Eco3 VISTA 2020-21: Community Impact Report

Some of our Eco3 VISTA Cohort members at their first and last in-person All VISTA Meeting!

What is the impact of a year of AmeriCorps service? Ecolibrium3 AmeriCorps VISTA members dedicate a year of service to help eradicate poverty in Duluth, MN, and surrounding areas by building the capacity of the organizations they serve. In spite of limitations on service and in-person work caused by the COVID pandemic, our 2020-2021 VISTA still made significant impacts in the community: 

  • 488 volunteers recruited or managed
  • 1,649 hours served by recruited or managed volunteers
  • $451,420 leveraged in cash or in-kind donations for local organizations  
  • 78 organizations received capacity building services  
  • 165 organizations that increased their efficiency, effectiveness and/or program reach as a result of VISTA work

Although the numbers illustrating AmeriCorps VISTA members’ service are impressive, they don’t tell the whole story! Keep reading for more stories of service.

Solutions to the Affordable Housing Crisis: Green New Deal Housing

As the Low Housing Income VISTA with the UMN Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, Leah Karmaker has been heavily involved with Green New Deal Housing, a relatively new initiative which strives to tackle persistent racial and economic disparities while also leading the transition to zero-carbon building through an integrated approach to home development that combines workforce training, net-zero home design and affordability. Leah has been essential in preparing for the launch of the GNDH pilot program by designing and coordinating an exhibit about the program. She has created architectural drawings, informational panels, and a 1/2″ scale model for the exhibit, and has also coordinated the building of a 4′ x 6′ full scale wall mockup demonstrating the construction methodology. The exhibit will be used for community outreach and fundraising, but will also be used in GNDH’s workforce development program to help educate construction professionals and laypeople.

After VISTA service, Leah will be joining Green New Deal Housing full-time as a Project Technician and will help coordinate the construction of the first GNDH home in the Fall!

Fighting Food Insecurity with the Mobile Market

Aly Brewer, the Environmental & Social Justice VISTA with Community Action Duluth, has played an important role in getting the Mobile Market project off the ground this past service year. The Mobile Market is essentially a “grocery store on wheels” that aims to address food security issues in some of Duluth’s low-income communities by providing fresh produce, local goods, dairy & pantry staples at a low rate right in their neighborhood. In addition to offering affordable prices, the Mobile Market also accepts EBT and provides a matching program for EBT card holders to use when purchasing food at the market. 

Before the launch of the mobile market Aly created and distributed surveys to gauge initial community interest, communicated with other Mobile Market programs around the country, conducted research on best practices and methods, designed flyers about the Mobile Market and the StoneSoup Project to distribute online and in person, and collaborated with community partners. She was also a part of the initial crew that helped launch the mobile market in February of 2021, and since then has been crucial in organizing the weekly mobile markets in Lincoln Park, Morgan Park, East Hillside, Gary-New Duluth, Downtown Duluth and Central Hillside, as well as in training and supervising interns and other volunteers on the operation of of the mobile market. Since its launch, the mobile market has helped assist at least 101 low-income individuals with better access to food.

Aly will be staying on with Community Action Duluth for a second year of VISTA, expanding the reach of the Mobile Market!

Responding to the Pandemic

Both VISTA members with the St. Louis County Public Health Department, Cee Edwards at the Southern Office and Anna Clough with the Northern Office, have had their roles shifted to address the critical needs of the community during the pandemic. Cee helped register people for COVID tests and collected demographic data at the testing sites. She has also worked with Health Equity Northland, a collaborative which seeks to assess the needs of the African heritage community in the Northland in relation to COVID-19. Her work with Health Equity Northland included assisting with drafting their communication plan to leverage social media platforms and other methods to encourage Black community members to get vaccinated.

Anna also helped with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by assisting at testing sites early on in the pandemic and also being a resource for child care centers and schools with COVID outbreaks and a liaison between the Minnesota Department of Health and those facilities. Finally the importance of both Cee and Anna’s scheduling work during the vaccine roll-out can not be understated. In fact they were a part of the small scheduling team at St. Louis County that helped connect 40,000 individuals with vaccinations. 

Improving Regional Agricultural & Food Systems in Northern MN

 As the Agriculture and Food Systems VISTA with the UMN Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, Joel Branksy has made considerable progress in advancing some of the projects of RSDP such as with the Forest Assisted Migration Project (FAMP). This past Fall Joel assisted a team that collected nearly 400,000 tree seeds (primarily red oak, yellow birch, and white pine) from central and southern Minnesota that are adapted to warmer weather, and thus better suited to the warming climate of North Eastern Minnesota. These seeds will then be grown into seedlings by a network of local farmers that Joel has helped coordinate, and eventually sold to partner organizations, like the Nature Conservancy, who will plant them all across Northeastern Minnesota. 

