Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dajon Ferrell - Cultivating Connection Within Your Community

Dajon Ferrell is an Army National Guard Veteran who has served as both a full-time and traditional soldier in the Army National Guard for 13 years. She has created Operation Synergy, a nonprofit that provides Veterans with mindfulness training to help restore and empower them to create a healthy and purposeful life. Committed to serving the Veteran community, she also volunteers as a peer support group facilitator and peer mentor for Wounded Warrior Project. Dajon is a 2015 Veterans’ Voices Awardee.

We live in a world filled with technology, busy schedules, and to-do lists. Go to any restaurant and look at how many people – whether alone or with someone – are focusing on their devices, whether it be a phone or tablet. We come into contact with dozens of people each day, but how many people do we really connect with? Make eye contact with?

While serving 13 years in the military, I learned the importance of quickly connecting with fellow service members. Each unit is a mix of various races, cultures, religions, and so on, but cultivating cohesion was critical to our mission and effectiveness. In fact, I became so close to the people I served with, that I found it very hard to relate to civilians upon leaving the military. It felt like an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario. Through volunteering and getting myself out into the community as much as possible, I was quickly reminded that we are all humans. Every day you’re passing someone who is celebrating a life event, grieving a loss, healing from a trauma, excited to be alive, or just barely making it through the day. Awareness of those around us has helped me realize that I am part of this human community.

The Veteran community has created a space of awareness around depression, suicide, and other life challenges. We are taught signs to look for and how to find help. That’s not always the case for the wider population in your community. You can help by creating bridges with people.
“As you discover what strength you can draw from your community in this world from which it stands apart, look outward as well as inward. Build bridges instead of walls.”
–Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
How can you cultivate connection throughout your day? How can you be part of the solution to dissolving self-perceived barriers with your community? My suggestions to do this include the following:
  1. Remove the word ‘busy’ from your vocabulary. When a co-worker or neighbor asks how you’re doing, resist the common reply of ‘Oh, you know, keeping busy!’ Share, open up, and you just might find a common bond.
  2. Random acts of kindness. This is an easy one and you may or may not see the benefits, but try committing random acts of kindness in your neighborhood and office. You could even suggest a RAOK challenge in your community.
  3. Get involved. Find out what needs your community has and give back. It doesn’t always have to be monetary. For example, Open Arms, a non-profit based in Minneapolis, is always looking for drivers to deliver meals over the lunch hour. You could do this as a family or get a group together. There are many other organizations looking for help out there. Just take a look.
  4. Shift your paradigm. Simply changing your thoughts can help you cultivate connection. Instead of looking at others as ‘them,’ remember that we’re all in this together. Division doesn’t expand humanity, connection does!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Jennifer Tonko and David O’Fallon - Sharing the Power in Minnesota Water Stories: Water/Ways Exhibit Opens in June

Jennifer Tonko is the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Program Officer for Community Engagement and Traveling Exhibits, including the new Water/Ways exhibit.

David O’Fallon, Ph.D., is the President of the Humanities Center. An avid fan of water, David uses and drinks water every day—sometimes more than once!

“The water itself needs to be protected. Not for political reasons, but for environmental and health reasons, for traditional reasons, that this water is considered a relative.”—Chairman Kevin Jensvold, Upper Sioux Community

Here in Mni Sota/Minnesota, water is part of who we are. Water connects us. Yet the need to protect the water in this place becomes more urgent every day. Did you know that the aquifers that supply drinking water to the Twin Cities metro area are being drained faster than they are being replenished? Or that only about 5% of the wetlands that once made up the southern and western regions of Minnesota are still intact?

“All three of our sons were baptized with the water that we live around and that has always been a very powerful part of our family. “—Carolyn Lange Hatlestad, Games Lake and Lake Andrew

How can the humanities address the need to care for water? By sharing the stories of individual Minnesotans who are inspired by water, healed by water, hurt by water, and fed by water, the humanities nurture water. And by facilitating community conversations—in many places and including many voices—to wrestle with all of the ways that water shapes us:  health, homes, livelihoods, arts, recreational pursuits, and by collecting your stories of how water shapes you.

“It was definitely the river that brought me back. I bought a cabin on the Kettle and once I got my cabin I just had to live there. I’ve always felt the pull of the river.”—Ruth Pfaller, Kettle River

The Humanities Center is part of the inaugural group of five states (Minnesota, along with Florida, Idaho, Illinois, and Wyoming) chosen to launch the Smithsonian’s Water/Ways, an exhibit that explores the central nature of water in our lives from a cross-disciplinary perspective.

 “What we need most in Minnesota is not more laws that try to require or reward clean water practices—they’re last resorts. What we really need is to establish an ethic of clean water practices.” -- Governor Mark Dayton, Minnesota

The Humanities Center and its local partners, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Section of the American Water Works Association, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, have developed an exhibit, We Are Water MN, that reinforces Minnesotans’ individual relationships with and responsibilities to water. We Are Water MN shares information on water quality around the state juxtaposed with the voices of multiple Minnesotans (some of whom you’ve read here) including farmers, fishers, canoers, ricers, parents, potters, and teachers reflecting on what water means to them and their lives. This exhibit also provides a space for visitors to add their own water stories.

