HomeGrantsForces of change for our future: Our newest batch of Mini Grant recipients

Forces of change for our future: Our newest batch of Mini Grant recipients

This past fall, as the leaves donned rich hues, people across the University of Minnesota System were working to bring about social change. Whether it be through addressing the connection between racial injustice and environmental issues, collaborations with Indigenous farmers, cultural educators, and youth leaders, or breaking down barriers to private forest ownership for people of color, the projects they envisioned tapped into grassroots creativityturning a new leaf by fostering collaboration and community action. 

Two times a year, the Institute on the Environment offers support to bring these types of projects to fruition through its Mini Grants program, taking into account the level of interdisciplinary collaboration and the strength of the project’s goals, design, and budget, with additional points for the amount of impact. Over the past decade, the program has awarded close to $1 million in funding to more than 300 project teams across the five-campus UMN System, as well as Extension and outreach centers. These grants of up to $3,000 may be used for a range of research, leadership, education, storytelling, and engagement activities.

“This fall cycle, we saw a marked increase in proposals connecting environmental and sustainability issues to social justice issues,” says April Snyder, Administrative Director at IonE. “We hope this trend continues in future cycles, as it is an important part of our mission to lead the way toward a future in which people and planet prosper together.”

This year, we are honored to award more than $25k in Mini Grants to 10 teams from the University’s Duluth and Twin Cities campuses, representing six colleges and nine different departments, as well as a number of community partners and collaborators. The winners dipped into a wide-ranging autumnal palette of ideas to design their proposals, and we are honored to share what they came up with:

Climate Communication Workshop Series for STEM-Focused Graduate Students

The Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Energy and Environmental Policy Club will partner with the Institute on the Environment to offer two virtual workshops for graduate students on all UMN campuses to help students develop their climate-change communication skills, at a time when this type of science communication has become increasingly polarized. These workshops will highlight speakers who are well versed in communicating about climate change, solutions, and values – including with groups that do not typically agree with them. 

Principal Investigator (PI): Megan Voorhees, Director of Experiential Education and Graduate Programs, IonE, and Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Team Members: Jamie Stallman (HHH), Alyssa Scott (IonE, SPH), Lauren Fisher (HHH)

Toward a New Way of Being with Plants: a One-Day Online Conference

This one-day online conference planned for June 2021 will explore the human/plant connection, including ethics in human treatment of plants, plant sentience and communication, and opportunities for developing more respectful and reciprocal relationships between humans and plants. Differing cultural perspectives will be presented by locally, nationally, and internationally known speakers. An interdisciplinary and geographically diverse team is planning this event. The conference will attract scholars and students from the humanities, social sciences, and environmental and biological sciences as well as other interested individuals. Sessions will be recorded and made available online after the event. Sponsors include University of Minnesota departments as well as external supporters. This event is partially inspired by outcomes of a 2019 IonE Mini Grant project in which students from Ways of Knowing for Sustainable Development hosted a conversation to explore the connection of University students, faculty, and staff with trees on the Twin Cities campus. 

PI: Daniel Griffin, Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts 

Team Members: Sarah Abbott (Department of Film, University of Regina), Kate Flick (NRSM & Forestry Education – LEAF Program, Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education), Walter Furness (Geography, Texas State University), Jean Larson (CSH), Simon Leadbeater (Priors Environmental Ltd.), Alice McSherry (Geography, University of Auckland), Paul Moss (Geography, Environment, and Society, CLA), Laura Pustarfi (Spirituality, Ecology, and Religion, California Institute of Integral Studies), Amba Sepie (Geography, University of Canterbury)

Who Wants to Be a Woodland Owner? Understanding Barriers to Private Forestland Ownership in Minnesota

Little research exists about the perceived barriers to private forestland ownership. Private forestland owners are typically male, white, and non-Hispanic, yet few researchers have surveyed Black, Indigenous, or other persons of color about their motivations for purchasing, owning, and managing private forestland. This project seeks to conduct interviews (target of 20; at least 10 identified as BIPOC) with individuals who have identified as being interested in owning and managing forestland in Minnesota. We also seek to develop and publish online resources through the University of Minnesota Extension that present an introduction to purchasing and owning woodlands. The outcomes include a better understanding of motivations and perceived barriers for owning land from a diverse group of prospective landowners. This work will contribute to a peer-reviewed research article and will identify future educational programs that can be developed by the University of Minnesota Extension and partner organizations.

