Green Chair Project helps homeless youth

Posted on 28 August 2020 by Tesha Christensen


Joel Sisson (left) joins Elpis workers constructing chairs. The Green Chair project started in South Minneapolis, has been reinvented, and is now based in the St. Paul Midway. (Photo by Jan Willms)

Resilience, collaboration, flexibility. All choice descriptions that organizations have needed to follow in these times of pandemic and social unrest. So why not bring back a project that worked before in the early 1990s?
Joel Sisson and Chris Hand came up with the Green Chair Project around 1991. It was shortly after the Rodney King beating in LA, and Sisson had recently moved to a South Minneapolis neighborhood around 31st and Pleasant.
“It was a crack neighborhood, off and on, and Minneapolis was called Murderapolis at that time,” Sisson recalled. “I got jumped and beat up by some guys, and I had to decide: fight or flight? What do I do to not be afraid of these young people who were identifying as gang members? How do I change that interaction for both them and myself, so we can get to know each other in different ways?”
And so the Green Chair Project was born. Sisson and Hand had inner city youth building Adirondack lawn chairs and painting them green. “The idea was that we would build chairs and give away two to each house on our block. We worked in the back yard that we tore up to put this project together.”
And as the chairs were being constructed, Sisson noticed that neighbors came out on the street. Normally no one came out unless there was a fight, or a shooting or a bust, according to Sisson.
The project took off, and later chairs four times the size of the original were built and placed around Minnesota and in Washington, D.C. Sisson said chairs were placed at Duke Ellington High School in D.C., and installations were done at the Washington Monument and at Congress.
After about 12 years, Sisson stepped back from the project. He was no longer working with youth, and the chair-building was placed on a back burner.
Fast forward to the spring of 2020. A pandemic unlike anything since 1918 was ravaging the country. And then, in Minneapolis, George Floyd died as a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. This time, not just this country, but the world exploded in social unrest.
And Sisson got a call from Paul Ramsour, executive director of Elpis Enterprises, an agency working with homeless youth. Elpis, located at 2161 University Ave. in St. Paul, offers internships in screen printing and woodworking to youths who have been homeless, are homeless, or are at risk of homelessness. They also have trainees in the summer who are a part of Right Track and Step-up youth programs in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Normally, the woodworking trainees would be learning how to build birdhouses and bird feeders and then going out into the community and teaching younger children how to build them. However, due to COVID-19, all the park and recreational center workshops for this had been canceled.

An idea that came back around
But Ramsour had an idea.
He and Sisson had met years ago in a church basement, where they had both been talking about their youth projects. And Ramsour had taken a couple of the crates used to build chairs and had hung onto them.
“Paul and I had talked over the years, and he messaged me not long after the riots,” Sisson said. “Maybe it’s time to resurrect the chair project,” was Ramsour’s message.
“A couple other people had been whispering in my ear about it, also, and so I messaged Paul back and said yes, I would like to give the project to him and help him make it happen.”
And so, inner city youth are again building chairs.
The chairs are made of 5-core cedar, the same kind of wood that is used to build decks. Sisson said they can easily last 10 years, especially if they are covered and placed inside during the winter months.
The kit for each chair unfolds into two work tables on wheels. A youth center could unfold the kit, build the chairs, then fold it up and put it away. Sisson said the kits are made to be shipped. “That’s what I want to do. I really want to open source this project, and Paul is in line with that. He has kind of taken this on, with Elpis serving as the training center.
“We are trying to develop a manual that we are putting together, with pictures and diagrams of how to build the chair, so someone might be able to take this kit and set up their own workshop.”

Staying safe while building
Sisson said the initial idea was to have three workshops in the areas hardest hit by the rioting: Lake Street, North Minneapolis and St. Paul. “We would be doing the workshops outside amidst the rubble, and building from there.”
However, Sisson said he is comfortable with shifting goals if needed as long as more young people can be put to work. So the plan now is to offer the workshops at Elpis, either outside or in an upstairs space or in the woodworking shop.
“Paul has been in conversations with Ain Dah Yung,” Sisson said. That is an organization that also serves homeless youth by providing housing and other benefits. He said the Green Chair Project has also worked with corporate training, and that is also a possibility.
“If we didn’t have COVID-19 to worry about, we would probably be doing workshops like crazy right now. But we are all trying to figure out how to stay safe and distance.”
Working safely, about four to six trainees could complete the four-hour workshop and can easily build six chairs in that time. The workshops are free, and one chair is given away for every two that are sold. The profits are used to fund the workshops. There is no capacity for painting right now, so the chairs are unpainted cedar.
Sisson said that after a workshop, the youths will have a couple chairs that they can decide what to do with: display them, paint them or sell them.
Each workshop has three stations, according to Sisson. At one station, the arms of the chair are built. At the second station, the back of the chair is built. And at the third station, all the pieces come together.
“It’s good to team up a little bit,” Sisson said. “We are using my favorite model. You learn how to build something, and then you have to teach the next person how to do it.”
At this point, Elpis trainees have already started building chairs. Sisson said with their first run of 50 chairs, 22 have already been sold.
“Our chairs have gotten so much better over the years,” Sisson stated. “The quality, the size and the longevity.”
He said the development of the product has been a result of some of the people who have been involved over the years with the project. Tim Schwietzer helped design the big Adirondack chairs, which weigh over 2,000 pounds. And Mike Hoyt was involved with running the project for many years and is still involved in community art projects.
“We have the ability to extend this through the fall to the end of the year,” Ramsour added. “We would like to do that, selling the chairs to help fund the workshops we do. We have an opportunity this fall to have more interns, and they can learn to build the chairs and can then teach workshops. We are excited about the process.”
He said Elpis is also excited about helping bring back the Green Chair Project and that interns have the opportunity to work on a project that has been happening for a number of years.
“We have talked to a number of people about it, and people are interested. I think the challenge is figuring out how this works in the COVID-19 ecosystem. I think it can.”
Ramsour explained that COVID-19 can be a reason to build the chairs. “You can have the chairs out and about so people can sit and space and talk, and the chairs are good for doing all that.”
To purchase a chair or have a group sign up for a workshop, contact Elpis Enterprises at or call 651-644-5080.

