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Maptivists Promotes Youth Safety and Wellbeing

Posted by on Tuesday, November 10, 2020 in Robert Penn Waren Center.

Danielle Wilfong is the 2020-2021 RPW Center HASTAC Scholar

We started our research project as an immersive tour of Nashville. Then, COVID-19 happened.

Over the last four years, Maptivists, a cadre of high-school-aged researchers supported and trained by Oasis Center, Vanderbilt University, and Tennessee State University, has investigated how Nashville’s youth experience safety and wellbeing in the city through storytelling and geographical information systems (GIS). Before the global pandemic, our years of exploratory research led us to two important conclusions. First, youth largely define safety in the city in terms of social acceptance (as opposed to issues of the built environment). For example, safe spots in the city are places where:

  • they can form deep, meaningful relationships with others;

  • they do not stand out by or are excluded for their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation;

  • there is no clear demographic majority (i.e., highly heterogeneous); or

  • businesses carry items that are representative or part of their culture.

Second, storytelling is key to making conversations about space and geography accessible and meaningful more so than beginning with more technical approaches (e.g., open data, GIS, GPS). We found immersive storytelling (i.e., telling stories at the places they occur) to be particularly important as many youth report being personally unfamiliar with large portions of Nashville.

With this in mind, Maptivists decided to research youth’s experiences of Nashville through digital storytelling (i.e., photography, GIS, and narration) with the goal of raising the public’s consciousness of the challenges and supports youth find in their social environments. To create several themed tours, Maptivists would pick and tell stories about several places in the city that impact their daily lives. Then, we would take local youth on these tours and ask them to add to the tour by selecting additional places in Nashville and sharing their own stories.

We had just started building our tours when the global pandemic hit. Guided tours became serious health risks, and virtual tours (and data collection) became unfeasible given both the complexities of implementation and disparities in internet access. Our challenge was how to stay rooted in youth’s personal experiences in the city without going into the city.

Instead of focusing on storytelling-in-place, we have switched to creating a usable, open archive of youth’s ratings of public places in Nashville. We are now building a website of Yelp-like reviews of places where youth feel safe (i.e., where they feel they can be their full selves and where human diversity is generally welcomed) from ongoing survey data collection. The goal is to create a resource that youth can use to explore youth-approved places in the city and to expand their knowledge of places in Nashville.

Given the global pandemic and the divisiveness of our current political climate, we understand this resource to be a snapshot in time. Places where youth can feel socially safe in the city may change greatly in the year(s) to come. However, we hope the resource we are building supports continuing efforts to foster positive youth development in Nashville and aids others in thinking through the various uses of digital storytelling as a social good.

This blog was written by Danielle Wilfong, Community Research and Action PhD candidate, with special thanks to Maptivists youth, Karissa Deiter, Adrianna Carter, Judy Freudenthal, Abby Whisenant, and Jenn Garcia of Oasis Center and Dr. Maury Nation and Nicole Hinton in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Peabody College. This study is supported by Cooperative Agreement from the National Institute of Justice, contract No: 2016-CK-BX-K002. Views expressed in this blog are the authors and do not represent the official views of the US Department of Justice.