Dr. Verónica Nelly Vélez is an Assistant Professor and the Founding Director of the Education and Social Justice Minor at Western Washington University (WWU). Before joining WWU, Verónica worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and the Director of Public Programming at the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley. Her research interests include Critical Race Theory and Latina/o Critical Theory in Education, the politics of parent engagement in educational reform, particularly for Latina/o (im)migrant families, participatory action and community-based models of research, and the use of GIS technologies to further a critical race research agenda on the study of space and educational (in)opportunity. Verónica presents workshops nationally on how to employ GIS critically in educational research and visual literacy projects seeking social and spatial justice. In addition to her scholarly work, Verónica serves as a consultant for several grassroots and non-profit organizations throughout California, building upon her work as a community organizer for over 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in Education from UCLA with a specialization in race and ethnic studies, under the mentorship of Dr. Daniel Solorzano. Verónica is the proud daughter of a Mexican (im)migrant mother and a Panamanian (Im)migrant father, whose journey to provide her and her sister with a quality education fundamentally inspires Verónica’s work for social justice.

When my graduate school advisor encouraged me to take a course in geographic information systems (GIS), I happily obliged.  Although unclear at the time how GIS’ ability to analyze and display data on a map would assist my work as an educational researcher on issues of equity and opportunity, or as a grassroots organizer focused on political advocacy in Latina/o immigrant communities, the thought of building a new, and unexpected, skill set was enough to motivate me to enroll.  Surrounded by my graduate school peers in urban planning, geography, and public policy, I was awe-struck by the high-tech visual spectacle of GIS maps and the possibilities for creatively applying its analytical tools. My peers’ professional interests in using GIS for neighborhood revitalization projects and city planning provided me opportunities to consider GIS as an effective visual tool for communicating data to diverse groups of stakeholders. Not only did GIS make data accessible through maps, it made it easier for targeted audiences to connect with the maps by displaying data in a relative context and in a familiar format, given the accessibility and use of maps in everyday life. GIS thus made possible, at least in theory, the inclusion of voices in key decision-making (e.g., policy or otherwise) that had previously been absent. Yet despite my growing appreciation of GIS as an innovative data visualization and communication tool, I still questioned how its strengths would translate into practice—my work in education.

Fast-forward several months to a planning meeting of a group of Latina immigrant mothers in Los Angeles County. Originating from Mexico and Central America, the mothers had come together organically to raise concerns about their children’s schools and mobilize community-based reform.  Over the course of ten years, they had inserted themselves in school decision-making by joining school site councils and district-level task forces, among other things.  School board elections were around the corner and the mothers were organizing a community forum to bring together elected officials, candidates, and community members to address concerns of educational opportunity and access for the school-aged population living in a particular neighborhood within their school district, comprised mainly of Latina/o and African-American families.  For years as an ally to their efforts, I witnessed the mothers rebuffed at school board meetings when they highlighted the relationship between race, space, and educational opportunity.  At these meetings, they courageously shared example after example of how their own children were denied access to gatekeeper programs and courses (e.g., gifted and talented education programs, courses required for college), if such were even offered in their children’s schools.  Their pleas were written off as anecdotal and unsubstantiated by district officials.  The mothers knew about my “mapping” class and approached me with an idea:  Can maps help us show that race and ethnicity continue to impact the opportunities our children receive in schools?  Given their experiences, the mothers saw potential in GIS.  Despite their own critiques of how data were used at district-level meetings to silence the everyday conditions and practices that marginalized their children, they believed that GIS, with its convincing displays of information, could be re-imagined for legitimatizing their narratives and centering their voices in school decision-making.

Inspired, I headed straight for my GIS “drawing board” and began mapping. This was an opportunity to apply GIS to explore issues of educational equity and, equally important, to re-purpose digital mapping and spatial analysis for community organizing and advocacy.  But the task at hand was nothing short of overwhelming.  With few guiding models that critically applied GIS for these ends, I was left to my own devices. I mapped everything from historic census data, municipal data, and state and local school district data.  I would stare at the developing maps but nothing seemed to connect, let alone answer the question the mothers had posed.  It was at that point that I decided to return to the group, a bit disheartened, and share my progress.

