MN BIPOC leaders in clean energy cultivate UMN Morris students’ passion

September 2022

The University of Minnesota Morris has a number of achievements to celebrate. Recently ranked as the #1 campus in the United States for producing the most renewable electricity on campus per student, UMN Morris is building a legacy in the clean energy industry. Additionally, the campus has been recognized as one of Minnesota's most diverse universities, with nearly two-thirds of students coming from populations that have historically been underserved in higher education. A UMN Morris program called Intercultural Sustainability Leaders (ISLe) is working to fuse these strengths to further serve students. 

In 2022, with support from the University of Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) ISLe launched a clean energy curriculum for students. Throughout the Spring semester, the partnership engaged college students from diverse backgrounds to meet with a range of clean energy professionals, including Indigenous leaders. The team also focused on learning more about clean energy in the Morris community, which included a tour of the Morris Public Library, which utilizes geothermal energy and a solar rooftop array.

“It was such a valuable experience because I was exposed to so many different perspectives. I think every speaker contributed really well to my understanding of sustainability and also broadened my definitions of this work.”

- Lily Sugimura, former ISLe student leader and member

“Our conversations focused on how renewable energy spaces might become more inclusive and serve as an economic driver for BIPOC communities,” says Clement Loo, ISLe leader and a UMN Morris Assistant Professor. “Students had the opportunity to reflect together on how Indigenous perspectives might be integrated into future projects. Our hope was that these interactions would encourage Indigenous students and students of color to see professional pathways for themselves in these sectors.”

An evolving space for students and sustainability

In the fall of 2019 the University of Minnesota Morris launched the Intercultural Sustainability Leaders (ISLe) program. The extra curricular program focused on connecting students with leaders representing a broad range of identities working across the sustainability sector. Despite UMN Morris’ diverse student population, the program wasn’t seeing a diverse range of students.

“We noticed it was mostly all white students applying to participate,” recalls Loo. “So we stopped and asked ourselves ‘How do we recruit a broader range of students that represent the work we're doing on campus?’ and ‘How do we reframe our approach in ways that are more meaningful to students of color?’”

Not only did ISLe leadership seek to reassess their own approaches, they also took into consideration what groups were being actively included in sustainability action at UMN Morris.

“When you're looking at sustainability work happening on campus, it often involves a traditional rhetoric about sustainability in infrastructure. On a carbon-neutral electric campus like ours, when students look around there are like our wind turbines and solar farms on campus, and those are the things that are standing out to them. What we found out from talking to programs from other universities and engaging with students, is that the traditional narrative on these subjects is actually a bit alienating.”

Loo says the program decided on a big-picture shift.

“Energy isn't just if I get my watts through a solar panel. Renewable energy also means that a community can own its own power generation. That means something. Economically speaking, it means something about the ability for a community to make decisions about supporting or not supporting things happening elsewhere. So once we started talking about energy in terms of community, I think that shift made energy far more interesting for our students and that became the conversation.”

- Clement Loo, ISLe leader and a UMN Morris Assistant Professor

Inspiring mentors and expanding understanding

“This program is important because growing up, I was always interested in this industry but I never really saw anyone who looked like me in the field,” recalls Sugimura. Sugimura grew up in Princeton, MN and recently graduated from UMN Morris with a degree in Environmental Studies and English. 

Sugimura says one of the ISLe speakers that left an impression on her was Bob Blake, the CEO of Solar Bear. Blake is a tribal citizen of the Red Lake Nations and a solar and sustainability entrepreneur in Minnesota. Blake started his own solar company to tackle the climate crisis and provide job opportunities for Indigenous youth. He also started the non-profit Native Sun Community Development. ISLe students had a chance to engage with Blake and hear stories about his own personal journey and his ventures into being an energy entrepreneur.


“I could tell they really enjoyed talking to Bob and hearing his story,” recalls Loo. “I think it also helps them sort of visualize for themselves how they might be involved with these sorts of projects in the future, and how they can build  their careers around this work.”

Sugimura agrees and says that being exposed to leaders like Blake and Loo have radically impacted her career path. Sugimura was recently accepted to the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and plans to apply her passion for sustainability to a masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning. 

“The ISLe programming helped expand my concept of sustainability because I had some of these assumptions that it was just anything related to being green or eco-friendly. Like, ‘Oh I’m going to recycle.’ But I learned from these speakers that sustainability can be a lot more nuanced and is more of a mindset. What I learned, it just really stuck with me.” 

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