Inspired by Nature’s Genius; Working for a Resilient Future

Mission: Northland Sustainable Solutions is a collaborative community informed and inspired by nature’s wisdom to effect personal and planetary transformation. The events we host give people across diverse political, cultural, economic, and faith perspectives a place to learn and act together. We believe real solutions emerge when there is time to fully understand each other and the common concerns we face. 

Northland Sustainable Solutions (NSS) began as a discussion in 2005 between two couples who were as yet strangers but who would become friends over the years ahead– Rebecca and Scott Cramer, Minneapolis, and Doug and Pat Shoemaker/Schoenecker, Apple Valley. Rebecca and Scott had attended several national Bioneers Conferences in San Rafael, CA, as vendors in the exhibit hall of those annual conferences, vending for their business, Northern Sun Merchandising, a Minneapolis-based national mail order catalog of social justice messages. Doug and Pat–who were local activists for renewable energy and local organic agriculture-had attended the 2004 “beaming Bioneers” satellite conference located at Maharishi U,  in Fairfield, IA. Both couples had learned about (or in Doug and Pat’s case attended) the beaming Bioneers program.

This was a new project of Bioneers in 2004  to “beam out”  the mainstage program of the national conference to connect with interested local groups–20 of them at the height of the program a few years later, in the US and even a couple of sites in Europe. Local groups who wished to view the mainstage events from California would pay a fee to downlink and “broadcast” the program in real time while producing a simultaneous local event that reflected and built upon the topics of the mainstage speakers, utilizing their own local speakers and workshop presenters. 

Rebecca, Scott, Doug and Pat met–on the roof of the Green Institute Building during a tour of the new solar photovoltaic array–and found out that national Bioneers had been hearing from them separately, inquiring whether the Twin Cities would be a good place for a “beaming bioneers” conference. Within months, bioneers did give their assent to the idea and a local team was formed to explore the possibility of the Twin Cities becoming a “beaming” site. Doug, Pat and Rebecca met with Sean Goswieski of the Alliance of Sustainability, and other representatives of local non-profits and green businesses. Sandy Spieler, artistic director at the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater in mid-town Minneapolis, was an early supporter as was Paul Moss who worked at the MN Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Katei Simon-Dastych who was forming the first “green team” at the Wells Fargo mortgage campus in Minneapolis.  By early 2006, with seed money from Northern Sun Merchandising, Horst Rechelbacher and several other early supporters, including a small grant from the MPCA, a board was formed, 501C3 status was secured and Vonda Vaden, who was the past executive director of Responsible Business Minnesota, was hired as executive director and Michelle Gransee-Bowman as assistant director. 

We incorporated as Northland Sustainable Solutions; locally we were known as the Northland Bioneers. Our first Northland Bioneers “beaming” conference, October 20-22, 2006, was held at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) simultaneously with the national conference in San Rafael, California. Technically, “beaming”  involved, in those days, “capturing” the signal beamed from CA via satellite link;  we utilized the receiver at the MNSCU headquarters in St. Paul (MNSAT).. This method of connecting to a national conference two time zones away turned out to be problematic and in subsequent years we chose an alternative way to be a “beaming site” that allowed us greater flexibility and security, i.e, we purchased DVDs of the mainstage speakers that were available at the close of the October conference and scheduled our Northland Conference for two or three weeks later, after the DVDs has arrived.. There were typically 15 keynote speeches of 35 min duration each and also various entertainment “extras” on DVDs that we acquired and then chose to show some or all of those at our local conference. Regardless of the technical  difficulty of connecting to California that first year,  our 2006 simul-cast conference was successful and involved three full days of screening the mainstage speeches and presentations plus live keynotes by local experts, numerous workshops, presentations over dinner, a drop-in “world cafe” as well as a quiet meditation room, a family drop in room and a bookstore.. Many volunteers and local non-profits like the Organic Consumers Association (Little Marais), the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (Minneapolis), and the Alliance for Sustainability participated. We were blessed to have two well known local celebrities as our 2006 Northland Bioneer Conference emcees: Barbara McAfee, singer/songwriter, and Ann Bancroft, polar explorer and educator. We had attendees from all over Minnesota, as well as a few from Nebraska, S. Dakota and even from Chicago. 

