Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Mia Madison, Planning Mapping Analyst for the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) and their varied work experiences. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for employers and anyone else who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners. This week’s Anthropologist in Practice is Mia Madison, Planning Mapping Analyst for the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development.

Tell me a little bit about the organization you work for. How did you end up working there?

I work with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development (HCD). I ended up here from a graduate anthropology class. The division, which employs fellow alumni from the University of Memphis, came in to talk to us about HCD and I totally grilled them with questions about Memphis and the action that the city was taking to improve the quality of life for inner-city neighborhoods. Afterwards, I was encouraged to contact the planning supervisor to work on a neighborhood plan for a community in North Memphis. I used the opportunity to work on my graduate anthropology practicum, after which I contacted the administrator to see if I could work on other projects to become familiar with how community development worked in the city of Memphis. I interned at HCD for one year (2010-2011), unpaid, which led to a temporary, part-time position, which led to a full-time position in January, 2012.

What is your title and job description? Describe your typical workday and some common tasks you perform.

My current title is Planning Mapping Analyst. When I became an employee, I had business cards made that referred to me as a Geospatial Analyst because of my ability to perform and utilize Geographical Information Systems (GIS). In general, I research data for internal and external customers, assist with mapping projects, act as a liaison for HCD partnerships, and do various other illustrious duties as assigned.

A typical workday could include mapping vacant lots; researching demographics using Census or in-house condemnation data for specific neighborhoods and mapping them; and acting as researcher on outside projects. I serve as the chair of the Social Equity Working Group, which is a part of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability’s regional planning efforts. In November 2011, Shelby County Government was awarded a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant in the amount of $2,619,999 for the Mid-South Regional Greenprint & Sustainability Plan. The plan is designed to enhance regional livability and sustainability by establishing a unified vision for a region-wide network of greenspace areas, or Greenprint, which serves to address long-term housing and land use, resource conservation, environmental protection, accessibility, community health and wellness, transportation alternatives, economic development, neighborhood engagement, and social equity in the Greater Memphis Area. Currently, this my primary project.

One of the initiatives that the Social Equity working group is working on is involving youth as community engagement capacity builders. We are working on a strategy that helps youth become more involved in the planning process.

Tell me about your anthropology background. What were some of your favorite research projects, subjects, courses, experiences as an anthropology student? Do you have a favorite anthropologist? What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?

I have a Master of Arts in Urban Anthropology and an Bachelor of Arts in Geography, both from the University of Memphis. My interest in anthropology began in undergraduate school. I was looking for ways to include ancillary data into human/urban geographical projects. I found that anthropological research methods could serve this purpose. I took a class called American Communities and was introduced to an applied academic approach to research, which  actually involved talking to people versus taking soil samples and ground-truthing data. I found that my graduate studies in Urban Anthropology and City and Regional Planning provided me with a realm in which to focus on my own interests. As a naturally inquisitive and talkative person, anthropology allowed me to participate and engage in ALL the things I was interested in, while documenting what I saw and how it made me feel. I had been providing my perspective on various things without warrant or a research title for many years. Anthropology gave me a training and license that allowed me to keep doing just that.

One of the more interesting classes for me in graduate school was Urban Anthropology of the Mid-South. I was already interested in neighborhood and community dynamics. By combining my studies with City and Regional Planning, I had the opportunity to see anthropology in planning through action.

I don’t really have a “favorite” anthropologist. However, I can say that Zora Neale Hurston’s work as an anthropologist and writer did impact my life. Since I finished grad school, Dr. Keri Brondo’s work in environmental anthropology has also been very interesting to read.

When it comes to anthropology, I can’t say that there is one specific thing that I’m more passionate about than anything else. I do know that it took a long time for me to accept that anthropology was actually teaching me something that I didn’t already know. I found that anthropology showed me a more structured way to approach the things I was interested in and I am thankful for that.

How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist? Do you define yourself as an anthropologist or use another title? Have you taught others about what anthropology can do at your organization? If so, what has this process been like?

My position with the city is primarily geared toward someone trained in GIS. Though there are two anthropologists in my department, I wouldn’t have been qualified for this position had it not been for my training as a geographer, but I was considered because of my connections to anthropology and my ability to network. I also had 15 years of corporate training. So, I really can’t say that I take a specifically anthropological approach to my projects. I usually use my geographical lens which also taught me to be holistic. I try to visualize all things in place and space and how they are all interconnected. I see Anthropology and Geography as Earth Sciences. It’s just that anthropology allowed me to see, and show, what was happening in that place and space that wasn’t going to be documented in map.

Depending on the setting, I will label myself as either an anthropologist and/or geographer. Most times, I have to explain how an African American woman became interested in those disciplines. So I found it easier to say “I make maps.”

What advice do you have for current anthropology students when marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace? 

The advice I have for current anthropology students trying to market their skills, or anyone else looking for work, is to find the career that you love and go after it with fervor. It doesn’t matter if that “work” is in the field of anthropology. It doesn’t matter what that passion is as long as it is something that you don’t mind getting up and doing. Don’t think you’ve got the skills to do that thing you’ve always loved? Go get them. Don’t have the money to get another skill? Intern for free until you get trained.

Whatever it is you have to do to get you to the place you want to be, do that. Time only moves forward, it doesn’t wait and it surely doesn’t move backwards. The greatest thing I’ve ever done in the working world is to find a job that I absolutely love. I love the people I work with. I love the fulfillment that the position gives me. I love that I am still able to give back to my community and bridge gaps from one to the other. If saying I’m an anthropologist means I get to have this feeling for the rest of my life the then I’ll be one!

Editor’s note: I am looking for anthropologists who practice outside of academia to participate in the Anthropologists in Practice series. If you are interested, please get in touch!

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