We love highlighting the stories of students here on the HECUA blog, but occasionally we’d also like to introduce you to members of our hardworking staff and faculty. We started out our staff profile series with New Zealand Program Co-Director Charles Dawson, and now we’ve got the third staffer in our series: Sam Grant, Environmental Sustainability Program Director. Read on for more about Sam.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you were doing before you came to HECUA?
I have been a community organizer, dreamer and social innovator for three decades. I was on the Steering Committee of the North American Bioregional Congress in the late 1980s, working with gang-affiliated youth to run a social venture, and researching global innovations in sustainable agriculture. In the 1990s I co-founded an organizing training program, a community development credit union, an environmental business incubator and a community development leadership program. Since 2000 I have been focusing a fair amount of energy on the environment, politics and the African Diaspora – seeking to nourish the imagination of the Pan African community to re-imagine our narratives, our roles and our future in the cosmos. I launched Afro Eco, the first African Farmer-led CSA in Minnesota in 2003 with friends from the Diaspora. This fostered the development of three other CSAs, and supported the development and training of 16 African American farmers in urban organic agriculture.
In addition, I co-led the Minnesota Social Innovation Lab for 2 years, and through that launched the North Minneapolis Sustainable Food Lab, which convenes stakeholders in local food systems development. Our plan is to create a local food system in North Minneapolis that produces community health and community wealth. I have a former HECUA student serving as an intern on this project.
Outside of HECUA, being the wild dreamer that I am, I continue to lead Everybody In, a regional coalition working to end the racial unemployment gap in the Twin Cities. I am on faculty at Metropolitan State University, and am a cooperator in an international cooperative organization called Embody Deep Democracy that works to facilitate healing through healthy conflict work. I facilitate “democracy schools” to help low income residents in Minnesota re-imagine “democracy” as something that is truly facilitated by and for the people.
How and when did you begin working for HECUA?
I joined HECUA in August 2015, at the request of a close friend of mine who had been the previous faculty director for the ES program. Julia Nerbonne and I have worked on climate justice issues, and she had a sense that my pedagogical approach was in total alignment with HECUA, and that – as an ecological futures visionary – I would add value to the way that HECUA does environmental sustainability.
I led my first semester immersion in the Fall of 2015, and then took 3 students with me to Sierra Leone to work on the development of an eco-village initiative there in January 2016.
Why do you think that HECUA’s model of internships + classroom time is so effective?
People learn best by a deep integration of theory and practice. Our standard model of higher education and the rapidly evolving online learning platforms FAIL to engage students as participating agents of change in complex socio-ecological dynamics. On campus and online learning fail to engage students in the processes of building and sustaining relationships.
By participating in HECUA, students have the still too rare opportunity to learn a whole lot AND contribute in a meaningful, substantive to way to initiatives in the real world.
The internship allows a “deep experience” of change-making in a mentored relationship. Putting 20 hours per week in builds skills, knowledge, confidence and an opportunity network that all serve students for a lifetime. The integration of what they do in the internships with our field experiences and classroom dialogues makes this a truly transdisciplinary learning experience.
The students consistently transform in positive ways through the depth of the program. Students consistently transform, as well, through the breadth of the program – which strives to help them “connect the dots” between their own passions, those of their peers, and the real world challenges that we encounter during the semester.
HECUA’s motto of “never be the same” isn’t just words strung together. It IS the reality co-created every day in the rich learning communities that our programs offer.
How has a semester of teaching with HECUA changed you approach to teaching and learning? Has it?
I came to HECUA because of the alignment of our pedagogical commitments. It has not changed my approach, but it IS deepening my approach, which is the other reason I came. Teaching one class a year doesn’t push me as much as doing a full 16 credit immersion with students.
I have been wishing to make stronger connections between “the academy” and communities as we face the socio-ecological challenges of the 21stcentury, and this provides a time and space to go pretty deep. It benefits the students, it benefits participating community partners, and now it is beginning, also, to benefit faculty who are connecting their research interests to our program.
What activity or field visit did you find to be the most exciting? What engaged students the most?
Early in the semester, on a hunch, I took the students to partner with Mashkiki Giitigan teaching garden in the Phillips neighborhood. I witnessed the observable shift in student consciousness and energy as they got the chance to do meaningful work outside, in an indigenous space – within which the boundary between us and them dissolved and we were all honoring the earth, each other and ourselves. The key to HECUA’s gift is that it consistently shapes, extends and honors such extraordinary experiences which provide space for personal transformation within students, faculty, and community partners.
How did three of your students end up traveling to Sierra Leone with you?
I mentioned my dream of doing eco-village development work in Africa to students and invited my colleague, with whom I was designing an eco-village plan in Sierra Leone to speak to them. After he spoke I asked who was interested – ALL of the hands went up. It actually worked out for three students to join us and I highly appreciate their willingness and that of their parents to join in this experience. It was not until November 7th that Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free – and we committed to making this happen in October. We waited until the country was clear to buy our tickets. When we got to the airport to prepare for departure with those three students and their mothers – we made a promise to each other – to make a difference in the world and come home safe. We exceeded our expectations! – but that, is another story, we will tell later.