HomeGrantsIonE Mini GrantBuilding community and strengthening partnerships: Spring 2023 Mini Grants support wide range of initiatives

Building community and strengthening partnerships: Spring 2023 Mini Grants support wide range of initiatives

The Institute on the Environment Mini Grants are designed to support and spark collaborative projects across the University of Minnesota that address an environmental or sustainability challenge. Awarded teams receive funding of up to $3,000 to start or enhance projects involved in research, leadership, education, storytelling, and outreach activities.

Over the last 10 years, IonE Mini Grants have provided over $1.75 million in funding for over 300 projects at every UMN campus, as well as many Extension and outreach centers.

Many of the Spring 2023 funded projects will incorporate education and engagement activities, community partnerships, and the tangible creation of tools and systems to promote environmental justice and sustainability in Minnesota. Learn more about these 10 collaborative 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. 


Agritourism and emerging farmers project

Northwest Minnesota is home to a strong local foods network. This supportive network has identified groups of individuals that face specific barriers to entering the farming profession and seeks to address the problem through hands-on learning for Moorhead-area emerging farmers. The primary goal of the project is to provide expertise and develop skills and confidence in emerging farmers. To do so, University of Minnesota Extension staff and other professionals will host workshops at monthly agritourism events. Serving as mini farmer’s markets, emerging farmers attending the events will set up booths to sell their products. Here, they will be supported and guided by experienced market farmers, learning how to most effectively sell their products in a hands-on environment. An undergraduate student will be assisting event staff with evaluation of the program.

Team Members: Shannon Stassen (PI), Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, University of Minnesota Extension; Randy Nelson, Department of Agricultural and Natural Resource Systems, University of  Minnesota Extension; Noelle Harden, Department of Family, Health and Wellbeing, University of Minnesota Extension; Annalisa Hultberg, Department of Agricultural and Natural Resource Systems, University of Minnesota Extension; Noreen Thomas, Doubting Thomas Farm; Verna Kragnes, New Roots Farm Incubator COOP; Anna Sather, Farm in the Dell


A musical and bicycle collaboration: land-based storytelling through an Indigenous lens

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum will host a Wilder Buffalo Concert Ride during a Bike the Arb outreach event. Cyclists will be encouraged to reduce their carbon footprint by leaving behind cars for the day and biking to the Arboretum to enjoy several activities, including the musical bicycle ride. The ride will be facilitated by the Buffalo Weavers, an Indigenous-led group that uses storytelling, music, and poetry on the land as a means of stirring environmental discourse and nurturing relations. The program aims to bring people together to build awareness, understanding, and capacity for community-centered collaboration and climate advocacy. Relationships built are meant to inspire people-driven initiatives to support the cultivation of anti-racist and ecologically reciprocal culture. It will also be an opportunity to invite Indigenous communities and communities of color into the conversation to continue transforming the Arboretum into a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable space.

Team members: Wendy Composto (PI), Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, CFANS; Karen Diver, Senior Advisor to the President for Native American Affairs


Community streams: a podcast examining the complex relationship between urban nature, communities, and research

Urban communities shape, and are shaped, by dynamic and diverse relationships between nature and people. Urban nature benefits are not equally accessible to all residents — nor is “urban nature” defined or managed in a mutually agreed upon way among researchers, residents, and partners. Addressing this inequity requires technical and experiential knowledge. This project draws on the existing MSP Long Term Ecological Research program partnerships and creates a five–episode pilot podcast series examining emerald ash borer and trees, and recreation and water quality. Researchers and community leaders will discuss challenges and solutions to each topic, and identify opportunities to leverage experiential knowledge to address future needs. Episode 1 will be live recorded at a community launch event and will discuss the critical role of people in urban nature, as well as how and why nature–human relationships vary across space. This podcast will validate and uplift community knowledge on urban nature research, meaning, access, and management.

