Minnesota Transform: A Just University for Just Futures

A Minnesota Transform workshop with Minnesota Youth Story Squad co-director Dr. Kari Smalkoski and VISTA Srija Chatterjea-Sen, joined by local high school students, who together interview caretakers of the memorial at George Floyd Square about their work and future plans. Photo credit Ben Hovland.

Minnesota Transform is a $5M higher education initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation that will address transformational decolonial and racial justice in the University, Twin Cities, and state through public humanities projects.

We will collaborate with Black, Indigenous, immigrant, and refugee communities to amplify historical interpretations, create new narratives and dialogues, foster community well-being, and inform policy responses. Through our work and collaborations, Minnesota Transform will strategically broaden and deepen previously established relationships with communities, hold the University accountable for its complicities in order to pave the way for redress, and build the University’s capacity to be a site of racial justice.

The initiative spans University of Minnesota campuses in American Indian studies, gender and sexuality studies, ethnic studies, Heritage Studies and Public History, law, linguistics, and critical disability studies and projects will take the form of language revitalization, storytelling by and for communities (in a variety of forms), and access to media to disseminate those stories.

In addition to four local and national sub-awardees—Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Sisseton Wahpeton College, Minneapolis College, and Humanities Action Lab—the initiative will involve a dozen community partners. The project will engage those partners, as well as elders, cultural practitioners, and community consultants, to co-create:

  • 50 graduate internships
  • 175 undergraduate internships
  • 2 postdoctoral fellowships
  • 12 archival reports, including a report on the history of Tribal-University relations
  • 200+ digital stories, podcasts, zines, and/or short documentary videos
  • five learning modules 
  • six public and museum exhibits 
  • access to affordable Indigenous language courses
  • a Dakota language audio journal 
  • digital historical walking tour
  • support for Indigenous language immersion housing and programming
  • pedagogy support in disability and racial justice for access and inclusion
  • environmental racism and environmental justice programming
  • engagements with law students in abolitionist and antiracist curriculum
  • collaborations with first generation BIPOC college students
  • and more


The Mellon Foundation’s Higher Learning Program has awarded 16 projects under its Just Futures initiative to support multidisciplinary and multi-institutional collaborative teams producing solutions-based work that contributes to public understanding of the nation’s racist past and can lead to the creation of socially just futures.


    Why Public Humanities?

    While research from STEM and social science fields have been the go-to forms of knowledge in understanding the “needs” of BIPOC communities during crises, this project, like many community leaders and activists, places humanistic ways of knowing on the front line. We have seen during COVID-19 and the uprisings that humanities—media, visual art, narratives, and vision—have been critical to survival and to life beyond mere survival: insurgency, resurgence, and solidarity. Minnesota Transform advances publicly-engaged humanistic inquiry as urgent and vital “front line” work necessary to address structural racism.

    Leadership Team

    “As a society, we are facing many crises—the slow violence of global climate change due to racial capitalism, the gentrification of urban neighborhoods, the failed federal response to COVID-19, police violence — that are happening simultaneously and exacerbate long standing structures and inequalities of racism and colonialism. Support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will help us to establish a wide range of collaborative University and community initiatives that will allow us to model new ways for the humanities and the University to transform each other.”
    —Jigna Desai, project faculty team leader

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    Joseph Bauerkemper, MIAC Partnership Associate Coordinator

    Joseph Bauerkemper serves on the faculty in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and as affiliate faculty for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. His scholarship, outreach, and teaching emphasize Indigenous governance, federal and state policy regarding American Indian nations, and Native literatures. Joseph teaches undergraduate courses in UMD’s B.A. programs in American Indian Studies and Tribal Administration & Governance, and graduate courses in UMD’s Master of Tribal Administration & Governance and Master of Tribal Natural Resource & Environmental Stewardship programs. He also serves as lead facilitator for an intergovernmental collaboration providing training on tribal-state relations for State of Minnesota departments and agencies, and provides governance programming for tribal staffers and administrators.

    David Chang

    David A. Chang is chair of the American Indian Studies Department and Distinguished McKnight University Professor of History. He is Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and writes on the history of Native American and Native Hawaiian people. He is committed to ensuring that his research and the work of the university serve the needs of Indigenous communities. As chair of American Indian Studies, he has worked to increase the access of community members to University resources and has worked to make Dakota and Ojibwe language courses more accessible. He also teaches the Hawaiian language to other members of the Twin Cities Native Hawaiian community.