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New life for used plywood

Posted on 28 August 2020 by Tesha Christensen

ReUSE Minnesota focuses on plain boards that will get reused in building projects and more


ReUSE Minnesota Board President Jenny Kedward said, “We are leading the effort to collect, store, and distribute plywood used in the Uprising for reuse. We respect all artwork and murals. We are working with several organizations to preserve those pieces, and to get unmarked boards back out into the community where they can be used again.” (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

In the wake of the Uprising, Minneapolis was flooded with a reusable commodity that residents weren’t used to seeing everywhere: plywood. Within four days of George Floyd’s murder, plywood covered hundreds of businesses and organizations along Lake Street from end to end, and just about everywhere else. If one business owner chose to cover windows and doors, it seemed like everybody on the block followed suit.
ReUSE Minnesota Board President Jenny Kedward is a recycling educator by trade, a professional trash talker who has been taking the message of recycling to schools, businesses, and neighborhood groups for 14 years. She said, “ReUSE Minnesota stands with our communities advocating for systems change and pursuing justice for George Floyd.”

ReUSE Minnesota is a member-based network that promotes Minnesota’s reuse, rental, and repair sector. As the only organization of its kind in the state, ReUSE Minnesota highlights the benefits of reuse both for people and the environment.
Kedward reflected, “The main thing on everybody’s mind is, ‘What can I do now?’ As a reuse organization, we are committed to keeping as much of the used plywood out of the waste stream as we can. We don’t want this stuff going into incinerators. Toward that goal, our board started a new initiative called Twin Cities Plywood Rescue.”
So far, ReUSE Minnesota has collected 642 pieces of plywood and strand board. Their volunteers have made 46 pick-ups from local businesses and organizations at no charge.
Kedward wants to keep spreading the word that Twin Cities Plywood Rescue is alive and well. She said, ”We’re in the phase now of getting those materials back out into the community to be used in new ways.”
St. Paul’s Mano a Mano (which means Hand to Hand in Spanish) received 40 boards to use in shipping recycled medical materials to underserved people in the mountains of Bolivia. Pillsbury United Communities used 30 boards to protect the floor of their newly expanded food shelf in South Minneapolis.
Non-profits or individuals may request boards for free, if it’s a hardship to pay. If possible, ReUSE Minnesota requests $3 for a full sheet of strand board and $4 for a full sheet of plywood. A full sheet measures 4’ X 8’.  The fee offsets disposal costs for reclaimed boards that aren’t usable.
A full sheet of strand board normally costs about $15; a full sheet of plywood costs about $25.

Board with murals treated
Kedward said, “When people hear about Plywood Rescue, their first concern is for the murals. We’ve separated out the boards we’ve collected that have graffiti on them. We’re offering those boards to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) organizations and neighborhood museums first. Then we will reach out to larger institutions like the Minnesota History Center. We understand the emotions associated with artwork and controversies in working with larger institutions.”
ReUSE Minnesota is interested in plain boards for community redistribution. To donate strand board or plywood, visit their website at (minimum size 2’ X 4’).
The vision of their organization is to build a strong Minnesota reuse economy that leads the nation in well-paying reuse jobs and sales, and is driven by citizens and institutions who support a circular economy aimed at reducing waste.

“ReUSE Minnesota is a network of people led by a volunteer board of directors. We facilitate connections in the reuse, rental, and repair sector. Our members are from both for-profit and non-profit organizations of any size that are part of this sector. We welcome government partners whose works focuses on waste reduction and reuse – and we welcome individuals who are passionate about reuse.”
~ Board President Jenny Kedward


Another local initiative focuses on plywood with artwork.

According to Plywood for Good organizers: The plywood covering Minneapolis and St. Paul businesses following the killing of George Floyd is a grassroots art project. It captures the cries emanating from the people of our cities and nation to combat police brutality and systemic racism. We want to connect with the artists and businesses owners and learn their stories. Our goal is to help preserve and protect the art of this movement, to make sure art doesn’t get tossed out when taken down.”

