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On The Road to Find Out: Passionate Engagement and Counter-Cartography


brad houkBrad Houk is an educator, counter-cartographer, and faculty member of CWI's Summer Institute on Service-Learning. After spending years teaching at-risk students in Vermont, Navajo students on a reservation in New Mexico, Quaker students in the mountains of Pennsylvania, and advanced degree People’s Liberation Army officers in China, he now teaches at the Community College of Vermont. Pulling from his academic background in design and education, Brad has been using "counter-maps" to invigorate his classroom. Most recently, however, Brad has been counter-mapping his local community, as well as aspects of the Occupy Movement, in an effort to not only understand a community more deeply (and the many ways it can be experienced) but to explore how this process can be used as a tool for service-learning and a method in civic- and community-engagement.

A Student Project
Following an extensive and in-depth final project where students explored the many things that make a nation-state a nation-state, the final exam was something completely different from what the students had done in years past. It was a take-home exam but an in-class presentation.

During the final exam period scheduled during the exam week, the students had to present their counter-maps to the class. Each counter-map was to represent not only a hot issue in the studied nation-state, but each student was to pick a side and represent that side through a counter-map (an art-map or a protest-map). A neutral position would not be accepted. One of many sides (not merely an assumed two sides) had to be defended. By choosing a side, a position, each student then had to defend that position and assume responsibility for it, as well as for the research and the facts. This was a college-level assignment and the students were enthralled. Their maps showed me that they had risen to the challenge and expectations.


Japan and suicide rates by Kim. This student actually made two map submissions, this is but one. Although the other was successful it was not included here. This was chosen because it failed beautifully. A work of art, to be sure, but not a map. This work caused more discussion than any other submission and as a result more learning took place. Ours was an atmosphere where students could take risks and the student heredid just that.


Oil Pollution in Ecuador by Gail.


Ethnic strife in Nepal by Jack.


Conflict over the right to euthanasia and its relationship to suicide rates in the Netherlands by Alicia.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Following the student project with counter-maps, Brad and his teenage son spent a few weeks in the summer with the Occupy movement in the United States, in part to explore new ideas for mapping projects.

On The Road to Find Out
“There’s concern you’re an undercover cop,” said Troy, with his face in mine standing toe-to-toe in the front yard of a Stapleton neighborhood home on Staten Island. “You’ve been asking too many questions.”

“Good questions drive good research,” I said.

“Some don’t like the questions you’ve been asking.”

“‘Some’ as in those individuals I’ve been asking or others who overheard my questions and haven’t been asked?” I inquired, hiding the fact that I was struck with horror that even after all the transparency on my part with informing the Occupiers, some felt I was mapping them against their will. This would be immoral on my part, not unlike what the Army has been doing in the Fourth World with the Small Wars Operations Research Directorate (SWORD), I thought. To be cast in the same light as those geographer-researchers in Oaxaca made my hair stand on end. The vigor with which I found I was defending myself was as much an argument with myself as it was with Troy. That I could be perceived as potentially harming the Occupiers around us, people for whom I cared deeply, made me cringe. “I’m only asking those who agreed to be asked and who wanted to be involved,” I explained. I made it known upfront the reasons behind the questions and how I’ll use the data in the maps.”

“I don’t see why you need to be asking people where they’re from.”

“I’m not collecting addresses. Just the most general information to approximate a starting point, like a town, a city, even a state will do. A state of birth or a current residence, it doesn’t matter. I don’t even have to connect real names to real places unless one is okay with that. I’m sure all that information has already been gleaned by the authorities from Facebook, cellphone records, or face-recognition software given the video-taping the police have been doing. What I’ve been collecting is general and merely to be used to show starting and ending points of the marchers in some way to make maps. I’m mapping this march, in part, to understand it, but I’m also mapping the march to celebrate it. I want to create artful protest maps of a protest movement that work for Occupy. I’m collaborating with the marchers to create a graphic narrative, to help tell a story, a history, and build a sense of community.


Maps and Community Building
My intent is community-building through the process of mapping, seeing where we’ve come and maybe looking to where we might be going. But there’s more to it than that. According to cartographer Denis Wood, the power of maps comes from their ability to work, specifically, to serve interests. Maps serve interests by being selective. That’s what I’ll do: selectively choose the data to be included on the maps to serve Occupy’s interests. Occupy needs maps. It needs power. As a protest movement Occupy should be producing a lot of maps, or in Occupy’s case, counter-maps. I’m a counter-cartographer.”

“You’re a what?”

“Uh oh”, I thought to myself. That was a mistake, a presumptuous assertion, to make such a claim because I’m really just a student of counter-mapping. Then again, maps are all about making claims, “I’m creating counter-maps.”

