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University of Minnesota Extension

New executive director joins Southeast RSDP

In summer 2021, the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) were thrilled to welcome Andi Sutton as the new executive director of the Southeast RSDP. We spoke with Sutton to learn more about her path and hopes for sustainability in the region.

Nurturing a passion for sustainability

Andi Sutton standing next to a chicken coop.
Southeast RSDP executive director Andi Sutton

Sutton credited her roots growing up on a small hobby farm in Minnesota as helping nurture her interests and a career in sustainability that spans the past two decades.

“With farming roots in my family, I built a really close relationship to the land around me. This helped me see the land as a playmate and friend, tying nature to joy, discovery and fun,” she reminisced, touching on her childhood and the personal values of caring about nature and tending to living things that have shaped her life and career since.

Sutton’s academic and professional paths led her to Boston, where work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and as a community-based public artist provided numerous ways to creatively engage partners in the sustainability challenges of climate change, agriculture, food systems, water security and social justice.

“I bring to this work a passion for interdisciplinarity, an omnivorous appetite for learning and skills building, and deep experience in systems-thinking and equity principles,” she said, describing her approach to sustainability issues.

In previous roles, Sutton served as communications and program manager at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) and helped lead the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Gender, Culture, Women and Sexuality across multiple institutions of higher education in the greater Boston region. In this work, Sutton often played “the role of translator,” synthesizing a range of research and sharing stories of sustainability work for diverse audiences.

Adults in a line standing along the side of a building painted with a large mural.
The Southeast MN Cities Cohort builds community involvement in sustainability efforts. Members include sustainability managers, city planners, Sutton and Extension colleagues.

As Sutton grew as an artist in her personal life, she worked closely with local farms and community groups on public art projects. In one case, she worked with partners to grow bitter melon as a cultural awareness, contemporary art and community economic development activity, sharing this unique fruit with local audiences through collaborative and creative placemaking approaches.

Working across difference

Having recently returned home to Minnesota, Sutton has hit the ground running in her new role as Southeast RSDP executive director. Her action-oriented sensibility, place-based nature and skills in relationship building and collaboration are assets for a role that requires supporting projects across diverse geographies, communities and topics.

“The RSDPs attract social entrepreneurs like Andi,” said RSDP Statewide Director Kathy Draeger. “We are excited to count her among our colleagues working toward a sustainable future and engaging both our community and University resources to do so.”

Sutton is enjoying traveling around the region and building relationships with new and long-term partners that will advance local sustainability goals. By prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in this work, she hopes to lead by example.

Adults standing around a table listening to a presentation.
Fall 2021 Southeast RSDP board meeting at Sharing our Roots farm in Northfield. Photo credit: Andi Sutton

“I approach my own journey as an ally with a sense of humility, actively seeking out education opportunities and training in social justice and other issues,” Sutton said. She understands that often, social justice work involves creating more inclusive programming and listening to the needs of underrepresented partners who may not have been involved in Southeast RSDP work before.

With this in mind, Sutton shares her excitement of working across differences in the region.

“All of my work and hopes are rooted in my commitment and love for working collaboratively, especially with people who have different skills than I do. I love how working together is full of mutual learning and growth and often helps make projects bigger and better,” she said.

Sutton has been planning in-person meetings with the Southeast RSDP board, work groups and partners this fall, including a September board meeting that took place outdoors at Sharing our Roots farm in Northfield. Sutton hopes to grow more in-person and virtual connections with partners across Southeast Minnesota.

“There are so many opportunities ahead of us, and to be a part of and working in a community like this feels nourishing and inspiring,” she said.

Marie Donahue, October 2021

Marie Donahue worked as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs). 

Banner photo credit: Left: View from the water tower at the Anderson Arts Center in Red Wing. Middle: Fall 2021 Southeast RSDP board meeting at Sharing our Roots farm in Northfield. Right: Tour of Lake Pepin with Southeast RSDP Board member Brian Fries. Pictures by Andi Sutton.

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Related topics: RSDP Happenings November 2021 Fall
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