The group engaged in a lively discussion about the maps, and as their excitement increased so did mine.  The mothers charged me with new questions to explore based on their analysis of the maps, their deep knowledge of the neighborhood, and their many years of organizing to bring about change.  I modified the maps based on their input and returned to the group after each revision for additional direction. The back-and-forth happened several more times, with each map developing as a response to a question from a collective probe of the previous one.  One of the most powerful examples of this was the analysis that took place after several initial maps showed no relationship between schools located in the dense Latina/o and African-American neighborhood and a lack of opportunities to learn compared to other schools across the district.  The maps, on the surface, seemed to show that our initial hypothesis was wrong.  But the mothers knew better.  They asked me to map the private schools in the area and the concentration of those students based on race and ethnicity.  What resulted was a map that showed a bifurcated school system – a private one that served primarily affluent, white children and a public one serving an overwhelming number of Latina/o and African-American children. When we layered on the founding dates of the private schools, we discovered that the majority had been established around the time of mandated busing to racially integrate schools following Brown v. Board of Education and its progeny. The connection between the past and present couldn’t have been more obvious.

But the mothers dug more deeply. They knew that access to key opportunities within public schools, despite what our initial maps showed, was fundamentally unequal.  After all, several of their children had been denied entry into the district’s coveted gifted and talented education (GATE) programs. Using proportional graphs, we mapped the overall concentration of Latina/o students compared to white students at each elementary school and then their similar concentrations within GATE at each school site.  This map clearly and powerfully displayed the existence of “schools within schools” that looked dramatically different based on ethnicity, with GATE programs catering to a majority of white students despite the “surface” appearance of a predominantly Latina/o school.  This final map confirmed what the mothers knew all along – that educational opportunity indeed continues to be differentially distributed by race and ethnicity.

As we collectively pieced together our analysis, what resulted was a cartographic narrative that linked (a) the growing concentration of Latina/o and African-American families to white flight out of public schools and into private ones, and (b) the emergence of schools-within-schools that disproportionately tracked white children into gifted and talented education programs all across the district.  While my technical skills in GIS and experience as an educational researcher assisted in creating the product of the map, it was the mothers’ intimate knowledge of the community and collaborative analysis in the process of map-making that rendered this narrative possible.

As I watched them use the maps at the community forum, I realized just how powerful a task the mothers had undertaken.  They made real the potential of GIS for mapping educational opportunity, or lack thereof.  They did this by tapping into the power of GIS to convey information in a compelling and accessible manner while rooting its analytical capabilities in their own lived experience.  Their expertise drove the iterative inquiry that took place and the building of a cartographic narrative that spoke back to the post-racial narrative taking hold of educational reform in their local context.  They transformed the power of the maps to rest not in their “gee-whiz” displays of data, but in the weaving of a spatial narrative that linked their current efforts to historical struggles for educational equity.   More importantly, the maps assisted in bringing about change.  With several legal advocacy groups in the audience during the community forum, pressure was placed on the district to make transparent their admission practices into GATE programs, which resulted in a revision of those practices in order to increase the number of Latina/o and African-American children admitted to those programs.

It is important to note that while the mothers collectively worked to employ GIS as a transformative practice, they were also quick to note its limitations and possible dangers.  Similar to feminist, postcolonial, and other critical geographers who question GIS’ lack of attention to issues of positionality, power, and the politicized nature of representation in maps (Kwan, 2002; Knigge and Cope, 2006; Crampton and Krygier, 2006), the mothers pushed back on filtering their story through legitimizing technologies that made real what their own voice should have accomplished but hadn’t – the result, they argued, of being racialized as “unfit” to sit at the decision-making table.  We engaged in these difficult conversations, and the more we did, the more the mothers became convinced that GIS, when applied critically, could bolster advocacy efforts and catalyze new partnerships to address the geographic footprint inherent in all educational inequity.  By redefining GIS mapping as a community-based praxis, the mothers “ground-truthed” the maps, making visible spaces and spatial relationships that otherwise would go unnoticed.