Get in touch by emailing

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Remember to care for the trees

Posted on 29 July 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Minneapolis asks homeowners to water boulevard trees

Lend a hand and water boulevard trees. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

This spring, 9,400 boulevard trees were planted in the city of Minneapolis.
According to Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Forestry Director Ralph Sievert, “The new plantings include river birch, Kentucky coffee tree, buckeye, tree lilac, alder, ornamental pear, honey locust, linden, hackberry, gingko, larch, and more. These are trees that do well here, but haven’t been planted in large numbers before. This year we went for a big mix.”
The trees got in the ground in record time. In response to the pandemic, the park board had to come up with a new tree-planting strategy. Instead of sending several staff out together, crew members worked individually from small utility vehicles. One person dug holes, the next person planted trees, and the last person mulched and watered them. Sievert said, “It worked so well, we might stick with this method in the future. We got the whole job done by Memorial Day, which was weeks ahead of schedule.”
The park board has five large capacity trucks for watering, but they focus on trees that homeowners can’t get to: those planted on medians, in parks, and in front of apartment buildings. If your home or business has received a new tree, it is up to you to keep it watered – and the first year that a tree is in the ground is critical.
Every new tree comes with a slow release water bag zipped around its trunk. The bag should be filled by hose or bucket once a week. Its contents will release slowly over several hours, allowing for better water absorption into the roots.
Sievert has been in the forestry department long enough to see several dramatic tree events hit Minneapolis since the invasion of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
American elm had been the dominant species across the city, and the loss of the nearly 100-year-old shade canopy was devastating. Realizing that monoculture plantings had failed, the city changed gears and planted dominant species block by block instead.
When the Emerald Ash Borer arrived a little more than 10 years ago, Minneapolis began to suffer another huge loss of its boulevard and park trees. Sievert said, “We’re in year seven of our eight-year plan to remove all of the ash trees from Minneapolis boulevards and parks. By the end of next year, about 40,000 ash trees will have been removed and replaced. The only ash trees left on city boulevards will be the ones residents are paying to treat themselves for Emerald Ash Borer.
“In light of all that, we’ve revamped the way we look at boulevard trees once again. The latest rule is that if a block has more than 10% of any one kind of tree already established, we won’t plant any more of that species. The key is to diversify.”
It is unusual for a municipality to provide boulevard trees at no cost to homeowners. The park board also removes sick or dying trees and grinds their stumps free of charge.
The tree canopy in Minneapolis is currently about 29%. The higher the percentage of tree canopy, the better off city residents are. Trees increase energy savings by providing shade; they decrease storm water run-off by mitigating rainfall; they increase property value with their beauty.
Sievert said, “The pandemic has hit us hard this spring and summer, just like it did everybody else. In a normal year, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board would receive significant revenue from events held in parks like weddings, concerts, fun-runs, and the like. This year, that hasn’t happened. We’ve kept our public spaces open, but we aren’t hosting events to discourage people from gathering.”
That has created a predicted budget deficit next year of approximately $6,000,000.
Sievert said, “The 2021 planting season is going to be tricky. Maybe there won’t be money for trees in the spring? Let’s take care of the trees we already have, by remembering to keep them watered, and by being careful with lawn mowers and weed whippers when working around the base of trees. Any damage to their bark is an invitation for pests and disease enter.”

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Community partnership provides repair vouchers instead of tickets

Posted on 26 May 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Program offers healing interactions with police

Keep those car lights in working order! Previously, a broken head light, tail light, or brake light could spark a downward economic spiral that, for some, brought on multiple tickets, confrontations with law enforcement, and even vehicle impoundment. Lights On has the potential to disrupt that downward spiral, and transform hostility into helpfulness. To date, almost 2,000 Lights On vouchers have been issued in Minnesota. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

It’s been nearly four years since African American motorist Philando Castile was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer. In the 14 years since he started driving, Castile was pulled over by law enforcement 46 times for alleged violations. On the night of his death, Castile was stopped because he resembled a suspect in an armed robbery that had taken place four days earlier, and because he had a broken tail light.
On the day Castile’s shooter was acquitted of all charges, Don Samuels was in a board meeting. Samuels is the CEO of a South Minneapolis-based nonprofit called MicroGrants. Since 2006, MicroGrants has partnered with local organizations to promote self-sufficiency for lower income people.
According to Samuels, “As a board, our plate was already completely full – but we felt we had to do something extra. We reached out to our more than 50 partner agencies and said, ‘If any of your clients has a head light, tail light, or brake light that needs fixing, we’ll help them get it fixed.’ Someone suggested the idea of police officers handing out repair vouchers instead of tickets.”
MicroGrants has a long-standing relationship with Bobby and Steve’s Auto World, who operate eight auto shops across the metro area. They agreed to do the car repairs at cost, with reimbursement provided by MicroGrants.
Samuels said, “Bobby and Steve’s Columbia Heights location was the first to participate. I did the math and figured we could cover the whole metro area for $100,000. This program is funded by donations, not tax dollars.”
He added, “I called 20 police precincts in our metro area, and 19 of them said, ‘Yes.’ We printed out our own vouchers, two vouchers side by side on a sheet of regular computer paper.”
The program grew over time, but it was clear that a funding boost was needed to move it beyond what MicroGrants could support. In 2018, the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation donated $100,000 to fully implement the program and hire a Lights On staff person. Between March-December 2019, the program went from operating in 20 Minnesota cities/counties to 65.
Fast forward to February of this year. Samuels said, “We’re currently working with police departments in 93 cities/counties, and also expanding into tribal lands/reservations. We ask out-state participating police precincts to find service providers because they know their own communities. Service providers are required to sign an agreement that they won’t up-sell parts and labor.”