“What-maps? You have to explain this counter-stuff,” said Troy, genuinely curious but noticeably skeptical.
“Counter-maps are maps not done by states or powerful institutions. Not government offices or banks or corporations. Not those guys watching us,” I said gesturing toward the police in the street. “Counter-maps are art-maps or protest-maps made by the people, for the people, as in groups, or communities, or individuals. Artists … protesters … those who are marginalized. Sometimes people make counter-maps to change public policy. We can make counter-maps to reclaim our civil liberties, or document injustice, or address environmental concerns. I want to make counter-maps that work for Occupy.”

“Show me your work. Where can I find it? I want to see examples. Give me a website. In fact, show me your business card.”

“Business card? You want me to prove my legitimacy during this anti-establishment march by showing you my business card? I don’t have a business or a card. I don’t have work online, unfortunately.”

“Oh that’s conveniently ‘unfortunate.’ You’re not convincing me that you’re not working undercover.”

“I do have examples of student work. At the Community College of Vermont I did a counter-cartographic project in the geography course I taught. I’m always looking for ways to engage my students and counter-mapping does just that."

Growing Maps
Our conversation continued and I said, "Last month I had my Geopolitics students at Hanover High School do a counter-mapping project for their final exam. They informed me that it was the most unusual and challenging and enthralling and fun final exam they’d ever had and it showed with the time, effort, art, thought that they put into their maps along with their presentations to say nothing of the discussions that followed. Counter-mapping got them asking questions, making connections, taking risks, assuming responsibilities. As their counter-maps evolved, so did they. They grew, I felt. They loved the project so much that many lined up to personally thank me before racing off to their next final. But as for me, mapping this Occupy/Guitarmy 99 mile march from Philadelphia to New York City, well, this is my first project in the field since grad school. This movement is important to me. And this event, I feel, is significant. I thought that this would be a great place to start. One has to start someplace. I’m starting here.”

“That’s actually almost believable." He said. "You nearly have me convinced. But you do push-ups with Finn on the sidewalk several times a day for heaven’s sake! You wear your hair short. You’re built like those uniforms watching us. You look like them. You ask questions like them. And you have Dillon taking photos of the marcher’s tattoos. These are identifiable markers.”

Troy had a point. Troy had many legitimate points actually (especially given the files that would be released months later through the Freedom of Information Act revealing that government and corporate agencies looked upon many Occupiers as possible terrorists). When I began this march all I knew was that I wanted to be part of this community making a stand for justice on many levels. As an Occupier from south-central Vermont, I’d been isolated. Taking part in the National Gathering and joining this march celebrating Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday afforded me the opportunity to be part of this movement in ways that were unavailable back home. One cool thing about Occupy is that it’s structured for each Occupier to contribute according to one’s ability. Counter-mapping is one way I felt able to contribute. I wanted to contribute according to my strengths.

Politics and Tatoos
At the start of the march I had no idea how to map it, so I began collecting data by journaling: reflecting and writing and looking and documenting and asking questions to try to make sense of what I was seeing and experiencing. It wasn’t until two days into the march over long miles in the hot sun that I noticed the extent to which the marchers had ink. Tattoos were everywhere, dancing on the skin of the sunburnt Occupiers as they gracefully moved across the landscape. The ink seemed to be marks of identity among people who identified with the Occupy movement. I thought that maybe I could create a tattoo map for each Occupier before compiling each into a larger body of work, like a portrait of a unifying community, the germination of an idea, an atlas that celebrated not just the mass of the land over which the soldiers were marching, but the mass of the movement through the terrain it was navigating … as the landscape shaped the movement, in ways, the movement shaped the landscape. I had a small digital camera that I could use for shooting the tattoos, but there was a professional photographer marching with us who carried a camera the size of a small bazooka. He knew what he was doing and seemed liked by everyone. I thought that if we worked together, his photos would be light-years superior to mine and that we could accomplish far more through collaborating than each of us going it alone. His name was Dillon and I broached the idea during a water break.

Dillon’s face lit up, “Their tattoos are so cool! I’ve been wanting to shoot them too but I wasn’t sure how. Yes! I’d like to work with you on this project!” Dillon was easy-going, authentic, and built like a world-class water polo or lacrosse player. I liked the guy from the start … we connected … and so our project began.

Asking to photograph a tattoo was a very private matter for each individual. Each tattoo, in a way, acted as a signifier, a metaphor, for part of who one was. It was my job to make the connections and build the relationships and explain the project. But not knowing anyone when I arrived, I’d introduce myself before explaining all about maps and their history and counter-maps and how they’re used and then about this project, I quickly realized that this was a slow process. Nevertheless, this project gave me an excuse to talk to others, to get to know them, to break the ice and start friendships with a greater sense of urgency and purpose. It was a good project for me to get to know those with whom I was marching.

