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Download that Mental Map!: Visualizing Networks in Atlanta's Food System and Beyond

By Abbie Cohen

You know the person I’m talking about–the one with the mental map of who’s connected to whom and who you should talk to for what. Chances are, someone like this exists in your area of interest, whether work or play–or maybe you are that person. 

For me, that person was Hilary King, my former professor and Director of Special Projects at Community Farmers Markets and Associate Director of the Masters in Development Practice program at Emory University. Her extensive knowledge of the Atlanta food system made her the perfect person to talk to when trying to build relationships with food actors. At a deli near Emory's campus, while Hilary listened intently, we discussed our research on the food system for a Washington State organization and expressed our desire to engage with Atlanta-based groups. Soon, she started listing off people we should reach out to: “This person from here knows this person, and if you want to learn more about this, you should really contact this person,” she said. “And these organizations actually work together; they have an XYZ program,” she continued. It wasn’t long before our heads spun from the influx of information and our hands hurt from jotting it all down. All of this was living in Hilary’s head?

But what if you aren’t Hilary, yet want to collaborate with others within the food system in Atlanta? And what if the network is too vast for any one person to mentally accommodate?  The metro area alone boasts more than 150 gardens and 40 to 50 farms, all alongside countless organizations, co-ops, and city programs dedicated to increasing access to locally grown, fresh produce. (See link below for reference)

That morning, over breakfast with Hilary, we allowed ourselves to imagine the potential of a comprehensive network map–something that made visible the relationships Hilary was carrying around in her head. While some actors like Aglanta have compiled lists to help keep track of these resources, the real power lies in understanding how groups collaborate. Such a map could reveal hidden connections, common interests (e.g. geographic or thematic) between organizations and individuals that weren’t currently in contact, facilitating partnerships that might otherwise remain undiscovered. 

Networks have tremendous creative potential that comes about when people connect, collaborate, and share ideas. Mapping can be a messy but highly dynamic process that makes it possible to bridge the gap between organizations, funders, and other key people. So, if, for instance, you were keen on forming a coalition to share vital farming resources such as seeds, tools, and knowledge, a network map would pinpoint where to begin—connecting you with potential partners and enabling you to maintain those relationships. Similarly, if you're looking to engage organizations in implementing a healthy eating program in schools, a network map would uncover potential collaborators and highlight existing initiatives or experts in nutrition education and community health. 

Fast forward several months after our initial conversation with Hilary and you’ll see that we’ve taken the first steps to make our vision of a living map of Atlanta food system partnerships a reality. Though a work in progress, Ignited Word’s Food System Partnership Map serves as a visual representation of the relationships between food system actors in Metro Atlanta. Despite being incomplete, the current map reveals an interconnected network of organizations working on a range of food system issues, such as hunger relief, access, sustainable agriculture, and nutrition education. A completed map could help funders and government agencies where there are enterprising community collaboratives in need of funding, and other nonprofits working in the same area, say, farmland or local food access. In addition to this map, the Ignited Word team has collectively done a number of other network maps since then that span across contexts and thematic areas. We’ve learned that network maps are always works in progress, but even basic maps can bring important insights into the conversation – or at least get the conversation going. 

We hope to continue building out the Atlanta Food System Actors map,  and that’s where you possibly come in. We started this map using a snowball methodology in which we identified key actors through an online search and visited their websites to find their partners and other actors in the system. To make the map more comprehensive and accurate, if you are part of an organization listed on the map or an organization not yet represented, please fill out this short form so we can include you and your team. If you would like to collaborate or discuss the map further, please reach out to us!

Network mapping is a powerful tool across contexts. Even if you're not directly involved in Atlanta's food systems, chances are your own networks could benefit from being mapped. There are tools and techniques available to help you in this task, ranging from old fashioned marker and flipchart, virtual MIRO and Mural boards where participants can create rough maps with sticky notes, to more sophisticated mapping tools that can import large datasets of actors and their connections and create interactive visual maps. Mapping our networks is the first step in strengthening them – and the benefits are well worth it!


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