Richmond Flood Wall

Community-Based Learning at the Richmond Flood Wall

December 7, 2023

Anthropology professor enriches courses with local exploration and field mapping

Built in 1995, the Richmond Flood Wall protects neighborhoods like Shockoe Bottom and Manchester that have been historically impacted by extensive flooding.

The long, concrete wall along a section of the James River was the community-based learning site for two classes taught by professor of anthropology and author of Fencing in Democracy: Border Walls, Necrocitizenship and the Security State Margaret Dorsey this fall: Borders and Migration and Introduction to Anthropology.

"I took my students to the flood wall, because, visually, it looks almost like the U.S.Mexico border wall in Hidalgo County, Texas," Dorsey said. "I wanted them to have a sensory experience of the wall."

During their visit, the class considered key questions about flood control, border security, environment impact, graffiti, urban planning, and ethnographic field work.

"This field trip served as a reminder that our campus does not exist in isolation," said Kristin Santana, one of Dorsey’s Borders and Migration students. "Global issues and structures like migration can easily be observed around us if we look for them."

While at the wall, students collected data points using ArcGIS Field Maps that would be the starting point for a follow-up conversation at the Spatial Analysis Lab with GIS operations manager Beth Zizzamia.

"In anthropology, GIS is used quite a bit, whether you're an archaeologist, or a cultural anthropologist, or physical anthropologist, or even linguistic anthropologist," Dorsey said. "Beth showed the students some of the really amazing things you can do with GIS."

During the lab, both classes explored a web map with spatial data about the U.S. international borders and deaths related to crossing the border.

"It was a lesson both in borders and migration and a technology lesson illustrating all the things that you can do as an anthropologist," Dorsey said.

"The class broadened my perspective on the intricate connections between borders, migration, and the spaces they shape in our world today," said Ziran Zhou, another student in the Borders and Migration class.

The community-based learning experience was developed in part while Dorsey was a 2022–23 Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) faculty fellow.

"The faculty learning community allowed me to spend a lot of time thinking about how to incorporate community engagement into my courses," said Dorsey who also led a CCE faculty excursion to the Richmond Flood Wall with visiting professor of entrepreneurship Dale Fickett.

"That paved the way for my class trips," Dorsey said.

"CCE faculty excursions offer the space and time to explore interesting and important aspects of Richmond," said Derek Miller, associate director of community-engaged research, scholarship, and relationships. "Purposefully interdisciplinary – as each discipline brings new ways of understanding a key place or theme – they are often the first steps in connecting a course or research to the city."