A Community that Feeds Itself


Sustainable agriculture meets sustainable communities in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Albeit, for a town that bills itself as “forward thinking” it was interesting to witness first hand a winning strategy that effectively brings them back to their roots.

AGcommunityCPam Ritchie, Executive Director of the Opportunity Center and the former chair of Prairie du Chien’s Main Street Revitalization Project refers to her work as “community cultivation.” As she explains, “There are a lot of stories [from] many, many years ago about what Prairie du Chien looked like on a Friday night and it was lined with farmers in overalls and families on the streets – talking, gathering together, doing their shopping for the week – spending their money locally and supporting these businesses which in turn supported them.”

One of these farming families would have been the ancestors of six-generation sustainable cattle rancher Greg Koether, who resides on his family’s 600-acre ranch just over the bridge in McGregor, Iowa.
Besides raising and marketing his cattle locally through Grass Fed Beef, he takes time out of his schedule to introduce the importance of quality, AGcommunityBsustainable food practices to the bright young learners at Prairie du Chien’s B.A. Kennedy Elementary School.

And he’s most certainly not alone. When the school did not yet have a “Farm to School” initiative in place, local parents and self-described “concerned citizens” Kathleen Hein and Marty Green developed a spin-off  all their own which they called “Food for Thought,” complete with the motto: “Our Food – Our Community.” The big idea, “To educate the kids about where food comes from, grow a children’s community garden on school grounds, help local farmers by getting their products into the school lunch system, [and in so doing to] connect the community.”

Walking the streets of Prairie du Chien it is easy to feel a genuine excitement in the air from farms to schools to downtown businesses. As Pam Ritchie explains, “There was a group of citizens that really got serious – they got to the point where they were ready to apply for a Wisconsin Main Street status AGcommunityEand with that they were able to hire an executive director and create a membership of both downtown businesses and community members.”

Which has made all the difference – the bold, rather simple idea that when you talk about revitalizing downtown business, it’s not only business owners that are interested in creating change. Residents of the town can and do participate in effectively giving their downtown district a facelift – in so doing, creating what Kathleen Heim described as “a snow-ball effect” of bona fide town-wide enthusiasm.

Jake Stephens, originally from Florida, is considered a “new resident”, only having lived in this town for ten years. In an area where most families go back five or six generations it can be a daunting task to blend – to fit in. And yet as a direct result of Prairie du Chien’s revitalization he has decided to participate – to share his ideas and his talents – in essence to share with the town the time of his life. When asked to offer a definition of the term “sustainable community” from his perspective, Jake explained, “A AGcommunityAsustainable community [is] a community that … feeds itself, if you will, that keeps its energy churning and building here rather than going elsewhere.”

“The word ‘community’ is really starting to mean that here,” continued Jake. “Its great … it makes me wonder what I was doing for the past ten years and why I didn’t get involved because just a few people can make a difference. That’s what it all means.”

Rethinking the American Family Farm


I found it interesting that the boyhood farm of Norman Borlaug, the father of the “Green Revolution” and “god” of conventional farming as we know it,
now inhabits an organic, sustainable-farming strategy. The Natvigs and
Borlaugs have been neighbors for as far back as they can remember, and as a result, they just happen to be related. I spoke with Godfrey Natvig, age 89, former Howard County Soil & Water Commissioner and life-long farmer; Mike Natvig, age 44, quite busy on an organic, sustainable revolution of his own; as well as Mary Damm, a soil scientist from Indiana University. The answers given — both from the soil, as well as from a six generation farming family — might surprise you.


CNN International news segment from this past weekend

S9aFlash River Safari was featured on CNN International’s weekly citizen journalism show “iReport for CNN” this past weekend. To view the segment CLICK HERE and fast forward to minute 3:00 just following the Vote in Afghanistan story.  This four-minute segment features the brave young Somali-Americans of Minneapolis with a special focus on how their journey is evolving in America.

Dan Eldon, Abdi Roble inspire young Somali journalists


When Ruqiya Warsame and Muhuba Ade talk journalism here at
Minnesota International Middle School they do so with a glint of passion in
their eyes. The duo of friends, both age 13, who were a part of a seven-student summer school journalism program, come from a world swirling with political and humanitarian refugees, of continual negative press, as well as a legacy of civil war which has been raging their entire lives.

“When I started researching things,” explained Muhuba, “I felt something that I’ve never felt before – I knew people were struggling … [and] it made me research more to know more.”