The marchers were the most seasoned and hardcore Occupiers I thought. They had been involved with Occupy from the start. They’d been beaten with batons, stepped on by horses, and arrested by the authorities sometimes many times. Everyone, every tattoo, came with a story, a personal narrative. I wanted to capture part of them on maps. The willing Occupiers (and almost everyone I asked was willing) told their stories and shared their tattoos and then Dillon photographed them. By tapping into their tattoos we realized that we might not only tap into the character of the individual and the march but that of the community and the movement. But not everyone had a tattoo. So Dillon and I decided to include piercings, scars, gestures, or even appropriate body parts. Something, anything, to just be able to include everyone who wanted to be part of this atlas. By the time we arrived on Staten Island, we had only talked to half the marchers. I felt bad about this. We needed more time. But time was running out. And now that Troy had confronted me, I wondered if Dillon might change his mind about sharing his photos were I deemed a pariah even by a few.

Troy and I continued arguing while no one noticeably watched or listened but everyone was watching and listening as they walked around us gathering their things, straightening up the house, cleaning up the yard, packing up their gear and tossing it in the chase vehicles. We were preparing to move on and take the Staten Island Ferry then march on Wall Street. Emotions were running high even though, or especially because, we’d been marching for a week. Yet our feet were raw and our bodies ached. The days had been long; the nights, short. The march was coming to an end and after all the trust that had been built Troy’s accusation put my status at risk and our whole counter-mapping project in jeopardy. Once accused, the stigma would surely stick. I felt sticky. I wondered who would talk to me after this? Then Jake walked over.

Jake was an Occupy medic and reminded me of a combination of a grown up version of my toughest at-risk student and a former wrestling teammate from college. Jake wasn’t intimidated by anyone. He challenged authority with relish and he thought independently. Out of all the Occupiers on this march, he was the only one whom I felt hated my guts and I felt this from the beginning of the march. I couldn’t understand why, but there was something about me that rubbed him the wrong way. I sensed his animosity and contempt with such silent force that I entertained the thought of challenging him to a wrestling match not because I felt I could beat him but because I knew that there was nothing like a grueling, exhaustive, enduring bout to earn mutual respect (one reason, I felt, wrestlers shook hands at the ends of their matches … I think I just wanted to be able to shake Jake’s hand). The week flew by and what few interactions we had weren’t good. But Jake had been listening and then he joined us.

“Troy,” said Jake. “I had my doubts about Brad from the very beginning. I didn’t trust him. So I researched him on the web. I had to ask questions to find answers and I found them. I’m computer savvy and I can find things few others can. I really checked him out. I learned things. Those things changed my mind about him. He does good work. You know what? You may not believe in Brad, but I do. I believe Brad,” Jake then turned and walked back to the tent he was taking down and packing.

That ended the confrontation between me and Troy. But I can’t be sure if Troy believed Jake before he too returned to his business as one of the organizers of the march. I continued helping to clean up the front yard and, whenever possible, collected more data. There were so many marchers I had yet to talk to and Dillon to photograph and now the opportunity to make up lost ground was gone. We packed and left.

By the end of the day we had taken the ferry, marched on Wall Street, and celebrated at Zuccotti Park. At Zuccotti, I ran into Jake. I thanked him for coming forward and speaking up on my behalf. “That took courage,” I said. “Your opinion carries a lot of weight Jake and what you did for me made a difference.” We shook hands, smiled, and parted ways.

From a nearby parking garage I grabbed my backpack, took the subway to Penn Station, and boarded a train for Albany. There my wife and son picked me up and we drove home to Chester, Vermont. The following day, after a haircut, a shave, and another shower (I missed taking showers), I looked in the mirror. I couldn’t help but notice that marching up to 18 miles a stretch in up to 105 degree heat and doing push-ups with Finn several times a day over the past week had an effect: I’d dropped eight pounds. I pulled on my now-loose-fitting jeans and reached for a white sleeveless shirt when my wife walked into the room.
“You look like a cop,” she said.


Bryan, J., & Wood, D. (2013). Weaponizing maps: Bringing the Conquest Home. World City: Notable
Publisher (developing but unpublished manuscript).

Katherine Harmon, K. (2004). You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination.
New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Katherine Harmon, K. (2009). The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography. New York:
Princeton Architectural Press.

Wood, D. (1984). Research: A Guide for the Perplexed. (Unpublished paper). Department of
Landscape Architecture, Graduate College of Design, North Carolina State
University: Raleigh, NC.

Wood, D., & Krygier, J. (2009). Ce n’est pas le monde. Private.

Wood, D. (2010). Rethinking the Power of Maps. New York: The Guilford Press.

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