PI: Matthew Russell, Associate Professor, Forest Resources

Team Members: Angela Gupta (CFANS), Nathan Meyer (CFANS), Michael Reichenbach (CFANS)

Portrait of a Landscape: Capturing Time, Experience, Perception, and Data Through an Experimental Analysis of Shoreham Yards

This project will create a “portrait” of Shoreham Yards, the active 230-acre train, trucking, and bulk-distribution site in Northeast Minneapolis. Artist Gudrun Lock and Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture Jessica Rossi-Mastracci will collaborate with community members, artists, and researchers to create a dynamic picture of the site’s economic and material histories, urban ecological systems, and community impacts that engages residents, documents ephemerality and seasonality, and peels back the layers of industrial and ecological histories. The site is highly contested and produces measurable noise, dust, and stormwater runoff. To explore these dynamics and visualize possibilities over time, “Portrait of a Landscape” will combine traditional documentation methods and data mapping with experimental ways of seeing, documenting, measuring, and storytelling.

PI: Jessica Rossi-Mastacci, Teaching Specialist, Landscape Architecture – College of Design

Team Members: Gudrun Lock (Minneapolis College of Art and Design [MCAD]), Janet Lobberecht (MCAD), Ben Moren (MCAD), Nic Jelinski (SWAC), Yani Brandvain (CBS), Alicia Beattie (Mississippi Watershed Management Organization), Kate Carlson (U-Spatial – OVPR)

Community Plantings for an Endangered Pollinator: Native Plants for the Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee

Pollinators provide benefits to people and landscapes—providing pollination services, beauty, and wonder. Pollinators provide for us, but how can we provide for them? Pollinators eat nectar and pollen from flowers, so the more flowers we plant, the more food they have. The goal of this project is to get more flowers onto the landscape through reaching diverse communities in the Twin Cities. We will create three native seed packets that bloom from spring to fall, providing food throughout the active season. To increase accessibility, we will provide messaging and planting instructions in multiple commonly spoken languages. The seed packets will have cover art designed by a local artist to communicate with people who connect better through imagery rather than words. We will distribute seed packets directly to community organizations as well as hand them out at festivals and events to reach a broad audience.

PI: Elaine Evans, Assistant Extension Professor, College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Services

Team Members: Michelle Boone (CFANS Department of Entomology), Bridget Mendel (CFANS Department of Entomology), Victoria Blanco (Minneapolis-based writer with Coffee House Press)

From Landgrab to Landback: Reconciling Sustainable Indigenous Futurisms Through Truth Telling with Tribal Nations

This Mini Grant is part of story gathering and sharing efforts looking into the history, policies, and practices of the University of Minnesota. Our community partners at the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) issued a challenge to the University to build relationships with all eleven Tribal Nations in the state. The forthcoming American Indian policy taskforce collaborative between MIAC and all University campuses seeks to begin the difficult process of truth so we can come to meaningful reconciliation. This grant will pilot student-facing programming as one step in the long process of creating lasting, mutually-beneficial educational, economic, and civic opportunities that usher in a new era of relationship building and partnership between American Indians and the University of Minnesota. It is crucial for responsible environmental work that we seek to understand the land we are living and working on and our relationship with the people who are Indigenous to this place.

PI: Tadd Johnson, Director of Tribal Administration and Governance, Professor, UMD College of Liberal Arts

Team Members: An Garagiola-Bernier (HHH, CLA American Indian Studies, Tribal Sovereignty Institute), Laura Paynter (HHH), Shannon Geshick (Minnesota Indian Affairs Council), Katie Johnston-Goodstar (CEHD School of Social Work), David Chang (CLA Departments of History and American Indian Studies), John Bryson (HHH), Jean O’Brien (CLA Departments of History and American Indian Studies), Joseph Bauerkemper (CLA Departments of History and American Indian Studies), Ben Yawakie (HHH and SPH), Kevin Whalen (UMM Department of Native American and Indigenous Studies)

Building Relationships for Delivering Community-Responsive Nature-Based Learning Programs

For nearly 100 years, nature-based learning (NBL) has been foundational to the Bell Museum. Research shows that natural settings, like other informal learning environments, offer opportunities that enhance learning, promote sustainability by fostering the adoption of pro-environmental behaviors, and contribute to health by strengthening family bonds. But these opportunities are not available to all people equally: A recent study outlines the barriers local communities face in accessing nature. This project joins Bell experience in NBL with Children and Nature Network’s (C&NN) expertise in community outreach to initiate a community-responsive process aimed at diversifying NBL at the Bell. It will expand the Bell’s capacity to offer culturally relevant NBL opportunities that can meet community needs and overcome barriers to access. This collaboration will (1) support a community engagement and planning process to guide Bell program development and (2) provide Bell staff training in program implementation.