“Having dependable
transportation is essential
to moving people out
of poverty.”
~ Don Samuels

Giving help, not lectures
Lights On takes a pro-active approach to getting minor car repairs done. Previously, if a car light was out and the owner couldn’t afford to fix it (or didn’t know it was broken), a cycle of fines and penalties had the potential to upend a life – all starting with a broken $5 bulb.
Now if a motorist is pulled over for a non-functioning car light, they will be issued a repair voucher for up to $250 to cover a new bulb, mounting, and wiring. Repairs above $250 are the car owner’s responsibility – but the average repair cost, according to Samuels, is about $50.
The police officer will advise the driver where to go for the repair. Vouchers are issued to all drivers, regardless of race or income. Exceptions to a voucher being issued are when equipment violations result in a crash, or when a driver had an outstanding warrant.
Samuels said, “The money is very helpful, but it’s the interaction with the officer that is healing. We want this to be a gift. This effort is aimed at improving police-community relations, and making streets safer for everybody by having more cars in good repair. Officers are being instructed to give a voucher, not a lecture.”
Steven Anderson is a senior commander with the St. Paul Police Department. He said, “I haven’t heard any negative feedback with regard to this program. By most accounts, drivers receiving vouchers are getting the necessary repairs done.”
“Obviously, with the current Covid-19 national response, traffic-related contacts are greatly diminished. When we were operating normally, the program was a great tool. It allowed our officers to build bridges within the communities we serve.”
Samuels concluded, “I feel really proud that Lights On came out of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and will likely become a national program in a couple of years. It makes Philando Castille’s death not be entirely in vain. With our partners, we’ve been able to take a situation where there has been a lot of mutual discomfort, even tragedy, and turn it into something positive.”
For more information, go to or call 612-220-8174.


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Rooftop prairie: Nokomis family doesn’t have to go far to relax

Posted on 04 May 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Home & Garden

“Water quality and stormwater management are really big values for us,” observed Nokomis resident Steffanie Musich as she drinks a glass of water on her rooftop garden. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)


When Steffanie Musich sits on her green roof looking out over the rooftop prairie and the tree canopy, it’s hard to remember that she’s in the city.
That sense of peace and relaxation without having to get in the car is exactly what she was aiming for.
The 11-year Nokomis resident, her husband Matt and son live within blocks of Highway 62 and Cedar, surrounded by the constant hum of traffic and roar of airplanes. They’re also close to Lake Nokomis, and have dedicated years to the intricacies of water quality and sustainability issues.
The green roof is an extension of those values, and a way to demonstrate how it can work in a neighborhood.
When Musich read about the green roofs being installed by Omni Ecosystems of Chicago, Ill. they resonated with her. She didn’t want the type of living roof that merely had a sedum tray of close-to-the-ground plants. Instead, she envisioned a prairie.
The problem is that a roof with 1.5 to 2 feet of soil material is heavy – and gets even more so with a load of snow on it. Plus, the costs of a roof like that are typically beyond what a homeowner can pay.
But Omni Ecosystems offered an innovative system using a new lightweight growing medium with a higher capacity for stormwater management, which allows them to build lighter green roof systems that require less structural capacity. Omni’s projects include the O’Hare Terminal 2 Concourse, Harvard Business School, Chicago’s Wild Mile, and McDonald’s corporate headquarters.
The 300-square-foot green roof at the Musich residence cost about $17,000. That doesn’t include the cost of replacing the garage or the flat roof that is underneath.
While the initial cost is higher than a regular roof, the Musich family believes the positive impacts on their mental health, the extended life of the flat roof beneath it, and the environmental impacts are worth it.
It was 2015 when they began envisioning the project. The couple hired Craft Design and Build from Uptown Minneapolis as the general contractor, and Jody McGuire of SALA Design as architect. Steffanie and Matt saved on costs by doing much of the construction themselves, including all the painting, stucco, and finishing work, putting in time in the evenings and weekends. For the rest, they refinanced and rolled the cost in.
It is important to them that the living roof will last 50-100 years, 3-5 times longer than a traditional roof.
The green roof doesn’t heat up as much in the summer, and it provides insulation in the winter. “Green roofs help with urban heat island effects,” observed Musich.
Bonus: brewery space and sauna
The two-car garage on the property was rotting and didn’t have footings under the cement slab. So they tore it down and started from scratch. The new three-car garage uses three sets of three tri-lam beams made of manufactured wood to distribute the weight. A room in the center helps support the load of the roof. As an added bonus, they moved their longtime home brew operation into the new space and got it out of the house.
The garage is connected to the house via a main floor breezeway and a second story deck. An upstairs door offers the only way to access the green roof. Near the plants is a beehive decorated by local artist Jamie Anderson.
Nestled in the prairie is a sauna that’s been a great way to pull the neighborhood together in the winter months.

