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Minnehaha Academy student honored for explosion story podcast

Posted on 24 July 2018 by calvin

A podcast done in the aftermath of a natural gas explosion at Minnehaha Academy, 3100 W. River Pkwy., telling the stories of those who experienced the tragedy, has been named one of the top winners in a student podcast competition sponsored by the New York Times.

Emma Melling (photo right provided) was a senior at the school at the time of the explosion, which occurred on Aug. 2, 2017, and killed two staff members and injured nine other people.

She was at home when the explosion occurred, but heard about it through a phone call.

“I watched it on the news and later went to the school,” Melling said. “It was overwhelming, with a lot of news crews all over the place.”

Receptionist Ruth Berg and custodian John Carlson were killed in the explosion. Melling had done an interview for the school paper a year earlier with Carlson, focusing on his kindness. “I went back and listened to the interview I had done with John, and felt how powerful it was to hear his voice,” Melling recalled. “The idea for the podcast came from that.” She said she wanted to let people tell their stories, in a simple enough way for anyone to listen.

“I interviewed teachers, students, other people in the school’s administration, one of the school’s chefs, the maintenance manager, the building supervisor and the president of the school,” she said.

The podcast, “August 2 stories,” was completed at the end of May this year. That was also when Melling and her journalism instructor, Reid Westrem, found out about the New York Times contest. She entered a five-minute segment from one of the episodes of the podcast.

One of those she interviewed was Laura DuBois, a chef at the school, whose husband Don is the maintenance manager. He was one who first was aware of the danger and got on the radio, warning everyone. ‘Laura was in the kitchen when she heard him yell over the radio to get out,” Melling said. She said her portion of the podcast when she recalled this was very emotional, very open and very honest. She entered a part of that interview, after checking with DuBois if it would be okay. “I wanted to make sure I did not exploit anyone’s story,” Melling said.

Melling, who graduated this spring and is planning on attending Bethel University, said doing the podcast was very difficult. “It has been a very emotional project, and I have carried around the weight of these stories for a whole school year,” she said. “I was the interviewer, and I had not actually gone through it. I felt much honored to hear these stories, and it just felt so great that these adults would open up to me and share their stories in such a personal way.”

Westrem, her teacher, agreed that this was a difficult project. He said those interviewed were talking about near-death experiences, maybe the most traumatic thing they had ever been through.

“We lost our co-workers, Ruth and John. These were stories people often don’t tell, and we are asking them to tell them to an 18-year-old high school student,” he said.

Westrem said that Emma had been his student for three years at that point, and he knew who she was and that he could trust her. “She is exceptionally mature, intelligent, sensitive and very compassionate,” he explained. “She is a good listener, and people trust her. She was the right person for this project.”

Photo left: Instructor Reid Westrem (left) and Emma Melling at her recent graduation. Melling was a Minnehaha Academy student who was named one of the top winners in a student podcast competition sponsored by the New York Times. (Photo submitted)

Part of his job is trying to find the right project for each student, Westrem noted. “I knew the explosion and its aftermath would dominate our year. I am proud of how Emma handled that responsibility. I know she struggled with the trauma for a whole year. Hearing the stories over and over, I am sure, took its toll on her.”

Westrem said that he and Emma agreed the proper way to dignify this subject without cheapening it or doing any injustice was to let people tell their own stories.

“Everyone had a different experience,” he claimed. “We were worried the stories would be the same and people would lose interest. But although they had a common bond, they were so different. The stories are affected by what you bring to the situation, your circumstances at the moment.”

He said he strongly believes one should not do a project for an award, but do it to contribute something to the community. “We feel journalism contributes something of value to the public,” he said, referring to the beliefs he and his students share.

“I have respect for Emma’s work and have always been proud of her, whether she wins a contest or not,” Westrem said. “She always tries to do her best work and is very respectful of other people’s stories. She does them with care.”

Westrem, who spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic and has worked as a newspaper editor before turning to teaching as a career, also was a student at Minnehaha Academy in the 1980s. His cousins attended in the 1970s, and his parents in the 1940s.

He said that the tragic event in August 2017 drew graduates of the school back. “It was interesting to see how important this campus was to our community,” he said. “So many came back to visit the building.”

“From the first day of 9th grade, I teach my students that journalism is unique, telling people’s stories, going out to the whole world,” Westrem stated. He said that although he grew up in the world of print journalism, his students need to learn social media and podcasting. “I teach my students to communicate in as many ways as possible to help them in any career they choose.”

