HomeNewsIonE Year in Review: Resilience, response, and celebration

IonE Year in Review: Resilience, response, and celebration

Here we are in 2021. Looking back, 2020 can seem fragmented, as if it’s a series of moments and not the flow of time. Amid all the uncertainty and challenge, though, we learned something about the IonE community – and its capacity to create touchpoints of resilience, response, and even celebration. So how do we round out a year like no other? Telling our story by giving kudos to everyone in our community who rose to the challenge, in ways large and small.

Shortly into 2020, like countless organizations, we made some direct pivots to adapt to the demands of the pandemic. IonE staff member Aaron Hanson set an inspiring example for our community by working with colleagues to rapidly reimagine our Ecolab Education Experiential Scholarships – setting up 21 students with virtual summer internship sites focused on sustainability and/or grand challenges, and forever shifting how we imagine future scholarship experiences.

Our perspective on convenings changed too. After a quick pivot to push our annual Acara Challenge & Anniversary Celebration online, our Second Mondays event on what the media gets right and wrong when covering environmental issues virtually drew together some 550 viewers. We saw how hungry people were for connection and in-depth conversation, sparking the creation of a new streaming series, People & Planet. Experts throughout the year dove into topics including planetary health and resilient food systems – drawing together an audience from 30 different countries.

As the year went on, we took what we learned and applied it to other events, including a virtual Sustainability & Energy Expo, and, in September, our first ever virtual annual meeting – a gathering of more than 200 people from across five U of M campuses and 16 external organizations. Our focus was at the intersection of DEIJ, anti-racism, and climate work, featuring engaging breakout sessions led by affiliates and staff with topics ranging from integrating equity and justice in teaching and pedagogy, to moving from acknowledging land to co-conspiring with Indigenous struggles.

And, this fall, our Knowledge Initiative group members ambitiously reimagined our Agricultural Climate Solutions Workshop, breaking it out over five weeks and bringing together partners from the ag sector, tribal nations, government, environmental organizations, and academia. (Countless thanks to Xcel Energy and the McKnight Foundation for supporting these collaborative convenings.) An RFP is currently open to workshop participants to fund outcome projects – stay tuned in January for the results.

We also responded to our communities and helped where we could. Right here in Minnesota, IonEers took their skills in data visualization and mapping and provided the City of Minneapolis with a “rapid response” map and socio-economic analysis of the food scarcity patterns that resulted from civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd. We heard from UMD’s Abigail Clarke-Sather, a 2019 DEI grant recipient, that she was also working to address food insecurity, working with UMD student Mealat Worku to distribute surplus produce in a pivot to her Morgan Park Community Food Justice Community Garden Project. (In November, we were also thrilled to hear that Duluth campus had been honored in the 2020 Sustainable Campus Index – a credit to many, of course, including IonE@UMD lead Julie Etterson!)  Our publication Ensia also saw opportunities to be responsive, shifting its editorial schedule to prioritize stories such as this one on the connections between the destruction of habitat, biodiversity loss, and diseases like COVID-19.

We also saw countless IonE community members continue to push work forward, as we welcomed new people into our fold. We were thrilled to see the continued success and evolution of the Kawe Gidaa-naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin research team, who we had the honor of supporting in 2017  through our partnership with the Provost’s Grand Challenges Research Initiative; we highly recommend reading what the research partners learned on building transformational partnerships. We also expanded our community – funding six new teams with $50,000 grants from our first Impact Goals RFP and welcoming 30 new members to our affiliate network.

And last but not least, we celebrated big honors with virtual toasts. IonE Director Jessica Hellmann, Fellow Elizabeth Borer and three other UMN faculty were named 2020 AAAS Fellows – recognized for their contributions to leadership in their respective fields. And we’d be remiss to not also congratulate IonE Affiliate Jeannine Cavender-Bares, among many other affiliate collaborators, who was awarded a $12.5 million National Science Foundation grant to establish a new Biology Integration Institute.

The work won’t stop here! IonE will continue to be resilient and responsive, creative and collaborative, and celebrate the wins along the way. IonE Director Jessica Hellmann shares her hopes for next year:

 “My hope for 2021 is that we meet the challenge and responsibility to #buildbackbetter from the 2020 pandemic. We need to build and power society differently than before, in a way that restores our planet and expands opportunity and racial justice. And our role in that is critical because #buildbackbetter takes great ideas, capable leaders and inspiring stories at scale. And we’ve done great work toward enabling that future in 2020.”


Courtney Peters is the Internal Communications & Engagement Coordinator at the Institute on the Environment.

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