Green roof part of system of rain gardens and more
When the house needed a new roof eight years ago, Steffanie and Matt opted for a “cool roof.” The steel roof reflects sunlight and heat away from the building, reducing roof temperatures by 50–60°F over a typical shingle roof and helps the house stay cooler inside. The material is also a lifetime product.
“Water quality and stormwater management are really big values for us,” observed Musich. She started Friends of Lake Nokomis, and has served on the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board since 2014.
Given their proximity to Lake Nokomis, Musich wanted to replace an impermeable surface with one that would hold water in place and not flood the city’s stormwater system. “Part of what we’re trying to do is keep stormwater on our property for a longer period of time to reduce the volume of water the city infrastructure needs to manage during a storm event,” she explained.
Their green roof can hold a one-inch rainfall. More than that runs off the backside where they’ve done some regrading. They added a raingarden for Steffanie’s birthday last year that holds more water and keeps it from flowing immediately into the street. They plan to add another in the front in an effort to hold as much water as they can on site.
Over the years, they had also overseeded the backyard grass in favor of plants (such as clover) that help capture water and provide habitat for pollinators. They mow at 4 inches to allow for a deeper root system, which in turns means the plants are able to take more water into the ground than if the lawn was mowed shorter – a tip she learned through her master gardener training.
The best practices guidelines have been to hold a one-inch rainfall, although Musich foresees that may change as the state has been experiencing more and more high rainfall events. “One inch was unusual and on the high end, but now we’re seeing 2-3-4-6-inch rainfall events,” she said.
Musich pointed out it’s important to keep raingardens 10 feet from a building foundation to avoid basement flooding. Using a French drain between homes helps the water move and protects both homes.
Due to the way their home sits on their corner lot, their backyard is essentially their neighbor’s front yard. The new garage and green roof helped them carve out a private space.
“Plus we’re up in the canopy,” said Musich. “We get to see the birds and the squirrels in their element.”

‘Cathartic to care for natural space’
Initially, they planted 24 plugs with six different sedges, forbes, and grasses that were overseeded with a mix of annuals and perennials. Not everything was native.
White asters, white yarrow, black-eyes susan, mountain mint, purple coneflower, bachelor buttons, baby’s breath, columbine and more grow on the roof. The rooftop prairie starts blooming in April and continues through fall.
“The first thing that starts to bloom is the baby’s breath, which is self seeding. We’ll get a field of white which is beautiful at night,” said Musich. The first year, many poppies bloomed but they haven’t seen any since, and the wild indigo bloomed just the first two years. Meanwhile, the purple coneflower was elusive until the summer of 2019.
“It’s been very interesting to watch the evolution of the plants and the way they cluster and change,” said Musich.
The maintenance of the roof each year is minimal. “I’ll come out here and weed a couple times a month,” remarked Musich. “If I’m having a particularly stressful week, I’ll be out here more frequently. It’s very cathartic to care for a natural space.”

Benefits of green roofs
Ordinarily, rainwater picks up contaminants and heat as it rushes across roofing and other hard surfaces on its way to lakes and rivers. Green roofs hold onto much of the rain, reducing the runoff that would otherwise cause water pollution and decreasing the need for additional (and expensive) stormwater treatment infrastructure.

Because the waterproofing membrane is underneath the other layers of the green roof, it is protected from factors that can cause roofs to fail: extreme heat, UV radiation, and thermal swings. In general, green roofs last longer than conventional roofs, reducing both consumption and waste.

The plants on a green roof shade the building, and further cool it through the natural process of evapotranspiration. If enough roofs in a city are greened, they can combat the urban heat island and help mitigate the effects of global warming.

Green roofs create green spaces in the built environment that birds and beneficial insects can use as habitat. Green roofs also beautify cities, creating better habitat for humans as well.

Green roofs improve air quality by taking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, and by filtering airborne particulates.
~ Information from

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Envision community: A model for tiny homes, big community

Posted on 04 May 2020 by Tesha Christensen


Sherry Shannon is one of five formerly homeless community members leading the Envision Community. Behind her is an architectural drawing of the project. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

Dewayne Parker became homeless in 2017. For lack of a better option, he ended up sleeping for months on the Green Line train. One winter night, that sleeping arrangement very nearly got him killed.
Parker said, ”Everybody knows it’s dangerous living on the streets. What I want the broader community to understand is that anyone can end up homeless. Some of the most intelligent and resourceful people I’ve ever met lost their housing. It doesn’t take much for things to fall apart.”
Parker is one of five homeless or previously homeless community members serving as leaders on a new housing model called Envision Community. After meeting for more than a year, the group has embraced the idea of starting a community of “tiny homes” for the poor and homeless to be built somewhere in South Minneapolis.

“There’s a terrible housing shortage, but that’s just part of it.
The headline, and one of the things that’s really different with our model, is that we’re creating an intentional community – one where residents feel a sense of belonging. This movement has to be led by people who have experienced homelessness, and we have to be certain that
what we’re building is desirable for those same people.”
~ Dr. William Walsh, Envision Community advisor

Tiny, deeply affordable homes
Envision Community is a proposal to build and operate a two-year live demonstration of an intentional community made up of 15-30 people living in tiny homes, with the goal of creating health equity.
The tiny homes, just a few hundred square feet each, would be deeply affordable – appealing to the growing number of low-income people shut out of the metro area’s housing market. They would be part of a cluster development centered around a larger, shared community house for meals and other gatherings.
What does it mean to be shut out of the housing market? For starters, many people with low-wage jobs simply can’t afford the high cost of rent in the Twin Cities. Other barriers to housing are having a criminal record, a poor credit score, a past eviction, or a chemical dependency problem. Landlords can easily avoid renting to someone with any one of the above.

Envision it
The Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved an intentional community cluster development ordinance last November. This allows for a new type of affordable housing for people transitioning out of homelessness. A collaborative made up of representatives from 17 different organizations, and led by members of the Twin Cities homeless community, are working together to plan what the Envision Community will be.

