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NSF grant supports research into geospatial intelligence during civil rights era

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During the civil rights movement, activist groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used geography and geospatial intelligence to identify protest sites and to plan civil rights protests. A new $373,000 National Science Foundation grant is letting researchers dig into those geospatial tactics to see what can be learned about patterns of racial inequality and how the SNCC collected and leveraged geospatial intelligence data to bolster its activist efforts.
by Karissa Rodgers Jul 24, 2017

First appeared in Penn State News

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During the civil rights movement, activist groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used geography and geospatial intelligence to identify protest sites and to plan civil rights protests. A new $373,000 National Science Foundation grant is letting researchers dig into those geospatial tactics to see what can be learned about patterns of racial inequality and how the SNCC collected and leveraged geospatial intelligence data to bolster its activist efforts.

"Geospatial intelligence has become a burgeoning field in geography," said Joshua Inwood, associate professor of geography and senior research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. "For us to understand this area fully, we need to consider how a range of different groups of people are engaged with the collection and understanding of geographic information and its potential to effect change. SNCC was a great collector of geography during its time."

Organized by Ella Baker, a longtime community activist from New York, SNCC was a group of mostly college-age students and workers who worked with civil rights supporters to conduct sit-ins, lead freedom rides and organize black voter registration in the southern states. A sit-in is a form of direct action that involves one or more people occupying an area for a protest while a freedom ride occurred when civil rights activists rode buses in segregated states to challenge the non-enforcement of racial integration by the federal government.

In addition, SNCC was involved with numerous efforts by black communities to create safe spaces and reliable networks among the communities during the era of racial segregation.

"We're researching how SNCC integrated a range of geographic information including photographs, maps and field reports, to understand segregation in the American South," said Inwood. "SNCC was integral in spreading information about these efforts and getting people involved."

Inwood said that understanding SNCC's use of geography during the civil rights era is crucial to advancing modern knowledge of geospatial intelligence.

"Civil rights activists were constantly thinking about the application of protess strategies in different geographical contexts," explained Inwood. "There are echoes of what they did in society today; for example, the Black Lives Matter and Black Twitter movements, like SNCC, seek to spread news on the social and political issues of interest to black communities."

According to Inwood, these movements exhibit the true power of geography, which is to provide the context to think through the decisions that people make and the ways in which these tactics make sense.

In addition to expanding the understanding of geospatial intelligence, Inwood believes that the grant will allow educators to incorporate more about the complexity of the African-American experience into educational curriculums in geography and other fields.

"Many of the issues from the 1960s are still relevant in 2017," said Inwood. "We need to see what we can take away from the long-term history of black geographies and what we can use to address the entrenched inequalities that still exist today. This grant gives us the opportunity to impact the way we think about civil rights across a broad range of disciplines."

During his research, Inwood plans to talk with surviving members of SNCC and to conduct archival work across the U.S., all in conjunction with Derek Alderman, professor and head of the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee.

The grant is funded for three years.