University of Minnesota

Getting their point across

Students from the Morris and Twin Cities campuses set an agenda for the state's environmental leaders--and win a national award.

December 11, 2013

It was one of those moments when something new bursts onto the scene and instantly dominates the conversation.

In March 2013, a group of University of Minnesota students laid out for an assembly of a thousand state environmental leaders their vision and hopes for the future that belongs to them.

Their future is longer than the future of the leaders, and promises to be subject to harsher climate and other environmental travails.

The young people were students and alums of the U’s Morris and Twin Cities campuses and members of the U’s Next Generation Environmental Leaders (NGEL) group. Speaking at the state Environmental Congress, they laid out a series of issues for the Legislature to address, leaving no doubt that they were serious. 

By all accounts, they knocked the socks off the policy-makers.

“We showed that we care about the environment,” says Morris student Natalie Hoidal, one of the leaders in the movement. “We told the Legislature, ‘We’re listening to you and watching what you do, so please represent us as you deal with energy policy, transportation, and agriculture.’”

The students’ demands for action focused on three areas:

• sustainable agriculture to reinvigorate rural Minnesota and encourage sale of locally grown crops,

• a modernized transportation system to reduce the need for cars, and

• a clean energy economy based on community economic development, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

“They were demanding that their futures be protected, and they did it in a way that deeply impressed the audience,” says Beth Mercer-Taylor, sustainability coordinator at the U’s Twin Cities-based Institute on the Environment, which supported the work. “Governor Dayton was talking about them all day, and David Frederickson, the commissioner of agriculture, was saying, ‘We must get these young people more involved.’” 

The students’ presentation helped get new energy legislation passed last spring, she adds.

“Minnesota now has a goal of 1.5 percent energy use from solar,” Mercer-Taylor says. “It’s part of overall renewable energy legislation, with components allowing people to buy into communal solar sources called solar gardens.”

The students’ efforts were crowned in October, when NGEL received the national Student Sustainability Leadership Award for 2013 from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Nominators were Mercer-Taylor and Troy Goodnough, sustainability director for the Morris campus.

Grassroots from the get-go

The audience at the Environmental Congress included Dayton and members of the state Environmental Quality Board. Chaired by the Governor’s Office, the EQB comprises five citizens and heads of nine state agencies to oversee the “big picture” of environmental issues.

But the seeds of NGEL’s performance were sown a year earlier, when Ellen Anderson, Dayton’s energy adviser, invited students to organize their own “Next Generation Environmental Congress.” Led by Hoidal and U of M Twin Cities student Christy Newell, a group of U students took up the banner and organized the meeting, contacting other students and youth around the state by every form of media at their disposal.

They received help from an emerging campus program called the Minnesota Youth Environmental Network, as well as the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group. In February 2013, 200 of them gathered to hammer out the ideas they would present to the Environmental Congress the following month. 

“We had two goals,” says Hoidal. “First, to figure out what young Minnesota people care about as regards the environment, and second, networking. [At the Next Generation Environmental Congress], people met others from all over the state. We ran workshops on topics various students were working on, like divestment and campus gardening.”

No ‘do-nothing Congress’ here

Dayton had ordered a series of citizen forums across the state to share results from a new Environmental Report Card for Minnesota issued by the EQB, agency heads and staff, and academic experts. He then called the state Environmental Congress for March 2013 to report the results of the citizen forums and identify priority areas for state agencies to address.

The student presentation to the congress featured a panel of up-and-coming youth leaders who spoke about themes like climate change, new models for community energy, and fuel poverty.

Fuel poverty is an example of a below-the-radar issue. It afflicts rural families, who often lack access to high-quality and environmentally friendly fuels they need, Mercer-Taylor explains.

Eyes wide open

The work that began earlier this year continues, as the students and recent alums continue their work and keep in contact with the state government. But further environmental damage is inevitable; the scientific consensus is that a temperature rise of several degrees F is coming—that die is already cast.

In working for environmental causes, the students know they face a juggernaut of rising population and demand for resources, and, biggest of all, political foot-dragging, according to recent Twin Cities grad Juan Medina-Bielski, whose passion is communicating how research at the U of M drives sustainability policies.

“The biggest crux we have is the rigged political game. People have the will, but politicians aren’t loyal to them—they’re just loyal to the money,” he says.  

Yet he and the other young people facing these odds continue to work hard to limit the damage and build the best world they can.

Read a narrative report on the Next Generation Environmental Leaders.

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