Working full-time, single-parenting two kids and homeless
When there is nowhere else to go, people without a safety net may quickly end up living on the street.
Sherry Shannon did. Born and raised in South Minneapolis, she first became homeless while working full-time and single-parenting two children. It was a long road from homelessness, to living in a shelter, to transitional housing, to the apartment where she now lives in Roseville.
Shannon is also an Envision community leader; she is candid about her struggles, which include a PTSD diagnosis, and her successes. She said, “Once I got into stable housing, I could finally start working on my disability. Things came together pretty quickly then. I started talking about my situation, and trying to help other people move forward too. Last year, I won the Dorothy Richardson Award for community leadership.
“After I gave my acceptance speech in Chicago, a couple of ladies came up to me and asked, ‘How did you ever get through all this?’” I told them, ‘I couldn’t have done it without a place to call home.’”

Costly medical problems, homelessness go hand-in-hand
The Envision Community, if approved by the city of Minneapolis, would be the first community of tiny homes in the Twin Cities Metro.
Another first would be forming a strong collaboration with the health care system. Doctors also desire innovative housing models after seeing how often homeless patients turn up at hospitals with complicated, costly medical problems – many of them caused by being homeless.
Dr. William Walsh believes that homelessness is a public health crisis. A reconstructive surgeon at Hennepin Health Care and a researcher at the University of Minnesota, he serves as advisor to the Envision Community team. Dr. Walsh said, “Homelessness profoundly affects a person’s health, and puts enormous strain on the health care system.”
He added, “There are moral and financial motivations for the health care system to get involved in ending homelessness, but with the current failure of affordable housing – we can’t fix it. What’s needed is an innovative new model like Envision. We can bring housing costs down without compromising the quality of life for people moving into our housing model. With a strong emphasis on building community, as well as building homes, the quality of life of life for our residents will go up.”
The Pohlad Foundation funded the construction of a pilot tiny house for Envision. It will be set up in the parking lot of Elim Church in Northeast Minneapolis later this summer. Additional funding for Envision Community has come through the Family Housing Fund and the McKnight Foundation.
Two adjacent city lots will be needed to build the project on, with easy access to public transportation and walkable amenities. The property has not yet been found.

If you want people to listen, you have to speak up
Rome Darring is also a community leader on the project. When he first got involved with Envision, he found it hard to share his story of being homeless. He said, “I’ve gone through a lot of changes since this started. As an advocate for the homeless, I was at the State Capitol today participating in a press conference. I was so nervous about it that I couldn’t sleep at all the night before. But I’ve learned that if you want people to listen, you have to be willing to speak – so I made myself stand up and do it.”
Visit the Envision Community website at for more information.



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If you can sew, you can help

Posted on 24 March 2020 by Tesha Christensen


Michelle Hoaglund, owner of St. Paul’s Treadle Yard Goods, handed out the first of 50 free fabric kits last weekend. Her store made the kits available for people to sew facemasks for health care workers. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

One critical need that has emerged over the past several days is the need for more personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gowns, in hospitals and other health care settings. In recent days, doctors and nurses have warned that they are running out of equipment to stay safe as they diagnose and treat patients.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and Allina Health, along with several community partners, have launched a statewide volunteer effort, calling for people to sew and donate facemasks for doctors, nurses, and other medical staff.
Michelle Hoaglund is the owner of Treadle Yard Goods, a well-established, much loved fabric store on Hamline and Grand avenues in St. Paul. Partnering with the non-profit Sew Good Goods, Hoaglund and her dedicated staff were able to put together 50 free kits with enough cotton fabric and elastic to make 28 CDC approved face masks.
Distribution of the kits began at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 22. By 1:05 p.m., according to Hoaglund, all of the kits were gone. The line of people, which had started to form at noon, stretched all the way to the end of the block and around the corner. People maintained a safe distance between one another, and many came to the store to buy their own material once the free kits had been given away.
“It was,” Hoaglund said, “beyond what any of us could have imagined.” She estimated there were between 80-100 people waiting in line and mused, “People who sew are just not the kind to sit around on the couch in a time of crisis.”
Treadle Yard Goods will likely continue to make more kits available and, at least at the time of printing, the store remains open for shopping. Check for updates.
If you would like to use fabrics you currently have in your own stock pile, note the following guidelines: be sure to use fabric that is 100% cotton: tightly woven for the front, flannel or other soft 100% cotton for the back. If you have any doubts about the content of your fabric, don’t use it. Prewash all fabric on hot and dry on high heat to ensure pre-shrinkage. Area hospitals or other providers will sanitize the masks.
Instructions involve the use of elastic. If that is not available, you can make fabric ties (self-made ties or twill tape), one in each of the four corners. Each tie should have a finished length of 18 inches. To make your own ties, cut fabric strips 1 ¼” wide, fold in half and press, then sew both outer edges in to the middle with a single seam. Knot the ends to keep from fraying.
It is advisable to use contrasting fabrics, so there is an obvious front and back side.
In this extraordinarily difficult time for small business owners, Hoaglund said, “I made my peace with all of the uncertainty a few days ago. I thought, we can’t control any of what is happening right now – but it’s how you love your neighbor that counts.”
Instructions and drop-off points for the CDC-approved design, approved by Allina Health, are available at
This link contains additional useful information:
Many organizations in addition to hospitals have a need for masks including homeless shelters and funeral homes.