    Jigna Desai, Principal Investigator

    Jigna Desai is Professor in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and the Asian American Studies Program, and affiliated with the Department of American Studies in the College of Liberal Arts at UMN-TC.  She has written extensively on issues of race, gender, sexuality, and media and explores how digital media-making can support students to further social justice. For two decades, her teaching and service have worked to create racial and gender justice within higher education. She co-directs MN Youth Story Squad with Dr. Kari Smalkoski. As PI, Desai will maintain lines of communication with all partners, facilitate regular meetings with the project team, plan digital media projects, work with undergraduate and graduate interns, youth, and community partners on co-creating projects. 

    Tracey Deutsch, Faculty Coordinator

    Tracey Deutsch is Associate Professor of History, affiliated with the Departments of American Studies and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She researches and writes on food and the politics of food access. She has led numerous publicly engaged and interdisciplinary initiatives,  and has come to believe that honoring everyday caregiving is key to social change and institutional transformation. She is the Faculty Coordinator of Minnesota Transform and will work across these projects to support internships, narrative projects, writing, art, curricular units, and media projects related to food, mutual aid, caregiving and basic needs.

    Tadd Johnson

    In 2019, Professor Tadd M. Johnson was named the University of Minnesota’s first senior director of American Indian Tribal Nations Relations. Johnson is housed at the U of M Duluth, where he is director of the Tribal Sovereignty Institute and director of Graduate Studies in the American Indian Studies Department. He is an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. Johnson received a B.A. at the University of St. Thomas, a J.D. at the U of M Law School, and serves on the Boards of the Udall Foundation and the Native Governance Center. He served as a tribal attorney for more than 30 years, served as a tribal court judge and administrator, and is a frequent lecturer on American Indian history and Federal Indian Law. He spent five years with the U.S. House of Representatives, ultimately becoming staff director and counsel to the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. In 1997, President Clinton appointed Johnson to chair the National Indian Gaming Commission.

    Kevin Murphy

    Kevin P. Murphy is Professor of History, affiliated with the Heritage Studies & Public History program and the Department of American Studies. He works in the fields of public history, oral history, and the history of politics, gender, and sexuality in the United States. He has worked on a number of large-scale public humanities projects, many in association with the Humanities Action Lab, for which he serves on the steering committee. On Minnesota Transform, Murphy will help coordinate connections with local museums as well as theater arts, dance, and visual art organizations and will work with graduate student interns and fellows.

    Kari Smalkoski

    Kari Smalkoski is co-director of MN Youth Story Squad (MYSS) with Jigna Desai and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. Her research and scholarship have been influenced by many community engagement initiatives she has led over the past two decades. She will work with the Internship Coordinator and Community Partner Liaison to support connections with MYSS and will mentor and teach undergraduate interns and graduate students. She will also grow and support partnerships with local organizations doing media production, youth work, art conservation, mutual aid, and racial justice work.


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    Angela Carter, Access and Inclusion Pedagogy Specialist

    Angela M. Carter (she/her) is the Access and Inclusion Pedagogy Specialist for Minnesota Transform. As a Ronald E. McNair scholar, she became a first-generation college graduate in 2009 when she earned her BA in English from Truman State University. In 2019, Dr. Carter completed her Ph.D. in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. She comes to MNT with over 15 years of experience teaching, researching, and advocating around experiences of injustice / inequity in higher education. Most recently, Angela co-founded the Critical Disability Studies Collective, an organization that advances intersectional and critical inquiries around disability, ableism, and access at the University of Minnesota. Outside her professional endeavors, Angela loves cuddling with her dog Cricket, watching HGTV, and playing Beyoncé songs on her bass guitar.

    Michelle Garvey, Internship Coordinator & Education Assistant

    Dr. Michelle Garvey is an interdisciplinary educator-activist, specializing in environmental justice (EJ) theory, history, and activism. Incorporating its interconnected fields—Indigenous sovereignty, climate justice, food justice, reproductive justice, and queer ecology among them—Michelle educates through community-engaged projects that channel student scholarship and academic resources into the EJ movement.

    As MNT’s Internship Coordinator, Michelle strengthens relationships between partners, students, and faculty. As MNT’s Education Assistant, Michelle develops programming grow EJ learning opportunities. Both positions align in her work with Minnesota Youth Story Squad—one of MNT’s several community partners—facilitating EJ activities for eight graders at Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis with undergrad interns from the U of M.