Team members: Meghan Klasic (PI), Department of Forest Resources; Mary Marek-Spartz (Co-PI), Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior; Meredith Keller (Co-PI), MSP Long Term Ecological Research program; Sashi White, graduate student, Department of Forest Resources; Amoke Kubat, Yo Mama’s House Cooperative


Creating learning communities: creating accessible learning and gardening communities within the West Bank and across campus

The West Bank Community Garden (WBCG) has provided spaces for urban agriculture and building community for eight years through IonE Mini Grant funding. Through continued support, the WBCG hopes to grow the garden network, which includes the Interprofessional Student Garden, Student Organic Farm, Native American Medicine Gardens, and Nutritious U Farm. The network was started to support a community built around urban agriculture across the UMN-Twin Cities campus with funding from last year’s grant. The garden will continue working with this network through seed saving libraries and workshops cultivated by the WBCG. Along with expanding this network, the WBCG aims to connect community members to resources to make produce and gardening accessible. The WBCG will use funding to plan garden skillshares, add communal resources and fruit bushes to the garden with the intent to create a community that values beginning gardeners, diversity of agricultural knowledge, and access to fresh produce.

Team members: Thomas Michaels (PI), Department of Horticultural Science; Melissa Licht, Department of English; Ella Kunstman, College of Liberal Arts undergraduate student and co-coordinator of the West Bank Community Garden; Elizabeth Gens, College of Liberal Arts undergraduate student and co-coordinator of the West Bank Community Garden


Field-deployable method for measuring and monitoring cadmium in cocoa crops

Most of the world’s chocolate contains detectable levels of cadmium, a toxic metal often found in tropical soils. Most countries are – or have – created regulatory guidelines covering the maximum amount of cadmium allowed in chocolate. For the farmers of this agricultural commodity, there is a lack of affordable, accessible tools for determining the cadmium in their crop and a lack of information of what can be done to reduce it.

The goals of this project are to 1) develop a simple, safe, and low-cost measurement tool for a farmer to analyze a cocoa sample for cadmium, and 2) develop a sampling scheme for a farmer to determine how cadmium is transported into their crop: soil sources, transport within the tree (roots, shoots, fruits), cocoa bean content, and chocolate product. Such information can then be used to reduce the cadmium in the chocolate crop.

Team members:  Steve Sternberg (PI), College of Science and Engineering; Melissa Maurer-Jones (co-PI), College of Science and Engineering; Nigel Ramrattan, farmer


Go Out and Walk Among Nature (GOWAN): a 3D sketching platform for activating cultural knowledge transmission and Indigenous-centered community science

As the original stewards of their environments, Indigenous communities possess a deeply rooted connection to land, water, and sky knowledge that is frequently misunderstood in the context of Western sciences. With climate change impacting the natural cycles of Indigenous peoples’ homelands, it is critically important for Indigenous voices to be present in the research process to ensure Western research efforts are asking the right research questions. This work takes an important first step in this direction by empowering Indigenous communities to tell the stories of their landscapes via the creation of 3D digital models of “ideal” tree conditions for making culturally relevant objects, such as canoes. The project team hopes these models will serve as activators for cultural revitalization and preservation efforts, and as ignitors for creating Indigenous–centered community science programs.

Team members: Daniel Keefe (PI), College of Science and Engineering; Sean Dorr, graduate student, Department of Computer Science


Monitoring for resilient floodplain forests along the Mississippi River

The purpose of this project is to support healthy and resilient floodplain forests along the Mississippi River. In partnership with Prairie Island Indian Community (PIIC), this project aims to develop information and knowledge that can assist with determining ideal locations and tree species for replanting in areas that have been impacted by the introduced insect emerald ash borer or previous storm blowdown. They will monitor overstory light levels in canopy gaps created by green ash tree mortality due to EAB as well as gaps created by previous disturbances. Along with monitoring light levels, the team will conduct surveys on understory plant species within the aforementioned canopy gaps. PIIC experiential knowledge and monitoring results will be incorporated to determine ideal locations for plantings of diverse, resilient tree species within PIIC’s floodplain forest to support their stewardship goals.