The 2018 Student Podcast Contest was the first that the New York Times sponsored and pitted 675 submissions against each other.

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U.S. Cleaners given Minneapolis Green Business Award

Posted on 03 May 2015 by calvin

US-Cleaners-new-equipmentU.S. Cleaners has been presented a 2015 Minneapolis Green Business Award for Pollution Reduction by the City of Minneapolis. The City recognizes businesses for their investments in the health of their workers, customers and neighbors by converting to cleaner technology, and making investments with help from the City’s Green Business Matching Grant Program.

The City of Minneapolis offers grants of up to $30,000 each to help dry cleaners reduce pollution by switching their processes from perchloroethylene to clean solvents.

Perchloroethylene is the main chemical solvent used in dry cleaning and is a neurotoxin that causes kidney damage and is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a likely carcinogen.

U.S. Cleaners switched its dry cleaning process when testing by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found levels of perchloroethylene in the air at 87,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air – dramatically more than health risk levels of 60 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Testing also found the chemical in a neighboring daycare. The owner of the dry cleaning business worked with the Minneapolis Green Business Matching Grant Program to quickly replace the equipment and become a perchloroethylene-free facility.

The City of Minneapolis also offers grants to help vehicle repair, service and maintenance businesses, and also has a grant matching program that helps businesses voluntarily reduce the pollution that leads to ground level ozone.

More information and grant applications are available at

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South Minneapolis hard hit from battery of storms over the weekend

Posted on 26 June 2013 by robwas66

July2013Strom_community2Residents in one Nokomis neighborhood looked to be enjoying a summer day like any other. On backyard patios they were grilling out, chatting across fences, sharing cheerful exchanges. But out of power for the fourth day, they were making do: grilling anything from defrosted meats to limp frozen pizzas that didn’t make the journey to another ice box, and taking advantage of a cool breeze and the the light of day. While neighbors — some across the street — moved indoors at dusk to lights glowing and televisions flickering, those still without power lifted lanterns and flashlights and limped indoors to quiet, stagnant darkness. On Saturday, the Nokomis Library was abuzz with people looking for a place to power up or just to read in air conditioned relief. Areas throughout Minneapolis were ravaged by high winds the evening of June 21st, ripping branches tearing down power lines, and yanking trees up out of the ground. Sidewalks, rooftops and cars were crushed. Xcel Energy reported half a million customers impacted by power outages, many in the storms that ripped through earlier that morning. On June 23rd their recorded message said it could be several more days before all service was restored. (Photos by Jill Boogren)


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Gandhi Mahal owner seeks self-sufficiency for his restaurant

Posted on 26 June 2013 by robwas66

This year he has invested in 12 garden plots scattered throughout the city, a tilapia tank in his basement, and rickshaws that avoid the use of fossil fuels


Gandhi Mahal owner Ruhel Islam tends the tomato plants growing on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. This year, Islam has 12 garden plots scattered throughout the city. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

Gandhi Mahal owner Ruhel Islam tends the tomato plants growing on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. This year, Islam has 12 garden plots scattered throughout the city. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)



Be the change. Start small. Lead by example. Lake Street restaurant owner Ruhel Islam believes this is how you build community.

After a 2010 trip with HECUA (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs) to his home country of Bangladesh, Islam, the owner of Ghandi Mahal restaurant, came back inspired. He was no longer content to just talk about the issues. He wanted to take action.

In 2011, they planted a garden in the backyard of employee Riz Prakasim, who resides in the Corcoran neighborhood. They planted late, but still managed to harvest 2,000 pounds of vegetables. This year, they have recruited 12 partners in Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs. Each landowner has provided a plot for a garden. Some are small, such as the single raised garden bed at Minnehaha Liquor and the containers outside Gandhi Mahal’s doors. Others are larger. There is a site manager for each location, and one coordinator to oversee them all. High school and college students are tending the gardens.

This year’s goal is to grow 10,000 pounds of vegetables. Some of the produce will be used fresh. Some will be frozen and canned for use over the winter in Gandhi Mahal’s kitchen.

Having homegrown vegetables is just one piece of Islam’s overall plan to be self-sufficient. He also intends to raise his own chickens, farm tilapia and possibly shrimp in his basement, and place bee hives on his roof (for honey in his signature mango lassi). Islam is not sure how long this overall effort will take and what pieces will come first, but he is confident his dream will be achieved.

And when it does, Islam hopes to offer a complete economic model for others.