    Prior to MNT, she served as the Environmental Justice Program Director at HECUA. She continues to teach EJ at the U of M in the Sustainability Studies department.

    Andrea Manolov, Media Specialist

    Andrea Manolov (she/her) explores radical modes of writing histories and visioning futures. Committed to public history work grounded in transformative justice and community building, Andrea brings together her energy as a supporter, organizer, and innovator with skills in research, exhibition ideation, and arts programming. Her public history work includes co-directing History for the Future, a public exhibition and program series exploring the histories and politics of mutual aid practices. Andrea also created the Interstate Digital Archive at Mixed Blood Theatre, a place-based archive of queer and trans Asian American space-making, and served in event coordination for Climates of Inequality, a project of the Humanities Action Lab. She is a graduate of the Heritage Studies and Public History program at the University of Minnesota.

    Denise Pike, Project Manager

    Denise Pike works at the IAS as project manager for Minnesota Transform. She is a public historian dedicated to linking inequalities in our present day with evidence of historical injustice. Her research interests and past work include the intersection of data, mapping, race, power, and urban history to address today’s disparities. She received a Master’s in Heritage Studies and Public History from the University of Minnesota.

    Contact: [email protected]

    Kristen Reynolds, Administrative Assistant

    Kristen Reynolds is a military brat whose family is from California by way of Mississippi and Louisiana. She earned her bachelor's in Biology (from Johnson C. Smith University) and her bachelor's and master's in English (from UNC Charlotte). She studies race, anti-blackness, and technology and the role the Black speculative can play in shaping alternative technofutures.

    When not studying, she can be found writing dystopian speculative fiction that explores blackness, gender, climate crisis, and technology.


    The true history of the relationship between the University of Minnesota and the Dakota and Ojibwe people must be told. The U of M has a record of benefiting and profiting from the injustices and atrocities they brought upon our people, including forced medical experiments and retaining culturally significant artifacts belonging to the tribes. This land-grant institution was built on lands stolen from our ancestors, and the main campus was constructed on one of the Dakota’s most sacred sites near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, Bdote. However, this is an opportunity to work collaboratively with the University to build better Tribal-University relations. Through the University, this project gives tribes the platform to tell our stories accurately.” —Robert Larsen, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council Board Chair and President of Lower Sioux Indian Community

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    Minnesota Indian Affairs Council / Minnesota Tribes

    Minnesota Indian Affairs Council will work with tribal nations on producing a report on the history of Tribal-University relations.

    Sisseton Wahpeton College

    Sisseton Wahpeton College will partner on Indigenous language revitalization projects so that Dakota people can speak their own truths and seek their own futures in their own languages. Researchers will work with fluent elders to produce recordings and develop a digital audio journal, which will also be used to transcribe and translate their speech, as well as develop topic-based language courses.

    Minneapolis College

    Minneapolis College will collaborate on student media- and art-making, as well as digital and exhibition curation. Undergraduate interns may be paired with community partner organizations focused on racial justice, disability justice, environmental justice, and/or social justice.

    Humanities Action Lab

    Humanities Action Lab will collaborate with Minnesota Transform on translocal engagement with other universities and community partners, such as through its Translocal Learning Studio. HAL will help develop learning modules in public humanities and disseminate these, as well as facilitate discussions of similar efforts among its members.

    University of Minnesota Partners

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    Individual Contributors

    • Dr. Ananya Chatterjea, Professor, Theatre Arts and Dance
    • Dr. Angela Carter, Access Consultant, Disability Resource Center
    • Čhaŋtémaza Neil McKay, Senior Teaching Specialist, American Indian Studies
    • Dr. Fernando Burga, Assistant Professor, Urban and Regional Planning
    • Dr. Greg Donofrio, Associate Professor, School of Architecture
    • Dr. Karen Mary Davalos, Professor, Chicano and Latino Studies
    • Šišóka Duta Joe Bendickson, Teaching Specialist, American Indian Studies
    • Dr. Susanna Blumenthal, Professor, Law School: Associate Professor, History
    • For all general inquiries, please contact Denise Pike, Minnesota Transform Project Manager: [email protected].
    • For press/media inquiries, please contact University Relations: unews@umn.edu, 612-624-5551.