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Adopt-a-Drain: simple way to make a big difference and protect state waterways

Posted on 24 March 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Sweep up, rake up, pick up!

(L>R) City Council Member Andrew Johnson with drain adopters Mandy LaBreche and Jillian Kaster are joined by Minneapolis Public Works Engineer Bryan Dodds at the 10,000th drain adopted by Mandy.

Everyone knows that trash is no good for lakes, rivers, and streams. But do you know that natural debris such as leaves, grass clippings, and pet waste also pollute the waterways? When these natural pollutants are swept into the storm water system, they end up in the nearest body of water. Eventually the organic matter will break down, release phosphorous, and stimulate the growth of algae.
The Minneapolis Adopt-a-Drain Program was created in 2016 to help address this problem. Minneapolis joined a metro-wide program when it was launched last year.
The concept is simple, and it’s working. Residents learn about Adopt-a-Drain and volunteer on the program website ( Adopt-a-Drain asks residents to adopt a storm drain in their neighborhood, and keep it clear of leaves, trash, and other debris to reduce water pollution. Volunteers commit to keeping a storm drain unimpeded. Storm drains flow directly into local lakes, rivers, and wetlands, acting as a conduit for trash and organic pollutants.

Minneapolis leads cities
Program Manager Lane Christianson said, “2019 was a year of exceptional growth for the Adopt-a-Drain Program. We’re thrilled to report that Minneapolis is leading all cities in total participants and adopted storm drains. We had 1,561 storm drains adopted with 825 new participants last year. Most participants take care of multiple drains; some do entire intersections. We ask volunteers to sweep/rake/shovel leaves, trash and other debris off the drain surface year round.”
Volunteers can report as often as they like – but are asked to report their observations at least twice yearly, in the spring and fall via an online account. For those who don’t have access to the online system, a reporting postcard is mailed out annually.
Christianson recommends the following tools for making the job easier: broom, rake, gloves, snow shovel or dustpan, pail, and compostable yard waste bag.

(L>R) Mandy LaBreche and Jillian Kaster; drain adopters with the 10; 000th adopted drain.

He said, “Only the surface of the storm drain grate and the area around it should be cleaned. Do not remove the grate or otherwise attempt to clean inside the storm drain. If your drain is plugged, contact the city of Minneapolis at 311.”
As part of the job, waste is separated and placed in the appropriate trash, recycling, or compost carts at the volunteer’s home. Note that sediment or dirt collected in the spring is not compostable, as it likely contains chemical residue from deicers used over the winter and motor oil. Bag it, and put it in the trash.
Once these pollutants get into the storm water system and start to decay, organic matter releases nutrients (phosphorous is the biggest culprit) that feed algae and invasive plants.
When lakes get covered with algae, sunlight can’t reach the bottom and desirable plants start to die off. In the long term, the ecosystem changes so fewer aquatic animals, fish, and native plants can survive.

Make a big difference
Christianson said, “It doesn’t take a lot of time to clean a storm drain, and it makes a big difference collectively. Volunteers like Mandy LaBreche, who recently adopted the 10,000th drain through our program, are eager to do something that makes a positive difference in improving local water quality.”
Minneapolis participants receive a yard sign that helps spread the word about this volunteer program. For more information or to adopt-a-drain of your own, go to

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Area C not deemed emergency

Posted on 24 March 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Area C (background), as photographed from the opposite bank of the Mississippi River, is just south of the Ford Bridge. The Ford Motor Company dumped unknown quantities of industrial waste, including solvents and paint sludge, on the floodplain of the Mississippi River below the bluff near its St. Paul assembly plant between 1945-1966. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

But community members concerned

Over 150 people turned out to hear the latest findings about Area C from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in a packed meeting room at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church on Feb. 20, 2020.
The topic of discussion, called Area C, is a dump site where the Ford Motor Company dumped unknown quantities of industrial waste, including solvents and paint sludge, on the floodplain of the Mississippi River below the bluff near its St. Paul assembly plant between 1945-1966.
MPCA hydrogeologist Amy Hadiaris has been monitoring ground and surface water in Area C since 2007. She presented the most recent data and summarized the position of MPCA by saying, “Clean-up is needed, but we do not see this as an emergency situation.”
Community members expressed a deep level of concern about the dump site during the meeting, submitting a half-inch-thick stack of index cards with questions for MPCA staff to address.
Friends of the Mississippi River Executive Director Whitney Clark asked the last question of the evening. He asked, “Is it right for the Ford Corporation to leave their waste for future generations to clean up?”
Someone then called for a show of hands for how many people would have Ford remove it all if they could – and nearly everyone in the room raised theirs, including MPCA staff.
In this investigative stage, nine groundwater monitoring wells will be added to the existing 10. Friends of the Mississippi River and the Capitol Region Watershed District requested and support this increase in monitoring activities.
Hadiaris explained, “MPCA has a set process for evaluating the safety of ground water. We are testing for 65 volatile organic compounds, and 80 semi-volatile organic compounds. One of the big concerns is lead, which was added to all paints of that era.”
At the request of MPCA, the Minnesota Department of Health reviewed site data to assess health risks related to Area C. It was determined that only minimal threat exists if trespassers contact contaminants in soil or other physical hazards. There are no other ways for people to come in contact with contaminants, unless they trespass on the site.
To further discourage trespassing, MDH recommends repairing broken fence segments and adding signage between the Hidden Falls Regional Park walking trail and the southern boundary of Area C.

