The ESI Youth Advisory Council's first year

by Naomi Nickel

The most recent expansion of our Environmental Stewardship Institute (ESI) is a youth-led council that explores pathways to environmental leadership at FMR and in the larger Twin Cities community through the school year.

This year, FMR's career pathways program grew, and I've been lucky to be a part of it. In the fall of 2021, we founded the ESI Youth Advisory Council — a group of seven high schoolers from around the Twin Cities who meet to engage with the natural world and inspire advocacy throughout the school year.

Each council member has their own role, from leading meetings to organizing food and supplies. Last September the council had its first-ever meeting. And since then we've gone on outings like mushroom foraging and cross-country skiing, organized our first volunteer event and led a food and climate justice workshop. A big focus of the council is collaborating with other youth groups — for example, later this month we'll have a joint meeting with another St. Paul group, Youth Leadership Initiative, to stencil storm drains and plan a future trip. We hope to meet with them again to begin to build a broader network of connections for ESI.

The ESI Youth Advisory Council is only part of FMR’s Environmental Stewardship Institute. The career pathways initiative first started in 2019 with a two-month summer program in which fellows learn from environmental experts, visit ecologically important sites and work on a self-led project related to the environment.

I was part of the first summer cohort in 2019, and since then I've also been an assistant to the summer program. In college now, I'm back as a program associate, working with the council on event and presentation planning. (That's me, second from the left in the photo above.) Here’s a little about what we’ve been up to so far this year.

Our first public event: a cleanup and guided walk

Crystal Norcross at Indian Mounds Regional Park
Around 35 people attended our first public event to learn more about the Dakota burial mounds on the bluffs above the Mississippi River in St. Paul, then clean up this sacred site.

In early April, we held our first public event. We hosted an interpretive walk and cleanup at Indian Mounds Regional Park and Cemetery (Makapaha in the Dakota language).

Crystal Norcross, a community organizer who grew up near the park, led the walk and talked about the Dakota history and significance of the area, as well as the fight to restore and protect the Dakota burial mounds there. Crystal is a community organizer who brought Dakota and Native community members and neighbors to work with the city and historic preservation to prevent a splash pad from being built at the park. She also worked to change the signage at the park to include Dakota language and encourage community members to respect the cemetery and the ancestors buried there. "That's all we're asking is for everybody to be good relatives," Crystal explained to the group.

Our council gained a lot of experience and confidence in planning this event, and it was a great success. Holly, our ESI chair, reflected, "I felt like connecting the trash cleanup to the history of the site and present importance was really cool. I feel like the participants really appreciated it too. I had a person come up to me and say how much she learned."

And Ivy, our ESI scheduling coordinator, noted, "It's important not to only do an event, but to connect learning behind it and connect it to the place." For future events, we hope to continue to inspire advocacy and educate others in our communities.

Career exploration and education

Career panel
At a collaborative career panel event, we focused on green career pathways, local environmental justice initiatives and interview tips. (Photo by MWMO)

Another focus of the council is our own career planning and education. Recently, we had a joint career exploration day with other Twin Cities environmental youth groups such as the Minnesota Valley Trust Internship program, Northside Safety NET and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization's Mississippi River Green Team.

Youth heard from a panel with young adults in the environmental field (including me!), learned about the high school student-led effort to install solar panels on school roofs, had time to do mock interviews and enjoyed delicious banh mis. Our council is always working to learn from other. This year we've met with other youth groups, environmental lawyers, FMR staff and community members to understand more about the environmental field.

Field trips, collaborations and volunteering

Two people work at urban farm
We volunteered at many sites this year, including Tamales y Bicicletas.

Our council also regularly engages with the natural world on our outdoor field trips and activities. For example in February, the council took a field trip to the Wirth Trailhead, where we had classic skiing lessons and skied around the trails.

We've experienced recreational and team-building activities as well as educational ones. In the fall we visited an urban farm run by Tamales y Bicicletas, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis. We toured the farm with Native Youth Arts Collective, ate delicious tamales and discussed food and climate justice with owner Jose Luis Villaseñor who explained how they teach youth about Indigenous sustainable ways of living, living in harmony with the earth, and connecting people to their families and cultures.

At the end we sat around the fire and reflected on how our food systems impact the health of our water and climate. This visit became the basis for a workshop the council ran in February at the Youth Climate Justice Summit. This was a favorite event of many council members, who felt the impact of being part of a farm in the community was uplifting. As a result, the council plans to do similar work in the future and participate in more community volunteer projects.

Looking ahead

As we near the end of the first year of the ESI Youth Advisory Council, we've been reflecting on our experiences and thinking about the future. We decided to create a guidebook to serve as a foundation for future members. The guidebook details council roles, event planning tips and ideas for coming years. New council members can build off of our first year and add more to the guidebook as the council continues to grow.

We're excited to see where ESI goes from here! If you're interested in being a part of the program as a mentor or youth fellow or council member, learn more here. Applications for our summer program have just closed, but we'll open applications for the 2022-2023 Youth Advisory Council in July. And we're still looking for summer program mentors!