In 1991, twenty-one year old photographer Dan Eldon set out to chronicle the famine raging in the girls’ home country of Somalia – a famine brought on by a devastating civil war begun the previous year – a famine that the world did not at that time know about.

“[Dan] had a beer with Aidan,” a Reuters photojournalist in the region, explained author Jennifer New who wrote the biography on Dan titled The Art of Life. “Aidan told him a little of what was happening in Somalia and invited him to come along on his next trip north.”

ELDONa“They heard rumors of a famine creeping across southern Somalia, [and] they wanted to visit the region themselves and see if there was any truth to the stories,” explained Kathy Eldon, Dan’s mother. “[He] was in Kenya for the summer, before returning to UCLA that autumn to continue his studies, [and] was utterly stunned by what he saw – hundreds of dead and dying women, children, and old people; thousands displaced in a desperate search for food.  Although barely able to view the horrors unfolding before him, he shot them with his camera and they were among the first to be seen by a global audience. Moved by the response to his images, Dan returned again and again to Somalia, recording the aid that flowed into the country- and its decline into chaos. He never returned to UCLA.”

Photojournalists like Dan Eldon and others like him who gave up their lives to tell the story are important not only because they led directly to relief at the time, but also due to the fact that they stand as an important inspiration for aspiring young journalists like Ruqiya and Muhuba – a new generation who only know about the past through their parents and the documented news articles that have stood the test of time.

ELDONc“I learned that when you’re a journalist, you get to save people’s lives,” explained Ruqiya. “Not physically, but emotionally – because there’s people
in the shadows that people don’t know about … and [it’s important] to help them.”

The lives of Somalia’s refugees are by and large lives lived in the shadows – the diaspora of a people who cannot at this time return to their native land due to civil war. Somali-born photographer Abdi Roble is likewise an inspiration to the girls due to his documentation of the Somali diaspora and active humanitarian work – a work which has taken the girls’ school administrator, Abdirashid Warsame, a friend of Mr. Roble, back to Africa in a combined effort to see how they could help.

Ruqiya and Muhuba represent the next generation of American-educated Somali-American journalists. Although still young, they’ve already interviewed the President of Puntuland, Somalia, who paid their class a visit this past summer. “We weren’t even expecting him,” said Muhuba. “It was a surprise for us.”

ELDONgPresident Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud‘s question to the girls and their class was if they had plans to come back to Somalia. The girls told me that they smiled broadly when asked this question, answering together, in unison: “Yes, we do want to go back to Somalia … We want to make a difference.”

Photographs by Dan Eldon used with permission by the Eldon family.  Copyright Reuters/AP.  All Rights Reserved.

Islands in the stream


A number of habitat islands are taking shape in the Upper Mississippi River just below Brownsville, Minnesota near the Minnesota-Iowa boarder – islands in the stream now being reclaimed for wildlife that were once prevalent before the Corps’ locks and dams were introduced back in the 1930s. The project is an effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with Fish and Wildlife, and Minnesota and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to “restore lost and diminished fish and wildlife habitat in the pool by restoring islands.”

According to Jesse Weymiller, a local tow-boat sub-contractor tasked with moving rock via barge to help construct the approximate 22 islands in the project, the work is moving along well – now in phase three of three phases.

IslandAJesse represents three generations of river-men who presently man their set of two tow boats and multiple barges – a local family run business who represent over 100 years of experience working the river between them.

“I started working when I was 15 – first working summers,” explained Jesse, now age 29. “I guess my future was pretty well set out before me.”

Jesse’s uncle, Tim Weymiller, who has worked dredging, towing, and construction on the river with his father from the age of 12 likes the idea of local workers included in the project. According to Tim, most jobs go to out of state contractors and sub-contractors, up from Mississippi and Louisiana, with locals making up about 20% of the current workforce. “But that’s really okay – because we also travel. We go where the work is. It just so happens we’re now working local.”

IslandFThe islands are comprised of a layer of sand which is dredged from up stream in the river, a layer of rock, followed by the planting of native grasses and rows of willow trees to help buffer the island while attracting a number of waterfowl, turtles and fish.

I spoke with local resident and fisherman Jody Sonsalla who talked about the cost involved – stating it was a very good thing. “A number of years ago, the Mayor of Brownsville – Tim Sears – stood up and told the different people at the [town] meeting – ‘You know, $100,000 worth of rock in 1980 would have saved us $15m today’ – and it’s true – and you know, it’s one of those things that if we wait till tomorrow its just going to cost us more.”