These exhibits open at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in the New London/Spicer area on Saturday, June 25. The tour continues over the next year to five other host sites in Minnesota, closing in April 2017.

“What would I say to water? I think I would ask it to take care of us. And I would say that I am doing my best to take care of it.”—Katie Himanga, Lake City

How has water shaped you? Is there a lake or a river that pulls you? How do you protect water? What is your water ethic? Add your story to the We Are Water MN conversations on our Facebook page, learn more at, or follow us on Twitter at @wearewatermn.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nominate an Outstanding Veteran for the 2016 Veterans’ Voices Award

Tyler Sanchez receives his Veterans’ Voices Award 
from Commissioner Larry Shellito
Do you know an exceptional Minnesota Veteran? If so, you should consider nominating him or her for the Minnesota Humanities Center’s 2016 Veterans’ Voices Award.

Now in its fourth year, the Veterans' Voices Award recognizes, amplifies, and honors Minnesotans who have honorably served and are making significant contributions to their communities. These actively engaged, former and current military service members go above and beyond to make positive contributions that improve the lives of people across Minnesota.

To nominate a Veteran for this award, please fill out the online nomination form by Friday, June 3, 2016.

All nominations must be received by 11:59 p.m. on Friday, June 3, 2016. Nominees selected to receive an award will be notified by July 8, 2016. All awardees must be able to attend the September 11, 2016 dinner and award ceremony in St. Paul.

Exclusions: Please note that Humanities Center staff, board members, fellows, and consultants are neither eligible to nominate an individual for nor receive a 2016 Veterans' Voices Award.

Consider nominating an extraordinary Veteran in your life! For more information visit:

Some past Veterans’ Voices Awardees have been featured bloggers for the Humanities Center. Here is a  selection of blog posts written by Veterans’ Voices Awardees:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Louise Woehrle - The Power of Story

Louise Woehrle is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker and creative consultant who writes, directs, produces, and advises through her company Whirlygig Productions, Inc. Her mission is telling stories that help us see ourselves, and others in new ways, promote healing, and connect us as human beings. The abridged version: "Shining a light on stories that need to be told." 

Working as a documentary filmmaker has been a great privilege because I have partnered with communities around the world to help share their stories through the voices and perspectives of the people who live there. Although the individual stories are very different, they are human stories, making them all relatable. Through my work, I have seen how individuals sharing stories can bring people together and create positive change in their communities and in others’ perceptions of them.

As a storyteller, I’ve been invited into places and communities I might otherwise never encounter. In one instance, it was a resilient community rebuilding itself after an 11½-year civil war in Sierra Leone. We witnessed the power of forgiveness through the people and their stories. I also partnered with a progressive school in a village in southern India taking on education and providing a future for the children and their communities. In Canada, I was invited by Cree filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo and the Cree Health Board to help tell the stories of three remote Cree communities in northern Ontario who took on the crisis of diabetes, courageously sharing their own stories and raising awareness through education about management and prevention of the disease.

At home in Minnesota, I have been privileged to partner with the Mdewakantonwan community to film their ceremonial buffalo kill, a sacred tradition of Dakota people being passed on to younger generations. I’ve also been welcomed into the homes of hospice patients and their caregivers at the end of life to witness the beauty and comfort of palliative care given by the compassionate team of hospice caregivers. In addition, teens have invited us into their inner lives as they talked with each other about depression, loneliness, and the importance of friendship and Veterans young and old have shared their stories of war and life after war.

Although the landscapes are vastly different, each story sheds light and insight, allowing a glimpse into a world perhaps unfamiliar. I have witnessed how shining a light on stories that need to be told can open hearts and the door to conversation and understanding, not only for outsiders but also for those living in the same community as the storytellers. In 2010 during a screening of our film Pride of Lions in Minneapolis, a group of Sierra Leoneans shared how affirming it is they are reflected in the story as intelligent hardworking leaders in their communities and not as victims. A woman in the same audience left the screening saying, “I need to forgive my sister-in-law. I have been holding a grudge for years. If that man in the film whose arms were amputated by the rebels can forgive, so can I.”

Authentic stories foster new insights and perspectives. I have seen firsthand how humans sharing their stories can break down barriers, opens hearts, and bring people together to create positive change.

I have found community with the Minnesota Humanities Center, working with them over the last several months. This organization has illuminated for me the importance of amplifying the multiple missing voices and untold stories here in Minnesota. I hope to continue working to partner with local and global community efforts to build relationships through storytelling and engage in new ways that connect us as human beings sharing a larger global community.

For more information on Louise Woehrle’s work visit: