City of Calistoga Fire Threat Map

Gregory Young: Antioch Student’s GIS Work Uses Maps to Tell Stories

When it comes to the climate crisis, Gregory Young wants to be part of the solution. These days, he’s on track to earn a Master of Arts in Urban Sustainability with a Certificate in Applied Spatial Analysis for Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Before he enrolled at Antioch University, Young worked as a case manager for at-risk and troubled youth. With a background in psychology, Young sees the intersection between climate change and inequality.

It’s not a connection often played out in the media or political debates, but for Young, the story about climate change and inequality matters, and he wants to help tell it. Young knows the importance of a good story, but climate change isn’t a campfire tale, so he doesn’t use traditional storytelling methods. Young tells the story by creating maps.

“Maps can do an amazing job telling a story because of the visual element,” he says. “Being told a problem is like being told a story—everyone interprets it differently. Maps are concrete. They help bring people on the same page.”

Young’s narratives rely on GIS, software for creating maps. Using this software, he located the most disaster-prone and energy vulnerable areas of Santa Barbara. Young then developed a composite–one map showed the populations susceptible to fire, while another image charted earthquake-prone neighborhoods. He was even able to map out how the powerlines run through these same communities. The maps told a layered story, and the thread that tied all these narratives together started to appear: Minority population lives in most of the vulnerable areas.

“The people living on the frontlines of climate change are disadvantaged and low-income people,” he says.

GIS Student, Donald, Adonia, GregYoung’s work with GIS is important, and people are taking notice. In 2019, Dr. Adonia Lugo, Chair of the Urban Sustainability program, nominated Young’s research for an award at Santa Barabra’s annual California Higher Education Sustainability Conference (CHESC). CHESC highlights cutting edge research in the field, and Young’s work, “GIS & Just Sustainability,” won a Best Practices Award.

Gregory Young credits his success to both Lugo and Dr. Donald Strauss, founder of the Urban Sustainability program at Antioch.

“It’s because of the amazing work that Adonia Lugo and Donald Strauss are doing, and the guidance the staff has provided for students, that we were able to develop and present the research,” he says.

Young presented his findings at the conference, showing his evidence in maps created by GIS so the audience could visualize and process the connection between climate change and inequality. But Young’s work doesn’t just focus on the problem. He’s interested in new solutions, and that requires looking at the energy and microgrids in new ways. To do this, Young focuses on the commons, energy sources that people can’t monopolize, like the sun.

“Renewable energy is so important,” Young says. “No one can take ownership of renewable energy. Everyone can own solar panels. We can make sure everyone has access to them.”

In the second half of his presentation, Young used GSI mapping to tell a different kind of story: renewable energy.  Young’s maps located the most effective areas to overlay solar panels with priority populations.

Currently, Young is finishing up his last semester before graduating with his Master’s degree. As he points out, there’s a lot of work to be done. After Antioch, Young intends to continue working with GIS and telling stories with maps. He sees himself working with cities and municipal bodies to locate optimal solar panel placements for disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“I’d love to be seriously working with and creating different maps and to focus on charting where renewable energy would be,” Young says. “Basically, I’d love to take what I’m doing now and apply it on a larger scale.”

Young is an advocate, and his maps help deconstruct narratives and let people process the facts. They tell people’s stories in new ways. But that’s only half the work, and Young understands that.

“I want to be involved in something a little bigger than myself,” Young says.

Activism, after all, was what brought Young to Antioch. The school allowed him to focus and add to his interest in social justice and inequality. The next step is action. As Young and others continue to refine the research, he wants to go out and develop the solar panel sites. It’s hard work, but as the climate crisis worsens, Young knows that people have to act today, not tomorrow.