Part of Islam’s drive to be self-sufficient is rooted in his own culture and home country of Bangladesh, where he grew up on a farm that his family still runs.

“I want to know where the food is coming from that I cook here,” explained Islam.

Islam is also concerned about the food chain here in America. As a restaurant owner, Islam has faces food shortages this winter. He was unable to buy eggplant, corn oil or naturally raised chicken from wholesalers. Onions tripled in price, and ginger rose from $18 to $28 a case to $50.

The food industry is not secure, he pointed out. Most of the farmers in the U.S. are over 65, and young people are opting for careers in medicine or law instead of agriculture.

“Gardening is very important,” said Islam.

There is no long-term supply of food, and the problem of not enough food for people becomes apparent during disasters.

Islam pointed out that the American food system is based on fossil fuels. He encourages others to buy local and grow local.

“We’re hoping to chain people’s mindsets about how we view and interact with our food chain,” said Prakasim. “A food chain based on fossil fuels is not sustainable.”

Islam noted, “Food is the true wealth.”


By late summer, Islam hopes to install a 500 gallon tank in his basement to house tilapia. The waste will be used to fertilize gardens and grow the cilantro, tomatoes, chilies and more they use in the restaurant. The tilapia themselves will be fed with chicken scraps.

“We are starting an aquaculture,” noted Islam.

He is also working with researchers at the University of Minnesota that are dedicated to making basement gardens a reality. New technology will port sunlight from the roof into the basement with zero loss. “We really want to work on the cutting edge of technology to propel indoor farming forward,” said Prakasim. He pointed out that Europe is 20 years ahead of the United States. “We’re playing catch-up,” Prakasim observed.

Another slice of Bangladesh will hit local streets later this summer when it is time to harvest vegetables from Gandhi Mahal’s 12 garden plots. Rickshaws are being specially built to transport vegetables from the garden to the restaurant and thereby avoid using any fossil fuel. A Kickstart campaign will kick off on Thursday, July 11. Proceeds from dinner at Gandhi Mahal that day will go towards the campaign.

“I can’t wait to see those,” said Islam. “It’s very exciting.”

In the kitchen, all the used cooking oil is gathered and picked up by Cat Biodiesel for use as biodiesel.

“Teamwork makes this possible,” stressed Islam.

He operates on the principal that the more you give, the more comes back to you. Every Tuesday night, 10% of every meal goes to MN350, a group dedicated to building a climate movement in Minnesota. Proceeds from dinner every second Wednesday go to the Midtown Farmer’s Market.

Islam offers a community room for use free of charge to non-profits and community groups such as the Longfellow Restorative Justice Committee and the Longfellow Business Association, two groups he is active in. Other groups, such as the Permaculture Research Institute and HECUA, have held classes there.

A few months ago, the restaurant was designated a World Peace Site.

“We have to be the change we want to see in the world,” said Prakasim. It’s a lesson he’s learned from Islam, and one he’s passing along.

It’s been just five years since Islam opened up his Lake Street restaurant, but he has joined the ranks of those who have made a mark on the community and transformed East Lake Street into a place that can stand as its own destination location.


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The Dakota Combo: new ensemble selected following auditions

Posted on 24 November 2012 by robwas66

(left to right) Sam Worthington, Benjamin Beyene, Zosha Warpeha, Jack Courtwright, Peter Goggin, Levi Schwartzberg, Will Kjeer and Jackson Mullett. (Photo Credit – Andrea Canter)

The MacPhail Center for Music and the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education (DFJE) announce the 7th edition of The Dakota Combo, a high school jazz ensemble. Selected through open auditions, the Combo is a band of exceptional student musicians who rehearse and perform throughout the year under the direction of Adam Linz, Jazz Coordinator for MacPhail.

This MacPhail program, with funding from DFJE, was begun in 2006. Graduates of the program have moved on to study at the nation’s top music programs, including the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, New England Conservatory of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, among others. During the school year, the Dakota Combo will rehearse biweekly with Linz and perform frequently, including at the Artists Quarter (November 29), MacPhail’s Antonello Hall, the 2013 Twin Cities Jazz Festival, and at other venues and events. Students will also visit area schools and participate in clinics and workshops.

