By Caroline Shin, Student in Community GIS, Spring 2023
Taught by Dr. Shannon, Community GIS (GEOG 4385/6385-L) is a course that focuses specifically
on how engaged research intersects with GIS and how community-engaged geospatial research
can actually be practiced. By this, I mean that this class utilizes a project-based approach to
learning, where we would collaboratively and collectively work toward completing certain tasks
as part of a larger project—as opposed to sitting through lectures and completing a series of
labs (a format found in many of the classes here at UGA). The two main projects planned for
this semester are 1) creating a digital archive and map of Brooklyn Cemetery and 2) mapping
the process of eviction in Athens—the first of which is currently underway.
As a brief background, the Brooklyn Cemetery (officially known as the Bethlehem Cemetery),
which was established in 1882, was one the first African American cemeteries in Athens, GA. It
has served as the final resting place for the residents of the Brooklyn and Hawthorne
neighborhoods in West Athens. For those of you that are familiar with the Athens area, the
cemetery lies behind Clarke Central Middle School on West Lake Drive. Due to neglect, however,
the cemetery has experienced large overgrowth and many unmarked or hard-to-see gravesites
(especially in the background of the naturally wooded area); the objective of this project would
be to aid the trustees in their revitalization efforts of the cemetery by interactively mapping the
area (cemetery boundaries, roads/trails, section markers, gravesites, names of the deceased,
etc.) so as to hopefully help make easier the process for descendants to find their ancestors.
Prior to this course (and to this project), I was unfamiliar with the history of the Brooklyn
Cemetery, and learning more about it has really been an eye-opening and enlightening
experience for me as someone who generally enjoys learning a bit of history and should,
especially in the place where I attend school. And considering that the Brooklyn Cemetery is an
African American cemetery, the historical relationship between African Americans and the city
of Athens as a whole. Because it feels more personal and that the stakes are higher, we
discussed the importance of paying attention to not only to the technical aspects and
challenges (i.e., inconsistency of points and GPS) but also to the emotional and effective
elements about doing this work (i.e., the visceral experience and connection, the feelings of
disrespect for the remains (especially for unmarked graves)). Personally, I agree with a lot of
these points brought up in discussion.
Throughout our work on the cemetery, we have collaborated with Linda Davis, one of the
cemetery trustees and a prominent community member; speaking with the class about the
cemetery’s historical and emotional significance, her passion struck a chord, shifting my
perspective and perhaps giving me a greater understanding of the community’s attachment.
Because I was unaware of Brooklyn Cemetery, I did not initially have any sort of connection;
however, after visiting Brooklyn Cemetery and seeing the state that it’s in, I immediately felt
that attachment (albeit nowhere near the level of those who are personally connected to the
cemetery) as it was obviously unique and largely invisible to the usual passerby—given how
uniquely situated it is. This experience also gave me immense respect for the community
trustees and others fighting for the cemetery’s visibility (as well as the ones buried there) as
their work has been largely based on oral records.
Despite the positive feelings a mapper may get from helping the community from outside the
‘ivory tower’ of an institution, it is essential not to let personal feelings, experience, or ego
obscure the needs of the community voiced by community members themselves. As such, a key
idea of community-engaged research learned from this class is respect and the important
practice of active listening as this project is not for you but for the community. This is not to say
that people do not care about community needs or do not have their best interests in heart, but
it takes time and a conscious effort (and reminders) to build that trust and to properly engage
with community members.