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Environmental Health Division
Champion Stories: LeAnn Littlewolf
Meet LeAnn Littlewolf.
LeAnn is the co-executive director of the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). AICHO is an indigenous led nonprofit organization located out of Duluth, MN. Started in 1993, AICHO has numerous initiatives, including Gimaajii—AICHO’s headquarters and supportive housing program featuring 29 units of supportive housing; Dabinoo’Igan—the region’s first culturally specific emergency domestic violence shelter, which includes children’s programs and rental spaces for tribal affiliated organizations, such as the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center; and Niiwin Indigenous Foods Market. With over three decades of nonprofit and community organizing experience, LeAnn assists AICHO in honoring and supporting cultural and climate resiliency.
How does your work deal with climate and health, specifically as we see it occur in Minnesota?
LeAnn: Around 2017, AICHO created a climate and cultural resiliency initiative. We wanted to take a look at the connections between cultural resiliency and preparations for climate change. As part of the initiative, we did an internal waste audit that involved implementing changes to our composting system, receiving education around the impact of landfills, and working towards waste reduction. Within the children’s program, children were able to produce, brand, and package an organic fertilizer (worm juice) from the compost bin. Through the initiative they were also able to learn entrepreneurship while reducing (and reusing) waste. We also had a partnership with Ecolibirum3, MN Interfaith Power and Light, and MN Power to get a 16 and a half kilowatt solar array placed on our rooftop. From there, we are currently working on renewable job training with the Duluth Foods Co-Op, Solar Bear, and the former owner of ISP. The whole point is to try to help BIPOC community members access renewable energy jobs as the need for such work continues to grow. Overall, we’re trying to engage our community around the connection between how we have survived in the past culturally speaking, our relationship with the environment and land, and how we can be prepared for coming changes. Aside from our climate and cultural resiliency initiative, we have a large social media reach throughout northeastern Minnesota, the tribal community, Duluth, and even statewide. We use our social media to educate and connect people with resources. A lot of times, our community members do not have access to good information and are not included in conversations about important changes. As a nonprofit, we try to share information in a way that makes sense to our community and allows them to have a voice in these issues. This includes climate change.
How do you promote environmental justice and health equity in your work?
LeAnn: Our relationships matter. We have a lot of relationships with really great groups that are doing incredible environmental justice work. We’ll often partner in hosting informational events. Information really matters. Previously, environmental justice and health equity were siloed. Now, they’re coming together, and people are realizing the connections between climate and health. This is incredibly important because many people within BIPOC and low-resource communities don’t know that the environmental issues they’re experiencing have a physical impact on them. There’s a background of not having transparency around environmental issues, and that’s a problem. Our community needs to have all of the information. We need to be included and we need to have knowledge of what our environmental context is.
How has climate change impacted you, or your community, personally?
LeAnn: MPR recently did story circles on environmental justice. I was invited to attend a meeting by a number of local environmental groups who had worked on this report around power producing plants. At the meeting, the group went through their findings. One of the main power plants that has been up for decades near Cohasset had health-impacts reaching over 100 miles away. This was so crazy to me because my family grew up on the edge of Leech Lake Reservation, probably about 12 miles from the power plant. Every day I got on a school bus at six am that went through all of this farmland to pick up kids. We drove by that plant with the big billowing smoke coming out of it, but as a kid I had no idea what it was or what it did. I wonder if information about its health impacts has been shared with the tribal council and tribal community members. I’m sure that I have health impacts from living that close to it. There’s also a lot of anxiety around watching climate change unfold. I live in Duluth which has been declared this climate haven. Many people claim this is going to be a great place to live to get away from extreme weather events, yet we’re also seeing severe impacts. In 2012, we had a flood which shocked our city. It tore up our infrastructure. It tore up our roads. It was really crazy. Now, I think people are more aware that things can happen here in Minnesota and Duluth as well. I just wonder, if Duluth is going to be a climate haven, how many people are going to have to migrate here because of climate change? How many people will have to leave their homes just to save their lives? I don’t think we’re aware of that.
Why do you think it’s important that nonprofits (like AICHO) integrate climate change into their work?
LeAnn: We’re a community organization, and we have to be responsive to issues that are impacting our members. We’re in a position to do a lot of good. We can secure resources based on community needs. We can share good information and ensure people have access to it. It’s really important to help community members voice their experiences and needs. A lot of times people are not aware of others’ lived realities. When the pandemic hit, we talked about what a stay in place order would mean for families. Would they have enough food? If they got sick, would they have medicine? For people without resources, you have to realize how frightening something like this is. Our role is to figure out how we can be there for them.
What is something impactful nonprofit organizations can do to protect people’s health in the face of climate change?
LeAnn: We need to have good partnerships with the state in order to get good information about what the health impacts of climate change are and are going to be. Strong partnerships made a huge difference in the pandemic, and I think that’s absolutely going to apply to issues around climate change. We need to work together to make sure that we’re doing our best thinking and that we’re really hearing what our community needs.
What are some of the biggest climate and health challenges going forward?
LeAnn: We do housing, so we’re concerned with everyone having safe, decent, affordable housing. The other thing is that health is largely determined by social determinants. If you don’t have resources, by nature your health outcomes are going to be worse. So, my question is: how is climate change going to exacerbate these social determinants? That’s why I think it’s important to view climate change as a holistic issue. Can we help people enter careers in the renewable energy field? What kind of local foods do we have in case there are disruptions to our global food supply chains? Etcetera.
What gives you hope for the future of climate change?
LeAnn: What gives me hope is that I have seen that state of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Health, and all of the state agencies really focus on equity. They’re paying closer attention to the needs of community members which broadens climate and health problem solving and is useful for all Minnesotan citizens. This makes me hopeful.
How can someone not in public health help highlight climate change as a public health issue?
LeAnn: By telling stories. We have to be able to make climate change relevant to our own lives. When we do that, we can start to make sense and meaning out of it. Also, if we hear a lot of jargon that doesn’t relate to our daily lives, we tune it out. The way that information gets communicated has to make sense to us. I try to tell a lot of stories and explain how I see climate change impacting myself or people around me. Doing this opens people up to start thinking, oh I had that happen too or I also lived over there and experienced pollution. A lot of times we unintentionally approach communication from a dominant culture’s communication method. Really, you have to get people to engage from where they’re at.
The opinions expressed in these stories are the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of MDH.