Maps. They grace the walls of elementary school classrooms and line the halls of the Vatican. They can be found in art galleries and history museums. They can tell us about lands unknown. And, in reckless hands, can be used by their makers to wield power and control over those who reside within their lines.
That’s the lesson Dillon Massey, ’15, learned as a summer intern with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at the U.S. embassy in Lima.
“Maps are powerful,” he says. “Maps are tools that have long been used to exercise control, because the ability to map something is the ability to own it. Delineating boundaries extends a sense of ownership, a grasp of whoever is mapping it on the stated area or region.”
During his internship, funded by a Burhans Civic Fellowship, Massey relied on geographic information systems (GIS) to gather and share data about USAID’s environmental and conservation work for the Initiative for the Conservation of the Andean Amazon. He also helped the organization transition to a web- and cloud-based GIS.
At 20 years old, he was the organization’s primary GIS specialist in Peru. Massey says he was highly aware of the trust and responsibility placed on him to accurately represent the data, particularly as he prepared for a two-year fellow from the Association for the Advancement of Arts and Sciences to take over at the conclusion of his internship.
“My ability to paint these pictures for government organizations was powerful and I had to be mindful of what I’m mapping,” he says. “If I’m mapping an indigenous territory, it was a process for me to be mindful of how long it took for this community’s land to be tenured, what kind of battles they went through, and question if our work is benefitting them.”
Putting his mapping skills into practice with an international organization added a new layer to the technical and theoretical skills he began learning his first year at Richmond. In his introductory GIS class, he connected with John Moeser, a research fellow in the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. He expanded his GIS skillset as a Bonner Scholar summer fellow, assisting Moeser with GIS research on demography in the city of Richmond. Geography courses, particularly those with David Salisbury, introduced layers of international and environmental studies and a connection to conservation in the Amazon.
With the practical experience of his internship behind him, Massey is now looking ahead to his next summer and beyond. His plans aren’t set, but he sees urban planning as a potential home for his intersecting interests in conservation, geography, and — of course — maps.
“Maps are political, maps are art, maps are performative, maps are process,” he says. “Understanding a map is just like looking at a piece of art; you’re going to understand what the cartographer wants you to understand.
“GIS is such a vast and expansive tool, and there are so many things you can really do with it. My goal is just to learn as much about each aspect of those as I can.”