The student musicians of the 2012-2013 Dakota Combo:

Jackson Mullet, trumpet (Eden Prairie High School); Jack Courtwright, trombone (Apple Valley High School); Peter Goggin, alto saxophone (Moundsview High School); Zosha Warpeha, violin (Perpich Center for Arts Education); Levi Schwartzberg, vibraphone (Minneapolis Southwest High School); Will Kjeer, piano (St Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists); Sam Worthington, bass (Moundsview High School); Benjamin Beyene, drums (Minneapolis Roosevelt High School)

MacPhail Center for Music is a community resource for education and performance experiences in the musical arts. In operation for over 100 years, MacPhail is one of the nation’s oldest and largest community music schools with over 8,000 students of all ages. Visit The Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education (DFJE) is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to bringing jazz and education together. Since 1997 DFJE has been providing jazz education and performance opportunities that encourage an understanding, appreciation and enthusiasm for jazz among young audiences and developing musicians. For more information about the Foundation, and about the Dakota Combo throughout the year, visit

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Author/Author… Two neighborhood authors share their stories

Posted on 24 November 2012 by robwas66


Winter’s a great time to curl up with a good book, but what of the people behind the stories? Here are two hometown authors, Kelly Barnhill and Lorna Landvik, each with newly-released novels, sharing their stories of living and working in south Minneapolis.

Kelly Barnhill (Photo by Bruce Silcox)

To say that Kelly Barnhill writes of otherworldly places would be an understatement. Her latest children’s novel, Iron Hearted Violet, is set in a kingdom with twin suns and a mirrored sky. Her previous novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack, takes place in a small town in Iowa with hidden secrets.

“Iowa is just magic,” she said. “That is just common knowledge.”

For Barnhill, magic is everywhere. On the block where she lives near Minnehaha Creek, at the Caribou Coffee where she turns out pages and pages of fiction, and even in some dreary, unexpected places. Sewers, for example.

It says something that one of Barnhill’s favorite projects was writing Sewers and the Rats That Love Them, which describes exactly where your water’s been.

Barnhill is fascinated by these human systems. “They’re like little empires,” she said.

Sewers was one of a number of high-interest nonfiction books for youth she wrote for Capstone Press, where she got to shed light on a whole world of the oozy, gross and creepy in gory detail: Blood-Sucking, Man-Eating Monsters, from the Horrible Things series, and The Sweaty Book of Sweat and The Wee Book of Pee, from The Amazingly GROSS Human Body series.

Barnhill said she may have been a natural choice to flesh these out.

“I typically do delight with these topics,” she said, and she especially likes writing for fourth to fifth graders.

“In my deepest places of my soul, I am a fourth grade boy,” she said. “These are my people.”

Barnhill had done some educational writing before and had used Capstone books as a teacher. The books had to be well-researched with the strict constraints required for specific reading levels. They also had to be engaging, informative, and funny.

“It taught me how to write for kids,” said Barnhill. “Even if you’re limiting language, you can’t limit ideas. Kids still want to be engaged. They still want to be learning.”

Barnhill, who was born here, calls Minneapolis a special place, where neighbors really care about each other and writers are extremely supportive of each other’s work. She lives with her husband and their two daughters, their son, and their dog Harper.

Barnhill breaks up her writing day by allowing a little time to read (“All writers are readers first.”) and jogging, although she often writes while she runs.

Able to hold three or four pages in her head while running, Barnhill explained the physicality of storybuilding and how it helps for her to be more engaged, reacting to the world around her, seeing the variations in air and light.

“Lake Nokomis, the creek, Fort Snelling are all very meditative places to work on these little knots of story,” she said.

The Barnhills love nature. She and her husband, who was an Eagle Scout, both worked with the National Park Service. Their kids are down by the creek every day, they enjoy walks from Minnehaha Falls to the river, and they take annual canoeing trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

They also spend time at a small cabin — a “shack in the woods” — where they truly unplug. There they do a ton of reading and art and tell stories in the dark by candlelight, “always candlelight.”

Her main character for Violet started off as a story Barnhill was telling her daughters.

“They wanted a story about a princess, and she had to be ugly,” said Barnhill. In the story, Cassian, an adult narrator, says something he immediately regrets, as caretakers sometimes painfully do.

“You want to suck it back in like a noodle,” said Barnhill, explaining that it’s useful to show kids that adults make mistakes, too.

Suggesting that once a teacher, always a teacher, Barnhill said that “even as a novelist for kids, there’s always an eye to teaching.”

“Kids love learning something new. It’s one of our basic human needs as a kid.”

Barnhill’s next book involves a swamp monster named Glerk who recites poetry.

Iron Hearted Violet is available at book stores and online.