Joel is a part of the Land Access Alliance,a group striving to make land accessible to emerging farmers — especially Indigenous farmers and farmers of color — who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford farmland. The group also encourages the gathering of wild foods. Joel has helped the group apply for grants, build its website, and draft articles to incorporate as a nonprofit in Minnesota. Joel also helped facilitate the Northland Food Network’s shared-gifting process. This process invited all community members in northeastern Minnesota to watch presentations from seven projects focused on food aggregation and production. The community members voted on their favorite projects, and the top three won grant money, as well as free business development assistance and the opportunity to earn further funding.

Building Capacity with Mentor North

Katie Pease as the first AmeriCorps VISTA member with Mentor North has leveraged over $17,000 in cash and in-kind donations for Mentor North through numerous successful fundraising efforts that she has spearheaded, including a Silent Auction, Give to the Max Day campaign and a fundraiser with local candle company, Riverside Soy Candles. Katie has also been crucial in improving Mentor North’s efficiency by facilitating a major website update to improve navigation and user experience, streamlining file management by moving the organization to a digital format, and by managing a series of updates to internal and external program forms. 

Progress on The AmeriCorps Legacy House

This past year significant progress was made on the The AmeriCorps Legacy House Project, a project to transform a previously condemned building in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood into a livable and affordable home for AmeriCorps VISTA members who serve for a year building the capacity of local non-profit organizations and communities across the Northland. Much of the construction progress was made possible by a team of Eco3 VISTA members, including Caitlin Donnelly, Kelsey Kresge, Joe Bott, Nikki Weiss, Stevie Twining, and Hayley Cormack who coordinated a series of fundraising efforts to match a $40,000 challenge grant from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation. This grant money and the matching funding raised by the team will allow construction to continue on this project!

Addressing Isolation & Food Security through Soup

Three of our VISTA members have been crucial in implementing an innovative, grant-funded project called Stone Soup, a partnership between Community Action Duluth, Ecolibrium3, the Duluth Community Garden Program and the Duluth Children’s Museum, and their VISTA members, Aly Brewer, Bekah Kropp and Kristina Seals, respectively. The overall grant project addresses mental health challenges related to isolation exacerbated by the pandemic and food insecurity. One of the grant partner projects addressed this by providing community members with soup kits and a virtual gathering place to enjoy the soup together. Another recent aspect of the project has been providing community members with portable “garden in a bag” which helped give residents like renters and those living in food deserts access to fresh, nutritious foods this summer. 

Community Engagement Strategies for the LNPK Solar Garden

In September of 2020, a team of AmeriCorps VISTAs serving with Ecolibrium, including Luke Viscusi and Julius Venuti, applied for a STAR (Short Term Action Request) grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management to develop a series of design workshops to gather community input regarding ways the site of the Lincoln Park Solar Garden could be used as a community asset that would strengthen the sustainability and resilience of the neighborhood. Given the location of the site as the entrance to the Lincoln Park neighborhood and its historical and cultural significance throughout its history, especially the Point of Rocks, which is a sacred site for the Ojibwe people, the VISTA team has very carefully and intentionally designed the series to try center the voices of those who have been historically marginalized. While the workshop series is still well underway, it is already helping Ecolibrium3 expand upon and refine their community engagement strategies. 

Additional Impact

  • Caitlin Donnelly is developing a Community Home Rehabilitation Toolkit which will be used to help address blight and revitalize neighborhoods.
  • Julia Forberg developed a resource guide during the height of the COVID pandemic which is still used today to help people impacted by the pandemic. 
  • Kelsey Kresge did important branding work for Ecolibrium3 in updating the website and creating graphics for projects including Stone Soup and Eco3 Earth Week. 
  • Lily Strehlow has been instrumental in forming the basis of the newly formed Office of Sustainability’s work to collect City environmental and emissions data, formalize partnerships within the City and with other networks, and create communications for public engagement.
  • Madison Nareski has helped Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative through this pandemic year through grant writing, facilitating a program to connect kids with donated books, and supervising volunteer groups and interns.
  • Melissa Hoang was crucial in developing the Duluth Citizen’s Climate Action Plan website and facilitating public presentations about the plan, including a 5 day webinar series during Ecolibrium3’s first ever Earth Week, which she also helped coordinate. 
  • Christina Schlachter helped research, apply for and plan a grant from the Rivers Network to address the health of local rivers in Duluth and their connection to community.
  • In her service with the John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, Nikki Weiss has assisted with grant writing, community based participatory research, and has even published an article, “A critical perspective on syndemic theory and social justice”, in the peer-reviewed journal Public Anthropologist.
  • Conor Henneberry was essential in developing the outline for the Agricultural Division within the tribal government of the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, which will help advance the food sovereignty initiatives of the band. 
  • Liz Axberg coordinated several of the free Art DAI workshops which connected Duluthians to different art forms and has also been instrumental in leading the BAM (Birkenstein Arts Movement) Camp which is a leadership and arts camp for kids. 
  • Stevie Twining helped develop more efficient systems for Zeitgeist and coordinated both virtual events, like the Gather film screening & panel, and in-person events like Better Central Entrance!

These are just a few of the impact stories from our 2020-21 cohort. Our Eco3 VISTA members dedication to addressing community challenges and poverty has had, and will continue to have, a lasting impact in our community. Thank you for your service!