The lessons learned were powerful. The opportunity to collaborate with the mothers on this project has since motivated me to continue exploring the potential of GIS to expose and analyze educational inequities across space that is more critically attuned to map-making. They made clear that GIS cannot be reimagined as a transformative tool for both policy and practice, without the following considerations:

  1. Local expertise.  The mothers’ experiential knowledge was key in the development of the maps. Their understanding of the local context drove how we “bounded” space and defined neighborhoods, what types of data we mapped, and which spaces mattered for exploring concerns connected to educational inequity.  Youth, parents, community members, and other local experts are essential for employing GIS to explore complex geographies of opportunity.
  2. Maps are a point of departure, not the end goal.  GIS maps are incredibly persuasive on their own.  Therein lies one of its greatest dangers.  The ability of GIS maps to convince at first glance masks the intentionality of the map-maker(s) and their socially constructed view of space and key spatial relationships.  If GIS is to be re-purposed for transformative ends, the map-making process needs to be foregrounded and made transparent.  Furthermore, the goal should rest in the collaborative inquiry and analysis, of which GIS is only a part.  The maps should support and help illuminate a much broader narrative, or rather counter-narrative, driving the overall project.
  3. Developing critical partnerships with GIS access is essential.  GIS is expensive and, in most cases, inaccessible to the very communities that are working to enact change on the ground. Partnerships between community groups and key allies with access to the technology are critical.  Ultimately, the goal is for communities to employ the technology on their own without depending on outside institutions that can often dictate the terms of the partnership.  Until then, though, critical GIS allies committed to a community-based mapping praxis are needed.


Crampton, J.W. & Krygier, J. (2006).  An introduction to critical cartography.  An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 4(1), 11-33.

Knigge, L. & Cope, M. (2006).  Grounded visualization:  Integrating the analysis of qualitative and

quantitative data through grounded theory and visualization.  Environment and Planning, 38, 2021-2037.

Kwan, M. (2002).  Feminist visualization:  RE-envisioning GIS as a method in feminist geographic

research.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 92(4), 645-661.

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2 Responses to “Mapping for Justice: How One Community Transformed GIS into a Tool for Educational Change by Verónica Vélez”

  1. Shaun on 11/6/13 2:30 PM US/Eastern

    Wow- thank you for a great read. I’m in grad school right now and am looking to increase my competencies in this regard. I am currently engaging in a human rights and migration-focused participatory action research process with community organizations in New England. Part of what we are exploring is doing some community mapping of resources (particularly migrant resources) that community organizers might be able to use with their work. We are exploring GIS, but also custom Google Maps as potential tools in this endeavor.

    I am very new to using GIS, and am really concerned about the limited access of GIS, power differentials that are often created and sustained when access to tools are restricted- as well as sustainability concerns once the maps are created and need to be updated/maintained.

    I wonder if you might be able to point to resources that address these concerns and how to work towards resolving them. Much of what I am finding so far is the sharing of public maps, but not much sharing of editable maps- and very minimal sharing of the required software (and training for how to use it).

    Thanks for your consideration of this comment,

  2. Jason Hodges on 12/23/14 4:04 PM US/Eastern

    Even though this article is a few years old, it is still a great example of government working with the community to provide education in a fun and interactive way. I work for GIS mapping company that makes an Android based data collection app called MapItfast, and we find that public knowledge is our best tool for conservation, rangeland management and the fight against invasive weed species.

    Since tracking can be a problem by itself as people try and coordinate resources, we offer free versions of our gis mapping and data collection software for personal use and at a discount for educational purposes. The software is available for any Android mobile device, so there is no expensive equipment to purchase. This can be really helpful to those who need a powerful system to show the history of every application, but not so complicated that it takes a genius to understand how to use it and it doesn’t break the bank.

    Great article and keep it up!
    Jason Hodges

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