PI: Bell Museum

Team Members: Holly Menninger (Public Engagement & Science Learning, Bell Museum), Jennifer Stampe (Public Engagement & Science Learning, Bell Museum), Heather Cummins (Public Engagement & Science Learning, Bell Museum), Monica Lopez Magee (Cities and Nature, Children & Nature Network), CJ Goulding (Community Leadership Development, Children & Nature Network), Cathy Jordan (IonE and Children & Nature Network)

Indigenous Environmental Sustainability and Traditional Knowledge Seminar Series

This project proposes a new seminar series hosted by American Indian Studies for the broader UMD community. The series will focus on environmental science, traditional knowledge, and sustainability by hosting Indigenous scholars and cultural practitioners who couple traditional knowledge with western knowledge systems to address environmental sustainability policies and practices on local, regional, and global scales. The project introduces novel concepts involving sustainability, impacts on environmental health and food sovereignty, and policy and practices, with the goal of providing a venue for cross-discipline and cross-cultural knowledge exchange resulting in better sustainability practices. The project will support five invited Indigenous speakers external to UMN.

PI: Wendy Smythe, Assistant Professor, UMD American Indian Studies – College of Liberal Arts

Team Members: Doug Thompson (UMD American Indian Studies), Holly Rosendahl (UMD American Indian Studies), Judi Brown Clarke (Stony Brook University)

Dream of Wild Health Insect Biodiversity Survey and Native Youth Education Program

We propose a multi-part project in partnership with Native youth leaders and staff at the Dream of Wild Health (DWH) farm to survey insect biodiversity and organize events featuring Indigenous stories about insects. This project builds on existing collaborations between Indigenous farmers and University entomologists to directly study insect communities at DWH and support science education with Native youth. Insect surveys will focus on pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests, and will directly involve young students in the implementation and design of the research and insect identification. We will host insect identification workshops with entomology graduate students and insect taxonomists at the University of Minnesota. Finally, we will hold a webinar event sharing Indigenous stories of insects that are led by Ojibwe cultural educators. This project will serve as a model for using science in support of Indigenous food sovereignty, regenerative agriculture, and diverse ways of knowing.

PI: Elaine Evans, Assistant Extension Professor, College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Services

Team Members: Julia Brokaw (CFANS Department of Entomology), Hope Flanagan (Dream of Wild Health), Neely Snyder (Dream of Wild Health), Anh Tran (CFANS Department of Entomology), Mallory Mitchell (Awlyahsi·yó̲ Farm), Lucas Humblet (Awlyahsi·yó̲ Farm), and support from the UMN Bee Lab and UMN Insect Collection (CFANS Department of Entomology).

Using Systems Thinking and Engaged Learning to Unpack Emerging Systems: The Uprising in Minneapolis Case Study

This project will assess a student-engaged and experiential learning curriculum designed for the Sustainability Communities (SUST 4004) class of Fall 2020. We used the city of Minneapolis and the response to the social justice uprising as a living lab. Using the frameworks from Systems Thinking: A Primer, by Donella Meadows, and class assignments, the project will test systems thinking methodology as a way to better understand rapidly evolving systems in the City of Minneapolis and recommend levers for change.

The project outcomes will be a case study and curriculum model that can be applied to various disciplines in the University of Minnesota System. The voices and experiences of students will frame the project outcome in practical and profound ways. The project will be an analysis of this pilot curriculum. We will answer the question: “Can systems thinking solve current and urgent problems in Minneapolis, that have deep environmental and racial justice implications?”

PI: Julia Nerbonne, Executive Director, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Fisheries

Team Members: Kyle Samejima (Minneapolis Climate Action), Beth Mercer-Taylor (Sustainability Education; IonE), Michelle Garvey (Gender, Women, & Studies and Sustainability Studies; HECUA; IonE), Jonee Brigham (Minnesota Design Center, CDes; IonE), Malik Holt-Shabazz (Center for Urban & Regional Affairs), Kim Havey (City of Minneapolis), Jayda Pounds (Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light), Frank Hornstein (MN State Legislature), Akisha Everett (IonE), Gabe Chan (Chan Lab, Center for Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy, Humphrey School of Public Affairs)

A huge thank you to the staff, students, faculty, and IonE affiliates who volunteered to review these projects!


Rupsa Raychaudhuri is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, studying Political Science, with minors in Statistics and Psychology.

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