Sustainability stewards: Local AmeriCorps mobilize green movement

April 2024

The following is a piece by the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.


After spending some of her senior year of college abroad, Katilynn Swanson says she arrived back in the states ready for a new direction.KS

“I was just looking to try things out and get some job experience,” she recalls.

Before graduating from Luther College and returning to her hometown of Pine Island in southeast Minnesota, Swanson attended a job fair. That’s where she learned about the AmeriCorps program. 

Founded by President Bill Clinton in 1993, AmeriCorps is an independent agency of the federal government that engages Americans in service for year-long terms in many sectors.

“The term length really gives you the chance to explore the possibilities without signing up for a job in the traditional sense. So it fit exactly what I was looking for,” she says.

Soon after graduating, in August of 2022, Swanson signed on as an AmeriCorps member. She would be serving the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and its clean energy program, the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs). This role made Swanson one of about 100 people in Minnesota working as Climate Impact Corps members, a sub-division of AmeriCorps. More specifically, Swanson would be serving as a Sustainability Project Coordinator, a brand new role within the program.

“The term length really gives you the chance to explore the possibilities without signing up for a job in the traditional sense."


-Katilynn Swanson

Innovation and Outreach

In 2023 President Biden announced the launch of the American Climate Corps, a workforce training and service initiative that will prepare tens of thousands of young people for good-paying jobs in the green economy. But AmeriCorps leadership in Minnesota didn’t need a presidential directive. Back in 2019, ServeMinnesota, the State Commission for AmeriCorps, had already decided to launch a similar-minded program. 

“They pulled together people from all different sectors of the economy, different organizations, Minnesota Climate Impact Corps,” recalls Dylan Kelly. “CERTs leadership, namely Director Lissa Pawlisch, was on that advisory board and a part of this program launching.”

Kelly serves as director of Climate Programs for Ampact, a national nonprofit that was founded in Minnesota and serves as the implementation arm of ServeMinnesota. He says that Climate Impact Corps initially created hands-on positions focused on projects like planting climate-resilient trees and weatherizing homes.

“But Pawlisch came back to Ampact and said, ‘We still have a need for something else.’”

Together, the groups created new Climate Impact Corps positions called Sustainability Project Coordinators. This new opportunity focused on implementing change through community engagement strategies and outreach. It turned out to be the perfect role for Katilynn Swanson, one of the first to take on the new position. 

“I’ve always wanted work that I feel is valuable and makes a difference in people’s lives,” says Swanson. “This role is really good for that, because you’re put in direct contact with communities and people that need support. That aspect really spoke to me.”

Get Energy Stories delivered

On a project level, Kelly says the unique position has been very successful, in part due to members being posted at University of Minnesota Extension regional offices around the state, where they are automatically embedded into a highly collaborative environment. Members work closely with a network of local and statewide staff, volunteers, project partners, and other AmeriCorps members. 

“We’re embedded in the communities we serve through RSDP and CERTs, and deeply connected to each other across the state,” says Swanson. “Our AmeriCorps cohort’s closeness is something we’ve fostered through our own efforts. We work together on projects, support each other in tasks and events, and spend time building friendships.”

The program’s shape has also resonated with leadership at Ampact.

“That kind of collaboration is really valuable for both the impact of the projects but also the members. They are building a wider network and gaining experience with issues across the state,” says Kelly. 

In fact, Kelly says the position is now stimulating change at a higher level.

“We’re actually taking the model we’ve worked on over the past couple of years and will soon be implementing that as the outline for all of our Climate Impact Corps positions within Minnesota.”

Young white woman stands at a red tabled covered with papers and pamphlets. She wear a green polo and smiles.

Katilynn Swanson tables a community event.

A group of eight people stand on a beach of pebbles with a body of water behind them. In the distance is a Duluth lift bridge.

Katilynn (center) on a site visit with other RSDP Climate Impact Corps members.

Two young women stand outdoors behind a table. The women stand shoulder-to-shoulder, smiling.

Katilynn (right) conducts community outreach with fellow Sustainability Project Coordinator, Katherine Inman.

Going the distance

Swanson says she can still remember her first outreach email she sent as an AmeriCorps member. 

“It was way, way too long!” she recalls with a laugh. Since then, Swanson has completed nearly two-terms with the program and worked on countless projects. One especially noteworthy effort is Swanson’s work with Minnesota’s rural food shelves.

“Two fellow members and I have really led the food shelf outreach project,” she says. Through this work, Swanson has taken on a myriad of responsibilities, including: connecting with leaders at rural food shelves, spending time on location and meeting with shoppers, offering information and free tools to promote energy efficiency, and tailoring the program based on community feedback and needs.

“We’re able to offer free low-flow shower heads to shoppers and soon we’ll be sharing free home energy-efficiency kits that include tools like kitchen faucet aerators.”

Having helped launch and lead this program, Swanson is now helping train other AmeriCorps members in this work, too.

“It’s been a big learning curve. We have to consider, how do you choose where in the community to conduct outreach? How do you best communicate information and track metrics? What materials are most meaningful to the shoppers? Learning what it takes to set up and run a new community project has been a great experience.”

Additionally, Swanson led a research project focused on fostering inclusivity and equitability in Minnesota’s philanthropic ecosystem. 

“We have connected with and documented the voices of close to 70 BIPOC-serving and -led nonprofits, plus the funders that support them,” she says. “It feels incredibly impactful to be able to help uplift feedback regarding those systems and use it to encourage change.”

As her final AmeriCorps term wraps up and she begins to look forward, Swanson feels grateful for this experience. She says she’s learned so much about the work, but also herself.

“I get emotional thinking about the support I’ve received and the work I’ve been a part of. It’s had a big effect on me. It’s allowed me to realize, ‘Oh, my opinions and expertise are important. I do have something to bring to the table and I can have a real impact.”

We encourage reuse and republishing of this story. All Clean Energy Resource Teams stories are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution license, meaning you can share and adapt the work as long as you give us credit. We'd also love it if you link back to the original piece. Have questions or want to chat? Drop us a line.