Making a difference
As much as you may want to, you can’t solve all of the problems of the world in one fell swoop.
Every day, we are inundated with terrible news: environmental devastation, the horrible conditions faced by immigrants, poverty, homelessness, racial disparities and much more. The good thing is that there are reasons to take heart.
All over the world, and even right here in Minneapolis, there are individuals and organizations that are working to make the better place. Some charities operate on tiny, scrappy budgets and yet are able to have a huge impact on the problems they face.
Here are a few of the groups that are solving the world’s problems, one step at a time.
One farm animal at a time, Spring Farm is on a mission to ending animal cruelty. It was founded in 2016 by vegan animal lover Robin Johnson, who also volunteers at Underdog Rescue and Animal Folks and also launched the nonprofit Save Minnesota Moose in addition to serving on the board of Pause for Paws.
With Spring Farm, the focus is on farm animals that have been abused or neglected. There’s Jack Penny, a pig found running through a bean field in Iowa, and Marge, another pig who fell from a transport truck and broke her jaw. Frankie, Raisin and Martha — all Toggenburg goats — were slated to be slaughtered for their meat before an act of intervention saved them. The farm also has ducks, chickens, cows, sheep and a very handsome turkey.
Spring Farm is open to visitors during the warmer months and often has special events, so donors and friends can get to know the animals. They’ve hosted yoga events, vegan donut pop-ups, wine tastings and more.
To support the farm’s work, you can sponsor a particular animal or give a one-time or monthly gift. Or you can volunteer at the farm, which is a great way to get to know the animals.
No one should have to go hungry just because they are poor. For nearly 50 years, Joyce Uptown Foodshelf has been serving people in Southwest Minneapolis and beyond who need a little bit of help with groceries.
In 2017, the non-profit organization served about 11,000 people, a third of whom were under 17 years old, according to the organization’s GiveMN.org page. That added up to 200,000 pounds of food, with each participant getting a three-day supply of ingredients for healthy and nutritious meals.
Run by a small staff as well as volunteers who come from faith groups, businesses, local nonprofits and the community, the food shelf distributes groceries purchased at a discount from The Food Group and Second Harvest Heartland food banks. Because Joyce is able to purchase food at a discount, it means donation dollars can go quite a bit farther, with one dollar able to stretch into two to three meals.
The economy might be doing pretty well right now, but because housing costs are so high in Minneapolis, folks still fall through the cracks, even if they are currently working. Donating to your local food shelf — or volunteering — is a great way to help folks out with one of the basic necessities of life.
Rising rental prices make it tough for arts organizations, which tend to need a lot of space for not a lot of money. This is especially true for performance venues, where you need space for a stage, backstage, lights and audience.
The Phoenix Theater, located in the former Brave New Workshop space near 26th & Hennepin, offers an intimate performance space in Lowry Hill East, also known as The Wedge. It’s run by Arts’ Nest, a small nonprofit that makes putting on shows accessible to fringier, less established theater groups.
Arts’ Nest offers an affordable space for small theater and performance groups to rent for shows and rehearsals. Through its Fledgling program, Arts’ Next nurtures emerging playwrights, directors, dancers, musicians, comedians and other folks with big dreams and limited budgets by providing low- to no-cost space for rehearsals and performances, box office management and introductions to technical designers and production staff.
Arts’ Nest also operates an education program with classes for producers, technical artists, and performers. Its offices feature local art in their lobby gallery, where artists are showcased for three months at a minimal commission for the organization.
In all, it’s a great place for artists to explore, learn, try out material and grow.
If you are a fan of Minneapolis’ organics recycling program, you have Minneapolis Climate Action to thank.
Formerly called Linden Hills Power and Light, the organization spearheaded the collection of food scraps and non-recyclable paper products to create compost for soil in the Linden Hills neighborhood about a decade ago. The organization also partnered with Minneapolis Public Schools to bring organics recycling to school lunchrooms and, now that the organics recycling program is citywide, works to expand participation.
Linden Hills Power and Light was founded by the late Wild Rumpus bookstore owner Tom Braun, who died in October. Braun went to a talk by his friend Will Steger, a polar explorer and activist, about climate change, and that experience was the kernel that resulted in LHP&L’s work. The organization recently changed its name to Minneapolis Climate Action when it became clear their work went beyond just one neighborhood.
Besides continued outreach around organics recycling, the organization also promotes bag reuse by holding sewing bees. Volunteers make reusable “Boomerang Bags” from used fabric and distribute them in the community as a means to cut down on single-use plastic bags.
The organization also works with partners to promote community solar, a way to cooperatively tap into solar energy without having to purchase one’s own solar panels.
Of the 2 million people serving time in U.S. prisons — more than any other country by far — about 200,000 are women. Unfortunately, many of these facilities aren’t equipped to specifically address the needs of these women, including everything from feminine hygiene products to resources for surviving sexual or physical trauma, which according to some reports affect over 85 percent of them.
Since 1994, the Women’s Prison Book Project has worked to provide books for women in prison. Those books often contain resources that are targeted to their specific needs, including information on families, children, self-help, women’s health and legal aid. Providing books is also just the humane thing to do. Fiction and books on politics, history and science all give respite, education and enrichment to the women serving time, who are mostly people of color and indigenous.
Operated under the fiscal sponsorship of Boneshaker books, WPBP is a volunteer-driven project with a lot of heart. They take book and cash donations, but cash donations are especially important because of the costs of shipping.
Volunteers can help out at WPBP or its sister program, the Midwest Trans Prisoner Penpal Project, which pairs volunteers with a trans pen pal in prison.
The philosophy behind TC Food Justice is simple: take food that is going to be thrown away but is still good and put it in the hands of folks that otherwise can’t afford fresh options.
