IonE Fall 2023 Mini Grants support many environmental justice-focused projects
Institute on the Environment Mini Grants are designed to support and spark interdisciplinary projects across the University of Minnesota system. IonE seeks to prioritize projects that include community partner collaboration to address environmental and sustainability issues throughout Minnesota and beyond.
Since the granting program began, over 400 projects have been funded – totaling $1,109,385 to support a wide range of research, leadership, education, storytelling, and outreach activities. This fall, 13 project teams received funding of up to $3,000. Many of the projects take initial steps towards environmental justice – including examining the urban nature disparities throughout North Minneapolis; addressing inequitable community solar impacting rural Minnesota communities; preserving cultural knowledge within the state; exploring how community engaged research can inform advocacy; and more. Learn about all the projects and their goals below.
The following project descriptions are presented in alphabetical order – and are based on information provided by teams and may be lightly edited.
Ash tree repair workshop tour
Community members have raised concern that Ash tree condemnation and removal practices have disproportionately affected Northside Minneapolis. The residents of Northside Minneapolis have experienced long legacies of environmental racism causing disparities in the way they experience, and benefit from, urban nature.
This community engagement project team (affiliated via MSP Long-Term Ecological Research program), along with their community partner, Amoke Kubat (Yo Mama’s House, Inc.), and urban forestry officials will together share knowledge and experiences of urban nature and examine the impacts of urban forestry policies and practices on the Northside community through an Ash Tree Repair Workshop Tour. The community-centered tour will visit residences affected by Emerald Ash Borer infestations and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board tree condemnation and removal policies.
Team Members: Mae Davenport (PI), Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Rebecca Montgomery, Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Michael Dockry, Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Sashi White, graduate student in the Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Giovanni Delgado-Ortiz, undergraduate student in the Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Mary Marek-Spartz, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, CBS; Jessie Merriam, artist; Kim Boustead, artist; Amoke Kubat, Yo Mama’s House, Inc.; Shanai Matteson, Water Bar
Civic governance for urban community solar in Minnesota
Current community solar in Minnesota is generally a utility-scale solar array sited in a rural area, but often appropriate local resources to serve urban populations and multinational corporations. Furthering the rural-urban divide, such so-called community solar projects compete with rural land values in agriculture, recreation, conservation, and biodiversity. A more just energy transition would make better use of efficient community-scale solar photovoltaics, the direct conversion of solar energy to electricity, located at point of use – where people live.
The Solar Commons (SC) Project offers a new ownership model that supports community scale, urban-sited solar. University researchers are collaborating with community partners to co-design and test a digital peer governance SC dashboard tool. The public-facing dashboard assists a PV host to share solar savings with local underserved communities; it enables community members to use a civic process of “participatory budgeting” to distribute the solar savings; and it tells the story of solar energy’s contribution to community wealth building and reparative justice.
Team Members: Kathryn Milun (PI), Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology, UMD and Minnesota Design Center, College of Design; Jonee Brigham, Minnesota Design Center, College of Design; Stacey Stark, Research Computing, RIO; Doug Thompson, American Indian Studies Department, UMD; Uwe Kortshagen, Department of Mechanical Engineering, CSE; Renika Love, Bois Forte Food Sovereignty Group, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Tribe; Martin Pochtaruk, Heliene, Inc.; Ellen McMahon, Research College of Fine Arts, University of Arizona; Brenda Encinas, Wright Elementary School, AZ
Elevating stories of multicultural interactions of people and plants
As immigrants settle into new communities, part of social sustainability is preserving and growing cultural knowledge across communities and generations. Culturally significant plants are an important part of this, including medicinal herbs, food crops, and fiber and wood materials.
This project will support the development of an outdoor exhibit at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, featuring first-hand stories of how plants have shaped the lives of three Minnesotan immigrants from different cultural backgrounds. Story summaries will be written on interpretive signs both in the first language of each storyteller and in English. QR codes will direct to full audio interviews with each storyteller. The goals of this project are to: 1) help visitors understand the importance of preserving diverse cultural knowledge of plants and how plants shape human lives; and 2) open an avenue for the storytellers to pass on their expertise across communities.
The Arboretum’s 600,000 annual visitors can engage with the stories. Outcomes include increased social sustainability through awareness of the important plants in Minnesota’s immigrant communities. Lessons learned will inform a proposed People and Plants Project at the Arboretum, with permanent exhibit space featuring rotating storytellers annually.
Team Members: Annie Klodd, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, CFANS; Zongxee Lee, Hmong herbalist expert
Envisioning a greener future: ash tree removal and community regrowth in North Minneapolis
Ash tree removal as a management approach for Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) has altered the ecological and social landscape of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, exacerbated environmental injustices, and inequitably reduced access to nature in the cities. This project proposes new ways of bringing together community members, scientists, artists, policy makers, and natural resource managers to envision the future for nature in cities through an interactive StoryMap. This StoryMap will publicize interviews, visualize data and maps, and engage a broad audience in understanding ash tree removal in the Northside of Minneapolis as a case study of environmental injustice.
