Environmental Sustainability Student Blogger Study USA

Fresh Air

Students stand at Bdote with Ramona Kitto Stately. There is snow on the frozen river.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Rachel de Sobrino (she/her/hers) is HECUA’s student blogger for Environmental Sustainability Spring 2021. She is student at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, majoring in geography. Read on for her first post!

After a semester of accidentally letting days pass without leaving my house, my first few weeks of HECUA’s Environmental Sustainability program with Dr. Michelle Garvey and seven wonderful classmates has been a literal breath of fresh air. Michelle, our program director, has helped us to ground our learning in place each week. In just our first three weeks of class, we’ve immersed ourselves in feeling the complex history at Bdote, breathing the thick air at the Roof Depot in East Phillips (Minneapolis), imagining the potential of city-owned parkland at the Watergate Marina, and connecting with the history and leadership that stands to protect against the Line 3 pipeline. 

Even our days spent on Zoom are so different than most college classrooms. Each morning begins with a check-in and is spent in community as we learn, reflect, and feel together. 

Each week, my peers and I find ourselves unearthing more complexities and having little “aha” moments in connection to a reading or conversation from the previous week. I took Michelle’s environmental justice course at the University of Minnesota last spring, and so even though some of the concepts in class are familiar to me, I continue to discover new connections. Most disciplines might introduce social or environmental justice as a week-long concept that is divorced from the rest of course content. With HECUA, environmental justice (EJ) is the course, and is properly integrated with many different forms of knowledge and practice. 

We’ve also had some incredible guest educators who’ve given us a peek into the many different faces of environmental justice. EJ is farming on shared land, imaginative architecture, political education through podcasting, and a million other things. Michelle brings so much experience and expertise to this course, not the least of which is her ability to connect students to real work occurring locally (and not-so-locally, thanks to Zoom!). Each of our guests has brought new perspectives to our class, and we always regret not having limitless time to discuss each new speaker or reading. 

One of the unique components of HECUA programs is the opportunity for students to engage in an internship with a local community organization. Despite a flat tire and dead phone battery, I managed to have a lovely first day at my internship site, the Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI) in North Branch, MN. When my supervisor, Kayla Pridmore, told me to wear layers, I felt fully prepared for the 16 degree day with my three pairs of pants, multiple shirts, and two jackets. Even though I knew I’d be working in a greenhouse, I hadn’t wrapped my head around the fact that a person could be warm in winter! I found myself sweating but content with my hands in soil, weeding, planting, and finding worm friends along the way. Despite feeling confident in my raised-bed gardening experience, I (of course) made a first-day-intern-mistake of weeding up some baby lettuces while on the hunt for chickweed. From plant identification to power tools, I definitely will have a lot to learn at WEI!

As Minnesotans, we’re always talking about the weather. But how can we not? Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve spent our in-person class visits masked-up in the outdoors. On our first site visit, I struggled to connect the faces I saw on my laptop to the bodies bundled up in hats and scarves and masks. Thanks to our lovely Minnesota weather, we’ve gone from shivering together after just a half hour in the cold to beginning to feel the warmth of a coming spring.

This last Sunday, we had the immense honor of being welcomed at the Water Protector Welcome Center north of Palisade, along with several other student and artist groups. We shared a beautiful moment in prayer by the river as soft, flaky snow fell around us. I had been so excited to only need one of the three coats I brought, but experiencing a warm winter day up at camp made me appreciate the beauty of the snow and ice, including the important role it served. Shanai Matteson, a water protector at camp, shared how the frozen river was keeping de-construction from advancing, an example of “water protecting water.” Come spring, Enbridge will be prepared to begin laying in pipes crossing the Mississippi river, the source of drinking water, life, and recreation for so many. We left our visit up north reflecting Shanai’s ask that we look into our hearts and find our place in this movement — we can all fight for clean water and honor the treaties that protect this land. 

Leaving the Water Protector Welcome Center, we all promised to make sure our car-mates stayed alert and awake and to text Michelle as soon as we got home. I couldn’t help remarking to my classmates that it was a good thing Michelle admitted to mom-ing us, because one of these days I’m probably going to slip up and call her ‘mom’ by accident (no offense to my own mom, love you!). I am so grateful to spend another semester learning from such a dedicated and experienced educator as Michelle, and feel lucky to share this experience with the rest of our HECUA cohort. 


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