by Samantha Stark
Minnesota Public Interest Research Group organizer Erik Hatlestad asked, “How does change happen?” at MSUM’s first MPIRG chapter meeting of the year Sept. 22.
“I love that question because it’s complicated,” chapter planning member Karinna Ramnarine said.
She just joined the organization this fall.
“It requires one to think about people and the environment as correlated — a system,” she said.
MPIRG is a nonpartisan nonprofit entirely governed by students. The statewide organization has been involving young people in the democratic process, specifically around environmental, economic and social justice issues, since 1971. Over the last 40-plus years, Minnesota MPIRG members have involved students in the creation of substantial public policy and engaged them with their communities.
“As a statewide organization, MPIRG is able to lend professional support … to student organizing efforts and connect and coordinate with larger statewide campaigns,” Hatlestad said, adding he is frustrated with decisions made at the capitol without the contributing voices of students and other young people.
“The decisions made by our leaders today will have ramifications for us, as we are the ones who will inherit the problems that have been left (to) us,” he said.
Hatlestad came to the F-M area from Norway Lake, Minnesota, in search of a stable job. Upon arriving, he struggled to make ends meet, earning minimum wage and not making enough income to pay rent, utilities, groceries and medical bills — even with two jobs and 60 working-hours a week. In response, he enrolled in college at Concordia. After graduation, he helped establish an MPIRG chapter at MSUM as well as his alma mater.
His aim is to make change in communities for those struggling with similar issues.
“MPIRG, to me, is about educating people about the issues we face as a society and providing them a platform to address those issues from,” Hatlestad said. “(Issues like) climate change, over $1 trillion in student debt, low wages, etc.”
When in college, it was clear to him that most of his peers were disenfranchised young people, whose opinions were often ignored in their community.
He wanted to come back and help students build power in Moorhead and involve more young people in the democratic process. MPIRG was a means for him to make this change.
MPIRG was once present throughout the Minnesota State Colleges and Univesities System, of which MSUM is a part, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. After a decades-long pause, students decided to re-establish the organization at MSUM earlier this year.
Since it’s the first semester the chapter is an officially recognized organization, it only has lead members, who plan and organize events, and a few supporting students. The organization is looking for more students to become involved.
“There are no real positions,” Hatlestad said. “We discuss and reach consensus on our actions together.”
Examples of those actions are MPIRG-facilitated discussions between state legislators and students throughout the year. Just last year, while the MSUM chapter was a pending organization, students met with local legislators on several occasions. They lobbied for action on climate change through renewable energy investment, protection of water quality through changed agricultural practices and criminal justice reform.
Hatlestad said it has been exciting to see students interact with legislators on issues they’re passionate about and add a legislative angle to powerful conversations already happening on campus.
This fall, in conjunction with the Campus Feminist Organization, the chapter brought State Representative Erin Murphy to campus to discuss her bill on affirmative consent and sexual violence prevention as a part of Consent Week.
“Probably one of the biggest things to happen this year is our work around Minnesota’s largest polluter, the Sherco coal plant,” Hatlestad said. “MPIRG has been working on closing this coal plant for years, and I’m happy to say that hundreds of students from Moorhead commented in favor of closing the plant, which Xcel Energy has just announced that it will do by 2026. That’s 14.8 million tons of carbon dioxide that won’t be released into the atmosphere, thanks in part to student participation.”
Thinking about change and the impact it can make in the world as students, MPIRG members create strategic approaches and solutions to specific issues in the community.
“Any group that hopes to make an impact needs to analyze what they’re trying to change, first,” Ramnarine said. “So far, that’s what I’ve got from MPIRG.”
Today at 5:30 p.m., the chapter is hosting representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union to help students understand their rights under the law and how to interact with police in CMU 208. November 17, they will host a discussion with the Black Student Union and CFO about private prisons, specifically how they relate to the current controversy in Appleton, Minnesota. In addition, an organizer from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis will join the conversation.
For more information, visit the MPIRG – MSUM Facebook page or visit mpirg.org. In addition. MPIRG encourages students to attend meetings Thursdays at 6 p.m. in CMU 204.