Waiting for two+ floods
Hadiaris said, “This is a contemplative process. We will wait for at least two flood events before making a clean-up decision and presenting it to the Ford Corporation.”
There will be another community information meeting once MPCA completes its feasibility study. To be placed on the email update list for Area C, contact Sophie Downey at

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Rethinking waste in 2020

Posted on 08 March 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Learn to be more pro-active about the waste you produce

Wonder where your waste ends up?
A standing room crowd gathered at the Matthews Park Rec Center on Feb. 3, 2020 to hear about the changing world of waste creation and waste management from Kellie Kish, Recycling Coordinator for the city of Minneapolis; Kate Marnach, co-founder of the zero waste store Tare Market; and Nancy Ford, owner of the Repair Lair.
According to Kish, the contents of the black carts (58% of garbage collected) goes to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in downtown Minneapolis, and is incinerated. That’s your trash.

Don’t bag your recyclables
The blue carts are emptied, and the mixed recyclables are brought to Eureka Recycling in northeast Minneapolis where they are sorted and processed for sale to new markets. Recyclables account for about 20% of the waste collected.
While recycling is not mandatory in Minneapolis, 97% of residents choose to have a recycling cart. The contamination rate for recyclables last year was 8.5%.
The biggest contaminants were plastic bags, product wraps (like what goes around a six pack of pop), and plastic film. Kish admonished the crowd, “If you remember nothing else from this presentation, remember not to bag your recyclables and to keep plastic bags out of your recycling cart!”

Organics recycling matters
The newest alley addition, the green carts, contain food scraps and other compostable products like paper towels, tissues, pet waste, and 100% compostable cutlery and dishes. Along with yard waste, the contents of these bins are taken to a transfer station in southeast Minneapolis, reloaded onto semi-trucks, and driven to a compost site in Rosemont.
Even though organics recycling is a new program in Minneapolis, the opt-in was extremely high this year for residents. With almost 52,000 Minneapolis households participating, the green carts account for about 18% of the total waste collected.
Kish said, “In a country where 40% of the food produced goes to waste, organics recycling matters.” One of her goals for 2020 is to hit the 50% mark for all Minneapolis households participating.
Note that all compostables must be placed in a paper bag, a compostable bag, or wrapped in newspaper before being put in the organics recycling bins.
If any readers are compost enthusiasts, Kish is looking for volunteers to help with the spring compost audit – a process by which compost is evaluated for contamination. Last year, the contamination rate was less than 1%. She recommends a fairly strong stomach, as there can be surprises.
Kish is also organizing a field trip to the compost site in Rosemont by bus in early summer, so people can see how the process works first-hand. To get on the waiting list for either opportunity, email

Set attainable goals
Tare Market co-owner Kate Marnach explained how she got to the point of opening a package-free, re-fill store last year. She said, “My parents raised me to understand the value of recycling, but somehow the other ‘Rs’ went right by me. In our business, we see the solution as an inverted triangle that starts at the top with Refuse, and goes through Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, and finally, Rot (compost) at the bottom.”
Marnach debunked the myth of zero waste being successful only if you can fit a year’s worth of trash in a mason jar. She said, “It’s more important to set goals that are attainable. Start with simple things like keeping re-usable shopping bags in your car, purse, or backpack.
“When shopping, choose items sold in glass or paper instead of plastic.
“Learn how to store food properly to minimize food waste. Don’t put potatoes and onions in the same drawer – the potatoes will sprout. When your celery gets limp, cut off the ends and stick it in a cup of water. Swaddle your greens in a damp cloth in the refrigerator, and skip the plastic bag. Why does everything we eat and drink have to come in contact with plastic?
“Simplify your life with fewer clothes, and fewer toys for kids and grown-ups. Consider giving experience gifts instead of material gifts.”

Buy less stuff
Repair Lair owner Nancy Ford said, “My main message is, buy less stuff. You’ll never hear that as a major ad campaign though, because it means nobody is making any money. By the way, the bigger and more conspicuous an ad campaign is – the smaller the likelihood that you’ll ever need the product being advertised.”
Ford founded Repair Lair five years ago. It’s one of two stores in the U.S. that offers consignment and repair of outdoor equipment and clothing under the same roof. She advocates buying second hand, and says that customers should expect to pay about 30% of what an item would cost new.
Ford is also a founding member of ReUSE Minnesota, a member based non-profit focused on bringing visibility to the reuse, rental and repair sector.
The three presenters offered three different vantage points on rethinking waste but, at some point, all circled round to the same thought. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day observance, now, more than ever, less is more.
Rethinking Waste 2020 was jointly sponsored by the Longfellow Community Council and the Seward Neighborhood Group. Tare Market is located at 2717 East 38th Street. Repair Lair is located at 3304 East Lake Street.

Attend Green Fair April 18
Mark your calendars for the South Minneapolis Green Fair on Saturday, April 18 from 12-4 p.m. at Roosevelt High School. The Messenger is a media sponsor of the event. Learn more ways to be proactive about the waste you produce, and have fun doing it.

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