While I canoed through the three-mile construction zone taking shape in the middle of the river, it was pleasing to see a return of the waterfowl that were once so prevalent in these parts. I noticed bald eagles, pelican, seagulls, as well as a great egret who stood watching the cranes, tugs, tow boats, and barges, busily re-creating a once-lost habitat.

The Somali-American Journey


The Muslim-American girls of Minneapolis are engaged in a triumphant journey of education, art, and community service, paving the way for what is to become the next generation of local doctors, lawyers, and political leaders.  

Helping to lead this charge is educator, leader, and community organizer Farheen Hakeem, mentoring a number of girls through her involvement in the Girl Scout movement as well as a new Muslim-based initiative dubbed the “Me” program. 

Ms. Hakeem and her loyal band of Girl Scouts are no strangers to the media – they have been featured on the front page of the New York Times S6(11/28/07), as well as in the 2008 College Emmy Award-Winning documentary “Bismillah”, produced and directed by Jolene Pinder and Sarah Zaman (destined for the Film-Festival Circuit and PBS in early 2010).  I spoke with Ms. Pinder regarding this story and asked, upon viewing the film for myself, about her take on the effect Ms. Hakeem is having on the girls she has come to serve.  “Farheen is empowering a new generation of girls,” gushed Ms. Pender.  “She’s an amazing role model … shap[ing] how the girls see their role in the community – the power and voice they can have.” 

And it’s true.  The girls I met from the film are enthusiastic about life, about the power of their voice, as well as a future that Hodo Ibrahim, age 14, described as “beautiful and bright.”  Such optimism helps foster creativity, courage, and success. 

I was able to shadow two additional girls from “Bismillah”, Mary Metchnnek, age 15, and Ayan Deria, age 16, as they traversed their Cedar-Riverside community of downtown Minneapolis – dubbed by locals as Little Mogadishu. 

S4Starting from the Brian Coyle Center of the University of Minnesota where Somali children of all ages worked on computers, talked music, and played basketball, we moved through the inner-city landmark of Cedar-Riverside Plazas, a low-income housing set of buildings – all colorful beyond belief – which have been reclaimed from a once drug/gang infested stronghold.  “You used to not be able to enter that area,” explained Ms. Hakeem, who ran for City of Minneapolis Mayor back in 2005 under the Green Party banner.  “But now you can walk around freely, even at 10pm at night.  When the Somali refugees began to arrive, they naturally moved into the least expensive section of town – Cedar-Riverside.” 

As I entered the neighborhood to meet Ms. Hakeem and the girls, my taxi driver, Hassan Mohamed, age 25, explained how this is so.  “We [as Somalis] get along in America … when we came to America we are very helpful to each other and other people too … Back in Somalia it’s all about tribes and every tribe wants to be the president.  But here [in Minneapolis] we put the tribes to the side – to come together.” 

S8Part of learning about pride in your community comes from actively pitching in to help it out.  As we moved along the streets and under the bridges, Ayan and Mary introduced me to their latest community project – a mural of Minneapolis they are working on in conjunction with “Articulture”.  Here, Executive Director Elizabeth Greenbaum explained that when it comes to at-risk kids mixed with art, “art is a wonderful equalizer, especially for students who don’t succeed in other subject matters.  When you think about it and take it a step further, we’re talking about the basic understanding and the basic concepts to write – and that leads into reading and that leads into learning – so [the] arts are very much orientated to learning on all levels.”

When asked what the mural of Minneapolis she was busy working on meant to her personally, Ayan smiled broadly before exhorting, “I guess I’m proud of it because we worked on it for months and I feel really great looking at it.”

Adjacent to Articulture is Jim’s Barber Shop, who between himself and his father, have manned the shop for the past fifty years.  I asked Jim what he S9athought about the mural, now bordering one side of the building his shop inhabits.  Without thinking, he simply said, “I think it’s a great idea.  I’m very impressed with the groups of people who go there.”  When asked how the old-school, predominately German and Swedish community is adapting to the large influx of Somali refugees, Jim thought before explaining, “While most people are okay with it, overall I think a lot of the seniors aren’t adapting.”  Although he was quick to point out that after all, these same old timers had once been immigrants as well. 

Part of a journey is looking back, as with Somali immigrant and political refugee Safia Wardere who, along with her husband, took part in the physical journey to America back in 1993.  While for the next generation of Somali-Americans, like unto Safia’s daughter, Shachi Hussin, age 13, the journey is two-fold:  one foot here and now meets the next step firmly planted in an American-based future – a future that is indeed both beautiful and bright.