Northside Safety NET gives youth a voice on community environmental justice work

Micah Beasley, a student at Robbinsdale-Cooper High School, has a vision for meaningful investment in fishing opportunities in North Minneapolis. He notices the absence of fishing piers in his neighborhood, the small business opportunity for a bait and tackle shop, and the ideal location for a restaurant. Through the partnership-based Northside Safety NET program, Beasley can have a say in community development and develop skills to help him someday make his vision a reality.  

“I am excited to use my experience and leadership skills from this program to pursue a green career in the future,” Beasley said.  

Northside Safety NET, launched in 2022 by Environmental Initiative with support from Project Sweetie Pie, Youthprise, and the City of Minneapolis, embodies the village model of supporting youth development. The partnership is a holistic investment in the educational journey of nine students living in North Minneapolis. Interns understand disinvestment and environmental justice through their lived experience, and they incorporate that knowledge into the program. The internship design begins with developing a robust foundation of STEM and arts learning opportunities.   

“It’s exciting to learn when I am with the other interns and having fun, I feel more comfortable and get to bring creative ideas to the table,” shared intern Paris Beasley, a Robbinsdale-Cooper High School sophomore.  

Community based partnerships support the Northside Safety NET internship. The program’s community partners often represent communities of color, allowing the interns to see themselves as leaders in environmental work. Examples include learning about solar energy and installation from Joaquin Thomas, president of Go Solar!, the only Black-owned solar installation company in Minnesota, and developing community gardening best practices from Michael Chaney, founder of Project Sweetie Pie. 

Beyond learning about environmental careers, interns are improving their community by helping build an urban garden and increasing community access to healthy fresh food. The interns partnered with the nonprofits Project Sweetie Pie and Growing North Minneapolis to design, plan, build, and transform a vacant lot into the Celestial Gardens, a community garden space that provides food to the community.  

They also worked with the City of Minneapolis’ Green Infrastructure team to identify native species and perform basic maintenance on new green infrastructure sites.  

Through the program, interns learned about urban forestry and tree identification. They co-hosted a tree pruning workshop for residents and shared newly acquired technical expertise on caring for young trees as a method for building a robust urban tree canopy – a need in North Minneapolis. A big fan of tree care work, Gregory Wheeler, a junior at Robbinsdale-Cooper High School, determined that having a positive mindset and working with different groups and communities will be instrumental in his future.   

These experiences connect with Evette Eaton, a Patrick Henry High School sophomore.   

“I really enjoy learning about the environment and find satisfaction in planning something and seeing it through from beginning to end,” she said. 

Interns have discovered new talents during their time with Northside Safety NET. Chairish Byas, North High School junior, discovered her storytelling skills from behind a camera. Byas snapped a few phone photos which captured the concentration and attention to detail required for lashing cedar strips with sinew during a canoe building project last spring. Since that time, she has been given a digital camera and has published images to her credit. Experiencing environmental injustices growing up led to a desire to improve her community. Documenting the internship while participating, Byas notes, “I find joy in working with a program focused on youth and the environment.”  

Through the internship, the interns have been able to share their lived experiences with community leaders and professionals and offer advice on community development projects. City of Minneapolis Public Works staff and environmental engineers from EOR, Inc. hosted a two-day workshop in which the interns reviewed stormwater pipesheds, discussed areas of concern – ponding, dirty, or rushing water, reviewed stormwater best management practices, and proposed projects for the city to address. One of the interns’ recommended managing the back-up of water which forms ponds on the Lucy Laney Elementary School playground — limiting the opportunity for youth to safely play. 

Interns will lead the work with Hennepin County’s Forestry Division to design and develop a greenspace on a tax-forfeited parcel near Theordore Wirth Park. This upcoming opportunity will incorporate many lessons from the past year including community engagement and tree planting and will allow interns to have a meaningful say and role in bettering the community.  

A senior at Saint Paul Conservatory of Performing Arts, Lilly Hood is excited about the opportunity and her future. “The experiences I’ve had as part of Northside Safety NET helped me discover that I want to major in Environmental Studies in college.”