Team members: Marcella Windmuller-Campione (PI), Department of Forest Resources; Abby Daniel, graduate student, Department of Forest Resources; Gabriel Miller, Prairie Island Indian Community; Sean Maiers, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Midwest Regional Office


Promoting community power, safety, and connection with a focus on human exposure to lead pollution and mitigation in Minneapolis’s Southside Green Zone

Lead pollution disproportionately impacts BIPOC and low-income communities as a result of racist housing policies and disinvestment (Aelion et al. 2013, Cassidy-Bushrow et al. 2017). Providing resources to at–risk communities on lead pollution, the resulting health risks, and practices for mitigating exposure can empower communities and promote safety and well-being. In Minneapolis, two “Green Zones” have been identified by the city as collections of neighborhoods that have high levels of pollution and that are marginalized racially, politically, and economically according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The project team will host a one–day information sharing event around the topic of urban soil lead pollution with the aim of supporting community safety and connection in South Minneapolis. This event will be held at Tamales y Bicicletas urban farm in Midtown Phillips Neighborhood, weaving in themes of environmental justice, community empowerment, and food sovereignty. The event will bring together collaborators from UMN and multiple community partners from South Minneapolis: Tamales y Bicicletas, Fireweed Community Woodshop, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Banyan Neighborhood Association, and Aquí Para Tí health clinic. The goals are to communicate the science of lead pollution (causes and mitigation strategies) and to distribute resources for safely gardening in potentially polluted soil. The event will include interactive activities throughout the day including informational talks, soil lead testing, a raised bed building workshop, interaction with health professionals, and community art.

Team members: Lindsey Kemmerling (PI), postdoctoral associate, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior; Nic Jelinski, Department of Soil, Water and Climate; Jessie Merriam, Fireweed Community Woodshop; Jose Luis Villaseñor, Tamales y Bicicletas


Starting in a good way: visits with tribal colleges around water, wild rice, and climate change

Karen Diver, Senior Advisor to the President for Native Americans at University of Minnesota has stated, “We need robust partnerships with tribal colleges.” To reconcile the historical and ongoing traumas caused by harms inflicted by UMN on Indigenous peoples and their land, water, and relatives, the University must support tribal colleges in their resurgence as tribes’ own community-based centers through which they continue generations–long stewardship of their lands and waters. At the same time, tribal college leadership reminds us that we first need to take the time to build relationships. This project brings together new partners from White Earth Tribal and Community College, College of Menominee Nation, and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Through visits at each other’s home institutions, they will grow relationships; generate collaboration ideas around the tribes’ priority interests of water, wild rice, and climate change; and expand the network of colleagues, students, and community members who contribute.

Team members: Crystal Ng (PI), Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Elizabeth Sumida Huaman (co-PI), Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development; Zhaashiigid Nooding (Bob Shimek), White Earth Tribal and Community College; Kim Brown, White Earth Tribal and Community College; Kate Flick, College of Menominee Nation; Gabriela Ines Diaz, Circle of Indigenous Nations, UMN Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence


The Manoomin Medicine Wheel model: designing and implementing an Indigenous framework for Manoomin/Psiη research

The Tribal-University collaborative, Kawe Gidaa-naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin (First We Must Consider Wild Rice), aims to support a sustainable future for Manoomin/Psiη (Wild Rice in Ojibwe/Dakota), a sacred plant relative to the Anishinaabe and Dakota that faces many environmental threats. To more deeply understand Manoomin/Psiη’s physical and relational environment, this collaborative strives to learn from both mainstream (‘Western’) environmental science and Anishinaabe ecological knowledge, the traditional ecological knowledge within the Anishinaabe knowledge system. In effort to bring these knowledges together, the team will construct a research framework based on the Medicine Wheel, a symbol that represents the holistic worldview of many Indigenous nations. This model will provide a tool between non-Indigenous and Indigenous partners to equitably exchange knowledge across worldviews, while respecting tribal sovereignty and worldviews. To implement the Manoomin/Psiη Medicine Wheel model, the team will develop a guidebook, lead a training workshop, and create a sharing platform.

Team members: Crystal Ng (PI), Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Mike Dockry, Department of Forest Resources; Sean Dorr, graduate student, Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Bazile Panek, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals

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