Team Members: Christine Baeumler (PI), Department of Art, CLA; Mae Davenport, Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Sashi White, graduate student in the Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Mary Marek-Spartz, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, CBS; Amoke Kubat, Yo Mama’s House, Inc.
Examining community engaged research at the Tar Creek Superfund Site
How can community engaged research inform environmental justice advocacy? For over 25 years, activists in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, have mobilized community members to fight environmental injustices at the Tar Creek Superfund Site. This research project, in collaboration with a grassroots organization named Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD Agency), examines how community engaged research in Ottawa County works and what its impacts are.
To ensure that this research is representative and respectful of community perspectives, the project team will conduct one workshop and one conference presentation for study participants, community members, and regional stakeholders to co-analyze previously conducted survey and interview data. These spaces, and following discussions, will help ensure that their research honors community perspectives and will allow them to study community engaged research as a topic as well as embody it in principle. Findings from the proposed work will be used by LEAD Agency to direct future advocacy initiatives within Ottawa County.
Team Members: Amit Pradhananga (PI), Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, CFANS; Jessica Tran, Ph.D. student in the Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Rebecca Jim, Local Environmental Action Demanded; Martin Lively, Local Environmental Action Demanded
Identifying and addressing factors that constrain and facilitate the adoption of agroforestry practices
Agroforestry, an agricultural system that integrates trees with crops and/or livestock, can ecologically benefit farmland natural resources and economically benefit Midwest farmers. However, very few Midwest farmers have adopted an agroforestry system – and if the benefits of these systems are to be fully realized – they must be widely adopted.
Building on a large body of agroforestry adoption research, this project aims to identify factors that inhibit and could facilitate the adoption of agroforestry practices among Minnesota and Wisconsin farmers through a large-scale mail survey. The data gathered from the survey will be presented to local natural resource professional service providers, who can use the information to effectively support farmers in implementing and maintaining agroforestry systems.
Team Members: Dean Current (PI), Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Maxwell Benning, graduate student in the Department of Forest Resources, CFANS; Eli Sagor, Department of Forest Resources, CFANS, UMN Extension; Tyler Carlson, Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association
Measuring the flow of water through EAB-infested ash trees with homeowners in North Minneapolis using low-cost sap flux sensors
The Minneapolis-St. Paul Long Term Ecological Research Program is studying the contribution of ash trees to the urban hydrologic system prior to their removal due to Emerald Ash Borer infestation. The project team plans to expand their study trees into North Minneapolis, where residents have experienced both ecological and financial burdens from the recent loss of thousands of ash trees under city removal regimes.
The team aims to establish a reciprocal relationship between their research community and partners in North Minneapolis by installing existing sap flux sensors (from their studies on ash trees in St. Paul) on five ash trees on private property in North Minneapolis. The team will work with the five homeowners to understand the health of their trees, establish trust and transparency through collaborative data collection, and distribute the funds from the IonE Mini Grant amongst the participating homeowners to aid them in making the best management decision for their tree and property.
Team Members: Mary Marek-Spartz (PI), Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, CBS; Xiating Chen, graduate student in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-engineering, CSE; Sashi White, graduate student in the Department of Forest Resources, CFANS
Nudging green but slow shipping in online retail
Faster e-commerce fulfillment often comes at an environmental cost by using more energy-intensive transportation modes or more frequent, less consolidated, last mile delivery. While faced with these externalities, retailers still feel pressure to provide fast delivery to stay competitive. But what if consumers could be nudged to choose a green but slow shipping option of their own accord?
This project aims to identify an effective information strategy to nudge such customer decisions. The goal is to create a win-win-win solution for the environment, retailer, and customers by reducing the negative environmental impact of delivery without harming customer satisfaction. The project team will identify a comprehensive set of information strategies and test their nudging capacities using controlled experiments that simulate online shopping environments where green but slow shipping options commonly emerge. The results will provide specific guidance to retailers on the appropriate information strategy to use in different settings.
Team Members: Karen Donohue (PI), Supply Chain and Operations, CSOM; Yeonjoo Lee, Graduate (PhD) student in Supply Chain Operations, CSOM; Madeline Moore, Undergraduate Student in Accounting, CSOM
Power Systems Journey: questions and stories for the energy transition
We are in a crisis of communication about energy transition – a necessary component of responding to climate change. We have the technology to make widespread change, but we lack public energy literacy, equitable participation, political will, and the needed energy transition workforce.
This initiative will use the story of the Grand Challenge Curriculum class Power Systems Journey: Making the Invisible Visible and Actionable to explore energy transition questions and stories in a short documentary video, made available to the public in April 2025 to support Earth Month.