Organizers of the first Northland Bioneers Conference in the Twin Cities–planned and produced with only two paid staff plus a large group of volunteer leaders– concluded  that there was a market for a get-together (a festival or chautauqua-type format) that educated the audience about leading edge science breakthroughs, like green design, biomimicry, industrial and domestic waste reduction, and also gave voice to emerging youth leadership in the environmental and social justice movements, lifted up the work of artists and spoke to the movement for Indigenous sovereignty, not just locally in California or Minnesota, but nationally and internationally. It might be noted that the fertile ground for this type of conference, merging science with traditional environment knowledge (TEK), the arts and youth leadership and language around justice and spirit,  was prepared by the excellent higher educational and non-profit community in the Twin Cities and notably by the Earth Charter movement of the early 2000s and the burgeoning interest locally in spiritual awakening, global awareness and the human consciousness movement as well at the American Indian Movement.  It turns out that, unbeknownst at the time by our grassroots leadership, the national Bioneers (founded in 1990 by Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons) had already identified a list of potential Bioneers keynote speakers in Minnesota, a group they called informally their Minnesota “faculty,” among academics and civic leaders in Minnesota; such names as Winona LaDuke, Tom Goldtooth (who worked with Bioneers staff to identify Indigenous leaders nationally), Deborah Swakhammer (Univ MN), Ronnie Cummins (Organic Consumers Asso.) and others..Nationally, the Bioneers conference was being supported financially by Organic Valley, the premier organic farming coop in the Midwest. 

In 2007, the annual Northland Bioneers Conference moved intentionally  “off campus” in order to enlarge the net of potential participants.. We were invited through a connection with the local UAW to hold the conference at the UAW/State of MN training center on the Ford Assembly plant campus in St. Paul; this opportunity was facilitated by Lynn Hinkle who was employed by the UAW and who was, by then, on the NSS board. We had numerous sponsors from the green business and non-profit community, like Eureka Recycling, Peace Coffee, the Heartland Circle, Organic Valley, Milkwood publishers, Mississippi Market. Many businesses and non-profits became staple partners in subsequent years.

In 2008 and 2009, we moved back to an academic setting where we could reach, we hoped, a community of college students. Willey Hall on the Westbank of the UofMN Twin Cities campus was the location those years. The final three years of annual Northland Bioneers conferences, 2010-12, were held at the Ruth Stricker Dayton student center on the Macalester College campus. All our conferences featured Bioneers plenaries, local speakers, lots of workshops, performances, art galleries, silent auction tables, exhibitors, other special events.

 After 2012, we did not produce another annual conference, but carried on with an all-volunteer board, to do quarterly “community-building” events. We utilized various venues, like Walker Methodist Church and Lake Harriet Spiritual Community-both in Minneapolis- to show one or more Bioneers plenaries (the keynote lectures) and have local panels and break-out discussions.  In 2015, we held a large event at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center in St. Paul, in conjunction with the Indigenous Environmental Network (Bemidji), which was gathering a large contingent of North and South American Indigenous citizens to travel to Paris for the UN Climate Conference. This event was a fund-raiser to support this historic trip, giving an audience in the metro area a chance to hear from Tom and Dallas Goldtooth, Kandi Mossett and others in person prior to the International gathering of nations in Paris. NSS also co-sponsored a separate event at the Wellstone Center, one where many Twin Cities groups came together to host a lecture by visiting speaker Charles Eisenstein. 

In 2016-17, NSS was led by Karen Olson Johnson, a local writer, teacher and activist who had been a previous workshop presenter and volunteer/supporter of the Northland Bioneers for several years. Under Karen’s executive leadership, NSS produced several series of “community building” events, reaching out to make partnerships with other groups active in various educational and advocacy missions related to environmental and social justice concerns. Notable associations over those years were with the Justice Commission of the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul,  the Women’s Congress for Future Generations, am950 radio, Vote Climate, Nibiwalk, IEN, MN350 and MNIPL. From May to July, 2017, NSS produced a series of three events hosted at Summit Brewery in St. Paul, titled “The Circle that Bridges Community” where we presented awards to local leaders and highlighted local green businesses and non-profit organizations like Bare Honey and the Water Bar. At one of these events, we were honored to host a visiting Australian entrepreneur who had developed a product to help third world families cook with less heat and smoke; this was called the Wonder Bag. 

In 2017, functioning once more as an all-volunteer group, the NSS board produced an all-day Saturday event with Vote Climate MN and the American Lung Association. Minneapolis chapter event called “Breathe Better with Climate Solutions” was held at Southwest HS in Minneapolis. In the Fall of 2018, along with the local chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), we brought to the Twin Cities the historian Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, whose book An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States had won the 2015 American book award. Dr Dunbar-Ortiz spoke at several locations–on the University of Minnesota campus and in the community– and gave radio interviews. 

In the Summer of 2019, NSS co-sponsored an exhibit of photos and art produced by Healing Minnesota Stories, a new non-profit founded by Rev Jim Bear Jacobs, which seeks to bring Native and non-Native Minnesotans of faith together in common concern for justice and a future that honors all life. 

These collaborations have sustained NSS over the last years, but, in October, 2020, our all-volunteer board decided that the time had come to retire our organization. We were approached with the idea to expand and refresh our board with a new slate of educators, advocates and entrepreneurs who were already forming and stood ready to take on the governance of a non-profit. We saw the opportunity in that Resilient Cities & Communities already had hired proper staff in anticipation of carrying out a well-planned program. We are pleased and honored  to “pass the baton” to Resilient Cities & Communities staff and board to carry on the shared historical vision of enlarging and energizing local actions for a resilient and regenerative future for Minnesota.