At the core of the organization’s work is their food rescue program. TC Food Justice collects excess produce and other perishable items from partnering businesses and co-ops and distributes them to hunger relief organizations on a regular business.
Volunteers collect, sort and deliver fresh fruits and vegetables by bike or car, aiming for a speedy turnaround so that recipients get the freshest food possible. By doing this work, TC Food Justice is completing two aims: reducing food waste, the largest component of landfills and a source of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, while also ensuring that healthy fresh food isn’t just for rich people.
Some of the partnering businesses include Breadsmith on Grand Avenue, Panera Bread, Phenli Thao Farm and numerous co-ops (Eastside, Hampden Park, Lakewinds and Seward), as well as the Kingfield and Nokomis farmers markets. The food then heads to service organizations and food shelves around the Twin Cities. One recipient is Aliveness Project, which delivers groceries to individuals with HIV/AIDS and other chronic diseases.
Small Sums helps people who have experienced homelessness get back on their feet by giving them things they need to for new jobs.
If, for instance, a job requires a particular kind of uniform, Small Sums can help with the costs. If a person needs a certain type of pants or shoes, Small Sums makes certain that need won’t be the barrier to a person’s first day on the job.
The organization also provides equipment and tools — especially helpful for those with a background in the trades who no longer own the tools they need to get work.
Small Sums also provides bus passes, because transportation costs are another potential barrier to employment. They’ll help cover licensure testing fees and renewal fees. A little extra support can boost Small Sums’ clients above minimum wage.
Small Sums also supports individuals on a path to owning their own business. Those selected through an application process receive tuition for a 12-week entrepreneur training program at the Neighborhood Development Center. They then also are eligible for assistance with startup business expenses.
Reports of asylum seekers being sprayed with tear gas on the U.S.-Mexico border illustrate the dangerous situation immigrant communities are in as they try to reach the United States for a better life. Often fleeing violence in their homelands, they don’t exactly receive a warm welcome in this country and often face harsh conditions en route, crossing deserts and mountains.
Border Angels is a San Diego-based non-profit organization that brings volunteers to the desert near the border, where they place water for immigrants crossing as well as winter clothing and food during the colder months of the year. They also provide outreach to the San Diego-based immigrant community, including providing legal aid services, day worker outreach, immigration consulting and advocacy.
The organization was in the national spotlight as the “migrant caravan” reached Tijuana, located just across the border from San Diego. With shelters overflowing with men, women and children, the nonprofit has asked for help to support the urgent need.
Things are shifting and changing for zAmya Theater Project, a theater company that addresses issues surrounding homelessness.
No longer a program of St. Stephen’s Human Services, the troupe is now venturing in new directions, including an upcoming project at Harbor Lights homeless shelter made possible through a partnership with the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Made Here program. (Their fiscal sponsor, meanwhile, is Propel.)
Made up of performers who have experienced homelessness themselves, as well as other professional collaborating artists, zAmya makes shows for public spaces, often in places where people who are experiencing homelessness can attend. The company’s last show, performed outside of the Minneapolis Central Library, was funny, heartfelt and entertaining and drove home the message of the inherent humanity of people that have been or are homeless.
Led by Artistic Director Maren Ward, zAmya blends activism, art and community building in ways that upend the status quo of doing things, and the result is performance different than what anybody else is doing in town. They serve a need, but in a way that is filled with joy and fun, bringing light to participating artists and audiences alike.
Native American organizations and the city have been hard at work putting together a new navigation center to address the needs of those living in a large homeless camp near Franklin & Hiawatha.
Groups working on site include Natives Against Heroin, Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, the Native American Community Clinic and Livio, a mobile healthcare service provider that will also be working in the new navigation center, currently under construction at a nearby site.
Those interested in helping can also donate to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, which is overseeing a discretionary fund to meet the immediate needs of families who have experienced chronic homelessness or housing instability. The coordinated effort between organizations and government entities shows just how much of an urgent need there is to address the homeless problem in the city.
Julie and Matt Guidry started Upstream Arts back in 2006, after they noted how much the arts benefited their son Caleb, who was born with Cornelia de Lange syndrome, which affects physical and cognitive development. A professional theater professional and actor, Matt Guidry discovered that his son responded positively to arts-based tools, with benefits that effected his physical movements, body language and facial expressions.
Since then, the organization has conducted classes, workshops and residencies in pre-K–12 schools, transition programs and adult disability centers, using theater techniques as a way to develop social and communication skills.
The organization works with children and adults who experience a range of disabilities, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing or have visual impairments, those who are nonverbal and individuals diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome or other developmental or cognitive disabilities. They also conduct trainings to share with other educators their arts-based programming and teaching methods.
Upstream’s work shows how much the value of arts goes beyond simple entertainment. The arts and creativity are more than anything tools for communicating.
Tapping into that unique aspect of the performing arts to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities is truly something special that’s worthy of support.
A free and open government starts with transparency, and that’s why the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information is such an important organization. It provides education and also advocacy around government transparency, making sure that the lawmakers and government offices are accountable to the public.
With a volunteer board made up of journalists, lawyers, archivists and Freedom of Information Act experts, MNCOGI works to make government more transparent in a number of ways. They hold workshops where they teach folks how to file information requests through FOIA and the Minnesota Data Practices Act. They also testify before the Minnesota Legislature on information policy, making sure state laws ensure transparency at all levels. They file comments on specific applications for temporary data classifications and write public commentaries on information policy and transparency issues.
Sound a little dry? Well, it is to a certain extant, and yet so important. If there aren’t organizations out there putting pressure on government agencies to continue to be transparent, we end up with closed-door meetings and decisions that are hidden from the public eye.