Visit Kelly’s website at


Lorna Landvik

Lorna Landvik, whose stories are usually set in Minneapolis or Minnesota, begins her latest novel, Mayor of the Universe, in Pierre, South Dakota. Until the aliens come. Then hold onto your hats, because you’re in for quite a ride.

Described as “fun, meddling in-laws,” aliens visit mild-mannered Fletcher Weschel and proceed to upend his less-than-formidable life.

Although Landvik said she doesn’t start out with a particular theme in mind, her stories often feature a central gathering place: Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Your Oasis on Flame Lake, Cup O’ Delight Cafe (in The Tall Pine Polka), which Landvik recognizes as places not just where people gather, but “where they can thrive.”

In Mayor, it’s the universe. “I think I’ve expanded,” said Landvik.

She never intended to write about aliens, they just kind of showed up, Lodge members, all (“That’s how I see the great beyond, they’re all Lodge members.”). A trip to Pierre told her Fletcher had to be from there.

“These are the thrilling surprises for me,” said Landvik. “When I realize I’m not as in charge as I think I am.”

Raised in Minneapolis from the age of about three, Landvik grew up on 38th Ave. S. across from the Navy Base (“It’s weird to think of there being a Navy Base in Minnesota”), often shagging balls that landed in their lilac bushes from big hitters in their baseball games.

Her family then moved closer to the Veterans Home. Landvik said she was allowed a “real Huck Finn” childhood.

“I had a banana seat bike I adored,” said Landvik. “With a transistor radio with straps attached to the handlebars.” She and her friends would ride to Lake Nokomis in the summer, and also out to Whiskey’s grave, which, Landvik pointed out, is a horse, and “…not where they buried hooch.”

As teenagers, kids hung out at Skylane Bowling, Marty’s (now Pizza Hut) and the Leola Theatre (U.S. Bank), and drank “charged sodas” at Zipp’s Pharmacy (Nokomis Shoes). Landvik remembers a very grown up moment buying Pond’s Cold Cream at the Five and Dime store. Nokomis Beach was a Baskin Robbins.

Landvik attended the former Morris Park Elementary and Nokomis Junior High schools, then Roosevelt High. She credits a pivotal sixth grade teacher with giving her the encouragement to follow her dream to write, as well as very supportive parents and friends.

“There were no doubts,” said Landvik. “There was no ‘You can’t do this.’”

Landvik is of Norwegian heritage and recalls family picnics and reunions full of storytelling and big laughs. Her parents were both good storytellers, and her mother was also a performer, as one of the “Mother Singers” at Morris Park. “Oh My Stars” (an expression used in Landvik’s novel of the same name) was her Mom’s version of swearing.

Asked what it would be like if all of her characters from previous novels were “coming home” for the holidays, Landvik said:

“I think there’d be no physical brawl, because there’d be good strong characters to keep ‘em in line. There’d be a singalong… more dessert than entrees, a lot of storytelling, candy dishes in every room… and a crackling fire where at the end of the night everyone gathers and listens to the older ones telling stories.” Kristi (from The View from Mount Joy), Landvik added, “might be sent away or they’d give her the wrong date.”

Landvik’s love of acting brought her to California, where she did stand-up and improvisational comedy and worked at the Playboy Mansion (strictly clerical!). She, with her husband and daughter, joined the Great Peace March across America. After that, they moved back to Minneapolis where their second daughter was born and Landvik began writing.

Landvik and her husband live and raised their daughters not far from where she grew up. She often walks her dog Julio at the Minnehaha Dog Park, where she gets a lot of her story ideas. No longer an active hockey mom (both girls played), she loves city life — the Riverview Theatre, Bryant Lake Bowl, Sea Salt — and watching the sunset at Lake Hiawatha.

Starting January 4th, Landvik’s annual “Party in the Rec Room” will be at Bryant Lake Bowl every Friday and Saturday night (7 p.m.). It’s a night of improv, fueled by the audience (and maybe one or two margaritas she mixes on stage).

Coming soon is her next novel, Best to Laugh, which Landvik describes as the most autobiographical of her fiction, in that her main character is in Los Angeles doing standup at the same time she was.

She’s also working on a sequel to Patty Jane’s House of Curl.

“Those characters have been nagging me throughout the years,” said Landvik. “They’re not quite done.”

Mayor of the Universe is available at in print or as a download. Or ask for it at book stores.

Find Landvik on Facebook at Lorna Landvik, Author and at her website:

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