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University of Minnesota students win national sustainability leadership award

Student leaders pose with University of Minnesota, Morris Chancellor Jacqueline R. Johnson after being announced as winners of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Student Sustainability Leadership Award. (Matt Hodson/University News Service)

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL —The idea of Minnesota youth taking extensive leadership to inform policy makers regarding environmental concerns seems abstract, perhaps even revolutionary. Yet, that’s exactly what a team of students from the University of Minnesota’s Morris and Twin Cities campuses did. Now, their work is receiving national recognition.

The Next Generation Environmental Leaders were selected as winners of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Student Sustainability Leadership Award.

The students were presented their award today at AASHE’s national conference, held through Oct. 9 in Nashville, Tenn.

This interdisciplinary collaboration, featuring students from two University of Minnesota campuses and several colleges and departments, was lauded for more than 12 months of work that culminated with a transformative panel at Governor Mark Dayton’s 2013 Environmental Congress. This gathering of business, non-profit and government leaders developed recommendations to help guide the state’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) and Dayton Administration in creating short-term action steps and setting long-term goals for the future.

“The Next Generation Environmental Leaders played a key role in the Environmental Congress,” said Ellen Anderson, energy advisor to Gov. Dayton and former state senator. “Their powerful presentation helped shape significant policy steps moving forward.”

“It is fantastic that the state of Minnesota has an active environmental quality board,” said Natalie Hoidal, a student at the University of Minnesota, Morris who oversaw the strategy and logistics of the group. “But it is truly impressive that Governor Dayton, state legislators and other decision makers are opening the floor for youth to speak their minds and participate meaningfully in policy development.”

U of M students first connected with Minnesota’s political leaders in 2012, brainstorming with Anderson on ways to participate in the Environmental Congress and engage in developing solutions toward sustainability issues. From there, the enterprising students developed and planned a statewide “Next Generation Environmental Congress” for February 2013, a month before the full Environmental Congress.

Over the next 12 months, this civic-minded group of University students, led by Natalie Hoidal and Christy Newell, reached out to statewide youth through social media, meetings, posters, phone calls, presentations and more. They teamed with University of Minnesota students from all five campuses, as well as groups including the Youth Environmental Advocates-Minnesota (YEA-MN), the Minnesota Youth Environmental Network (MNYEN) and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) to develop a unified partnership through which the next generation of Minnesotans could voice their concerns to the EQB.

On Feb. 24, 2013, the Next Generation Environmental Leaders held the Next Generation Environmental Congress. Nearly 200 attendees engaged in numerous conversations regarding issues in need of direct attention in the state. From the meeting, four main ideas emerged:

  • “Change Minnesota Agriculture” by applying sustainable practices to remediate soil and water health, which will bolster public health and food security
  • “Change Modern Transportation” by changing infrastructural development of streets, transit, and city grids, which will strike hard at energy consumption,
  • “Create a New Foundation for Our Energy Economy” by changing policies to incentivize renewables and building codes,
  • "Increase the Renewable Energy Standard” by creating economic incentives and tax policy to support solar and renewable energy development and discourage waste and pollution.

When Governor Dayton called the Environmental Congress into session in March 2013, the University of Minnesota students presented their findings. Accented with a moving video collage, the Next Generation Environmental Leaders dramatically impacted the inaugural state environmental summit, inspiring and impressing the more than 300 participants. In the breakout sessions that followed, policymakers, state leaders and key stakeholders praised the quality and long-term significance of the presentation.

The Next Generation Environmental Leaders included Hoidal, Newell, Tim Sheehan, Rachel Haile, Elizabeth Just, Emma Wright, Juan M. Medina Bielski, Patty O’Keefe, Bryce Blankenfeld, Joey Daniewicz, Molly Donovan, Aaron Goemann, Rachel Haile, Melinda Kawalek, Phil Kelly, Laura Korth, Perry Moore, Anna Pratt, Ande Saunders, Adrian Schiller, Siri Simmons, Catherine Spurgeon and Jordan Wente.

“These students came from many colleges and departments across the University’s Morris and Twin Cities campuses, bonded by a shared goal,” said University of Minnesota Sustainability Director Amy Short. “Some graduated, but remained involved to mentor and shape this public engagement process. I am privileged to be at a university that actively fosters leaders and informed citizens who are engaged in public policy making and who care about the future of our state.”

The group was nominated for the AASHE Student Sustainability Leadership Award by Troy Goodnough, sustainability director at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and, Beth Mercer-Taylor, sustainability education coordinator at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

As winners, the main collegiate members will have the opportunity to present their leadership story and will be included in a feature piece on the awards in Sustainability: The Journal of Record

An award reception will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16 at the University’s Institute on the Environment in St. Paul.