Using multimedia class documentation and expert commentary, the video will explore topics such as: What are the lessons we can learn from energy history to inform the future? What kind of energy stories would engage the public to learn and care about energy transition issues? What values and goals should inform the energy transition? How might the energy transition re-imagine our electric generation, distribution, use, ownership, (and everything else) about our energy systems to achieve our goals?
Team Members: Jonee Brigham (PI), Minnesota Design Center, College of Design; Paul Imbertson (co-I), Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, CSE; Massoud Amin, Energy Policy & Security Associates and Technological Leadership Institute, CSE; Shane Stennes, UMN Chief Sustainability Officer; Aaron Hanson, UMN Institute on the Environment; Beth Mercer-Taylor, UMN Institute on the Environment; Kathryn Milun, Department of Anthropology, UMD; Amethyst O’Connell, Independent Video Producer; Michael Noble, NobleIdeas, LLC; Bob Blake, Solar Bear; Audrey Favorito, Wild Carrot Productions; Neva Hubbert, JLG Architects; Carl Knetsch, Advisor on Energy Transition Issues and Themes; Bjornar Helliesen, Graduate student in Urban Agriculture at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences; Brooke Bear, UMN Alumni working in electrical engineering industry; Tyler Wolfe, K-12 Education Professional; Gennadiy Balandin, Disability Rights Activist
Promoting environmental education through planting more adaptable trees in Duluth
The main goal of this project is to help 4th and 5th grade students gain a better understanding and appreciation for the environment through planting trees in areas that need ecological restoration.
This project proposes to restore local forests by planting native tree species that are projected to do better in the future. The project team hopes to plant 1,000-1,200 seedlings at one or more school forests or parks in the Duluth area.
Team Members: Matthew van Wageningen (PI), Office of Sustainability, UMD; Gavin Buersken, undergraduate student, Eco Reps student organization, UMD; Ozzie Ramsey, undergraduate student, Eco Reps student organization, UMD; Nicole Nelson, undergraduate student, Eco Reps student organization, UMD
Ridge-to-the-valley tour: flood mitigation in Southwestern Wisconsin agricultural communities
Floods have long threatened communities in the steep karst topography of the Driftless Region in Southwestern Wisconsin. Changing climate and aging infrastructure are both amplifying the hazard. With limited resources strained by recent flooding, communities in the region are forming partnerships to explore creative, sustainable flood hazard mitigation solutions.
To foster community-driven research collaborations and promote career pathways in environmental science, the project PI will partner with community leaders in Vernon County, Wisconsin, to host a tour and one-day workshop in Vernon County for UMD students interested in pursuing professions in natural resources management. The tour will highlight sites impacted by recent flooding in 2018. Soil conservation and flood mitigation in agricultural lands requires community engagement and technical know-how. In the workshop, students will connect with community members to engage with the environmental challenges Vernon County is facing, and thus prepare themselves to tackle these challenges in their future careers.
Team Members: Kun Zhang (PI), Civil Engineering Department, SCSE, UMD; Ben Wojahn, Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department, Wisconsin; Samer Kharbush, Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department, Wisconsin; Jen Schmitz, River to Ridge Disaster Resilience; Eric Barefoot, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Indiana University
UMN Bee Squad pollinator ambassadors
Native pollinators are important for crop production and ecosystem health. Pollinator education guides people to take needed action steps to conserve pollinators, but there is currently a higher demand for educational events than can be met by expert educators.
The UMN Bee Squad has created an award winning Pollinator Education Toolkit and provided toolkits and training to youth, highschool teachers, and informal educators to increase the adoption of action pollinator conservation steps. The project team’s next steps to increase their impact are include 1) fostering a state-wide team of UMN Bee Squad Pollinator Ambassadors to help meet the high demand for talks, tabling, and other educational events, and 2) expand the cultural reach and interactive nature of the toolkits by increasing availability of materials in non-English languages.
Team Members: Elaine Evans (PI), Department of Entomology, CFANS, UMN Extension; Elise Bernstein, Department of Entomology, CFANS
Window wrap to reduce energy burden of manufactured home parks
There are approximately 900 manufactured home parks and 180,000 manufactured home park residents in Minnesota. Many of the residents suffer from a high “energy burden,” – the percentage of household income spent on home energy bills.
The project team has heard from the park residents that they request one item to help seal up drafty windows in cold Minnesota weather: indoor window insulation kits, also known as window film. The project PI, working in partnership with manufactured home parks across the state, plans to purchase as many window insulation kits as possible to respond to this identified need from the community. The team will provide the labor and utilities to provide LEDs, low flow showerheads, faucet aerators, and pipewrap. They will also continue to provide educational materials and connections with federal/state Energy Assistance & Weatherization programs.
Team Members: Joel Haskard (PI), Clean Energy Resource Teams, Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, UMN Extension (working in partnership with manufactured home parks across the state)
Dana Hernandez (she/her) is an IonE communications specialist. Her professional interests include environmental communications and intersectional storytelling.