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RSDP grows stronger by five

The University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDPs) community is flourishing! In the wake of the new year, five new outreach associates have joined the team. Each lives in and represents one of five RSDP regions across Minnesota. The new staff is working alongside regional staff and serves as catalysts, facilitators and team builders — each with the ultimate goal to increase the presence and positive impact of RSDP’s community-university work in Greater Minnesota. Read about their unique journeys, their regional ties and what brings them to the Partnerships.

Beth Labenz
Beth Labenz, Southwest RSDP

Beth Labenz

Southwest RSDP welcomes a familiar face! Before joining the Partnerships as staff, Beth Labenz served as a Regional board member for Southwest RSDP and also worked for University of Minnesota Extension for eight years.

“I have always been a lifelong learner and I felt like every meeting or conversation with RSDP, I learned something new. When the new position was posted, I applied!” she says.

Labenz received her master’s degree in public health administration and policy from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in 2022. She worked extensively with the SuperShelf program helping increase availability of healthy and culturally connected food at food shelves and improving experiences for low-income families accessing food. 

Community engagement and community co-led project design are two of the things Labenz is most excited about bringing to her new role.

“I also see such value in rural communities. They are diverse and vibrant across the state and sometimes need a little extra support and/or resources to thrive,” says Labenz. “I am looking forward to being that connection to the University across Southwest Minnesota.”

Labenz lives in Trimont and grew up surrounded by pork production on a farm outside of Welcome. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, baking, gardening, playing music, mentoring in the Kinship program and being with friends and family.

Crystal Rayamajhi
Crystal Rayamajhi, Northwest RSDP

Crystal Rayamajhi

Crystal Rayamajhi is excited to be joining RSDP in the Northwest Region. Rayamajhi grew up on a dairy farm in Central Minnesota and has lived in the Fargo-Moorhead area for ten years. 

Her professional background started as a student worker in the sustainability office of Bemidji State University, where she earned her undergraduate degree. Later, she conducted a waste characterization study for the City of Grand Forks through the University of North Dakota, where she earned a master’s degree in environmental management.

“I took some time to raise my three children full-time, and then I returned to the workforce in the forestry division for the City of Moorhead,” recalls Rayamajhi. “I served as a Forestry Corps member, and then as the City of Moorhead’s sustainability coordinator.”

Rayamajhi says she enjoys all aspects of sustainability and looks forward to working with regional communities to reach their sustainability goals through RSDP. 

“Feel free to reach out if you want to talk about native plantings, wood waste utilization, carbon sequestration, emerald ash borer, waste reduction/reuse/composting or community engagement,” she says. She’s ready to get the conversations started!

Jan Jackola
Jan Jackola, Central RSDP

Jan Jackola

Jan Jackola is the new associate with Central RSDP and is also a familiar face to many. She comes from Extension’s Community Development where she served as program coordinator with the leadership and civic engagement team for the past seven years.

“I provided administrative management and coordination for multiple cohort programs,” says Jackola. “I’m most proud of my work with the Refresher Series, a quarterly webinar series featuring leadership and civic engagement educators.”

Jan is ready to shift gears and work within RSDP.

“I am excited to work with rural communities and look forward to learning about the sustainability initiatives across the region,” she says.

Jackola lives in eastern Becker County and enjoys wandering around the nearby Smoky Hills State Forest. An avid hiker and camper, she’s always looking for new trails to explore in the Midwest. She likes to paint and appreciates music and recently finished her term as a board member of the Lake Region Arts Council. She has raised five nearly-grown children with her husband Ron. 

Danielle Piraino
Danielle Piraino, Southeast RSDP

Danielle Piraino

Danielle Piraino joins the Partnerships in southeast, bringing a rich background in agriculture and food systems

“I was drawn to RSDP because the work is straightforward, solutions-oriented and deeply rooted in the voices of our communities,” she says. 

Piraino’s journey started in northern Illinois. Growing up, she watched as her hometown’s agricultural land was lost to development. Her frustrations about environmentalism eventually led Piraino to a land stewardship school in northern Wisconsin. Later, she moved to Vermont, where she studied environmental science with a focus on food, land and community. 

“I left Vermont with several years of organic vegetable production experience under my belt. Like many young and landless farmers, the reality of making a livable single income on market farming became difficult to navigate for me,” she recalls. “Instead, I dedicated my professional career to farming adjacent work with nonprofits.” 

Piraino landed in Minnesota in 2017 and today she lives in Northfield. Previously, she worked with Extension’s Agricultural and Natural Resource Systems, with The Food Group in New Hope and with Sharing Our Roots farm in Northfield. At Sharing Our Roots, she explored alternative land access models with emerging farmer groups.

Inspired by resiliency in all its forms, Piraino is eager to support RSDP in creative and culturally relevant solutions to challenging sustainability issues. 

“I'm really driven by the idea of 'place-making,’” she says. “I’m excited to learn from community members about what makes their communities unique and how I can help protect and uplift those things.”

In her free time, Piraino enjoys learning the landscape through biking or trail running, taking craft classes at the folk school in Grand Marais, working on projects at the makerspace in Dundas and knitting warm, wooly things!

Tracy Chaplin Meisterheim
Tracy Chaplin Meisterheim, Northeast RSDP

Tracy Chaplin Meisterheim

Northeast RSDP welcomes Tracy Chaplin to the team!

Chaplin served as program director/senior lecturer for the master’s in strategic leadership towards sustainability at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden for four years and holds that master’s degree. For over a decade, Tracy stewarded the global community practice known as “The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter,” and led related training around the world. She led the launch of the Sustainable Twin Ports Early Adopter Project from 2008-2010 in Duluth, training 20 organizations in strategic sustainable development. Most recently Tracy has worked as an independent consultant offering various services related to collaborative leadership.

Chaplin says she’s looking forward to a new adventure with RSDP.

“I’m ready to be working with a team again, ready to be more connected to this community, and looking for deeper local impact towards a more thriving future. When I read the job description, it felt like my work to do.”

Chaplin has lived all over the US and in both England and Sweden. Growing up, she was raised in a family that prioritized outdoor education. She spent her summers attending and later teaching at outdoor education camps, which powerfully guided the direction of her career. 

“I think I can still say that I’ve lived outdoors more than I’ve lived indoors in my lifetime!” she says.

Today, Chaplin is based in Duluth. She spends her time creating art, practicing meditation, organic gardening, enjoying local music, and playing with her Bernese Mountain Dog, Sylvie.

Emily Haeg Nguyen, February 2024

Emily Haeg Nguyen works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).

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