives a directive, it will probably be implemented. However, if the directive is wildly unpopular, the president may need to work with key constituencies in the faculty and select divisional leaders to create a sense of investment and ownership in the directive before she brings it to the faculty for a vote.

Here’s a basic outline of a power map:

1) Determine the target: Is it the faculty senate? The president? Divisional chairs? Who is the person or group that will make the ultimate decision to create your new program?

2) Map influence to the target: Who are the people, groups, organizations that have relationships with the target individual/group and can potentially influence them? On many campuses, either the faculty or the faculty senate makes the decision to affirm the creation of new programs. Who are the groups that influence the faculty? You should also think about the individuals/groups/constituencies that reside off campus in this phase. Donors, community and civic groups, cultural centers, museums — all of these organizations may have a vested interest in the creation of an Africana Studies/Diaspora Studies program on your campus. Make sure you’ve chronicled these potential advocates.

3) Determine relational power lines: What are the connections between the target and the various organizations/individuals you’ve mapped out? In a college context, these lines are frequently overlapping; keep that in mind as you build your map and your strategy.

4) Target priority relationships: Think about the groups and individuals with the most power and influence in your map. Keep in mind, power is not necessarily the same thing as influence. The president of your college may have a lot of power, so too with the provost. But a core group of faculty who’ve been at the college decades longer than either the president or provost may have a profound influence on the thinking of the faculty, or the members of the faculty committee tasked with bringing your proposal to the floor for a vote. This is crucial to remember, particularly in the small, private liberal arts context. On a faculty of two hundred people, fifteen respected (or feared) members can be either formidable allies or opponents.

5) Make a plan: Now that you’ve mapped out the various relationships that you need to engage, create the plans to move your agenda forward. What are the best approaches to engaging the various constituencies? What’s the necessary division of labor for your team? What allies can you count on to help you make the connections you need to establish? What are the clear obstacles in your path? How can those obstacles (individuals or groups) be effectively engaged and turned into allies? How can outside constituencies help in this process?

Power mapping is perhaps one of the most effective tools you can use to determine whether or not your program is actually prepared to engage in the process of expansion. Mapping can yield a number of benefits. It can help determine your institution’s actual level of commitment to the teaching of Black Diaspora studies and the potential expansion of a program. For those who are opposed on your campus, this process enables you to gauge the (stated) nature of the opposition, so you can then determine what steps you may need to take to address the legitimate concerns/reservations that are expressed. Are the reservations budgetary? Curricular? Logistical? Are they concerns that your group have already identified? Which of these barriers can be addressed by the administration, or by members of the program? Having the obstacles laid out in plain sight is a crucial step in the building process.

Of course, good old-fashioned white supremacy is often masked as “structural challenges” of some such. As is often the case, comments like, “I don’t think we’re ready for a program like this,” often mean, “I don’t want our campus teaching any more classes or sponsoring programs about Black people. Enough already!” This too is usable information. The question is not whether anti-Blackness operates on your campus; you already know the answer to that question. The true question is the extent to which it will be a barrier to the construction of the program you and your allies seek to build.

Lastly, mapping opens up a space of possibility in the identification of on-campus allies. For instance, if the Africana/Diaspora Studies Program is not a hiring unit, identifying potential spaces for joint appointments and other strategic/programmatic partnerships can be a crucial step on the way to building a program that will eventually be able to hire faculty directly. Crucially, mapping can help make clear the potential to partner with off-campus allies as well. This effort — the building of viable college-community relationships with Black organizations in the community — is squarely in line with the spirit and ethos of Black Studies programs built (against what some thought to be impossible odds) fifty years ago.

Perils and prospects — all are made clearer when we begin our institution building with this simple and effective tool.

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Charles McKinney

Charles McKinney is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of History at Rhodes College. His primary research interests include the Civil Rights Movement, and the exploration of local movements in particular. His work illuminates the under-researched phenomenon of mass-based protest and community struggle that takes place far removed from the urban centers of the South. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesWMcKinn2.