Paper maps did not last long in rainy, humid parts of the Dominican Republic, so when a fellow Peace Corps volunteer said on a bus ride in 1988 that she planned to write National Geographic to request Spanish-language maps, Barbara Jo White balked. “I said, ‘The only way you’re going to get a map to stay is to paint it there,’” said White, whose next thought was “Wait, could she do that?”
The Cary native who now works as a Western Carolina University professor thought back to the Boston rock album cover painting she had made for her brother when they were younger – how she divided the image with a grid and then copied it to scale by focusing on one square at a time. Working with two teenage students in Hondo Valle, where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer, White used a similar grid method to draw and then paint a world map at a Hondo Valle school. That map marked the first of what developed into the ongoing Peace Corps World Map Project responsible for hand-created world maps in more than 40 countries on five continents today.
White’s first map inspired another, which inspired another and another. The project’s appeal stretched beyond promoting geographic literacy to bringing communities together, said White. “Participants go through a feeling of ‘I don’t know if we can do this,’” she said. “Then, when they finish the map, they are able to say, ‘Look what we did together,’ and take that success and teamwork to another project.”
As the World Map Project gained momentum, White trained others in leading the project and wrote the first edition of what is currently an 86-page manual. In the step-by-step text, she explains the grid system to making world maps to scale. The manual addresses color schemes to make sure neighboring countries and territories are not the same color. The guide discusses map surfaces, including plaster, drywall, cinder block, wood, brick and playground blacktops. The project’s guidelines warn of the dangers of painting adjacent still-wet countries (blurry borders), and suggests a strategy for directing participants less adept at map drawing. (They make wonderful map “painters,” the manual says.)
Over the years, White, an assistant professor of information systems in WCU’s College of Business, has received hundreds of photos and letters from project participants. One of her favorites arrived in the 1990s from Joshua Nsiah, a 19-year-old Ghanaian, who said his community had not seen art before like the map and was so pleased that he was being called “Boy Wonder.” “Please, the reason why I write you this letter is that one of the Peace Corps ladies who are now in Ghana has made World Map with me at Mpasatia Secondary Technical School,” sad Nsiah in the letter. “Her name is Ruth Knepell. Please, Ruth is not an artist, but she did very well on the World Map Project.”
Then in 2009, she selected the World Map Project as her topic for testing a 30-day plan for successfully using Twitter, a plan that had been described in a business book she was reviewing. She was moved to discover the project still was alive and strong years later. “The World Map Project was thriving worldwide, with new maps continuing to be painted, updated and refreshed,” said White.
Recent blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers tell it all. Katie Browne, a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar, described the World Map Project in her blog using the voice of a creation story. “In the beginning, there was only a blank wall without form, a void overlooking the schoolyard, and there was dust, dust, dust upon the face of the deep,” said Browne in her blog. “And the two creators said, ‘Let there be a giant blue rectangle,’ and the passers-by were mystified.” For Chris Rodriguez, a Peace Corps volunteer in Suriname, the project was “fun, educational, challenging and rewarding, and at times chaotic.” Rodriquez came in one morning to find a 3-year-old had snuck and painted his name, “Bryan,” across the Atlantic Ocean. “In the end, even though the map didn’t come out perfect. I feel it served its purpose to help educate the children about geography,” said Rodriguez in his blog. For Vanessa Watters, a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, the map was a huge hit in the primary school where it was painted. “Being able to look at a map of the world and locate Africa, then locate Ghana, and even know what part of Ghana we live in, that’s a pretty big deal,” said Watters in her blog post. “I’m excited about integrating the world map into this next school term, doing small projects with the classes. Geography and a basic geographic knowledge is something a lot of us take for granted.”
Struck that volunteers were using World Map Project materials more than a decade old, White became interested in updating the World Map Project manual and enhancing materials. She worked with Michèle M. Magill, an associate professor of French at N.C. State University, as Magill’s students translated the World Map Project manual into French. Meanwhile, WCU student Nate Hunzaker designed and created a World Map Project website as part of a computer information systems internship with White. Recently, WCU and the Peace Corps entered an agreement to have White and WCU help update the World Map Project manual through engagement projects with School of Art and Design students and their professor, Mary Anna LaFratta. The agreement was signed by WCU leaders as well as representatives of the Peace Corps.
WCU students will be involved in updating map boundaries, such as changes that capture the independence of East Timor and countries in former Yugoslavia. In addition, the update will incorporate National Geographic’s change from the Robinson world map projection to the Winkel Tripel world map projection, which changes the shape of every country. White also is interested in using software technology to create labels for the maps in English, Spanish and French. In the future, she would like to survey Peace Corps volunteers to find out how they use the maps for activities and educational purposes, develop a mobile World Map Project for smartphones, create an interactive site for World Map Project educational activities and design a database to keep track of maps around the world. For WCU students, the benefit of participating will be an engaged learning experience in which they apply what they are learning to a meaningful, international project for a large nonprofit organization, said White.
The World Map Project has been so significant to the Peace Corps that its online time line of milestones during its first 50 years shows a picture of White and the first map in 1988. In an e-mail to White, Mark Huffman, editor of Peace Corps Times, wrote about the time line and shared with White that she was among the few chosen to be part of the 50th anniversary time line and noted that the World Map Project she started has had an impact on thousands. In addition, the Peace Corps will be one of three featured themes at this year’s national Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and White has been invited to be one of participants representing Peace Corps to the public. The festival takes place on the National Mall each summer and is expected to attract 1 million to 1.5 million visitors in person and reach 40 million others online or through printed materials. “It’s quite an honor for me and the World Map Project to be asked to be one of the select few participants representing the 50-year history of the Peace Corps,” said White.
White recently enjoyed the opportunity to return to her roots in the project as a map painter. While visiting friends in Sierra Leone in summer 2010, White met with administrative officers working with the Peace Corps headquarters reopening there after a 16-year withdrawal because of civil war. White volunteered to make a world map to raise awareness of the Peace Corps World Map Project and was invited to paint one on the second-story of a building at the local Peace Corps headquarters, a prominent, highly visible location. Sierra Leone resident Brima Kamara volunteered to assist her with painting the 7-by-14-foot map and lettering, which involved climbing scaffolding and waiting through heavy rains to work. “I knew he was hooked when, on the third day, in pouring-down rain, I said we should get home, and he said no and that we must wait through the rain,” said White. “It rained on us four times that day.” The world map was the first White has worked on outside the United States since 1989.
For more information on the World Map Project, see www.theworldmapproject.com, designed by WCU student Nate Hunsaker with hosting donated by former student Adam Faulkner of SimpWeb. For more information on the Peace Corps or the project, contact White at 828-227-7193 or email@example.com.
By Teresa Killian Tate