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RSDP executive director brings artistic approach to solving local sustainability challenges

Andi Sutton is the executive director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

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Andi Sutton
Contributed / Richard Sutton
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A year after she began her role as executive director of the Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership at the University of Minnesota, Andi Sutton finally got the chance to see other UMN Extension colleagues in person.

Sutton, who works with rural communities to connect UMN resources to help solve local sustainability challenges, was able to meet other Extension workers in person for the first time earlier this month, at a conference set up for them to connect and network.

“It was the first time everyone at University Minnesota Extension got together since COVID,” she said of the conference. “I think that was huge for me.”

Through her role, Sutton leads a regional board of directors and works with local entities, including farmers, to create and sustain partners across Southeast Minnesota, with the goal being to connect local sustainability projects to research, education and resources through the university.

Southeast RSDP is one of five regions of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. RSDP works in four focus areas: sustainable agriculture and food systems, clean energy, natural resources and resilient communities.

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University of Minnesota Extension Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships board of directors meet at farm in Northfield, Minn. Pictured are Lisa Dierks, Jane Olive, Sheila Craig, Chris Danner, Alex Christensen, Josie Trople and Rocky Casillas.<br/>
Contributed / Andi Sutton

Sutton grew up on a homestead in Victoria, Minnesota, in Carver County. On her mom's side of the family, she had uncles and aunts who were full-time farmers in Kansas, and her parents were hobby farmers who worked fulltime off the farm. Growing up, she said they raised berries to make wine, as well as bees, chickens and produce.

She watched as her mom, who’s a teacher, shared farming traditions with family and friends through collaborative events like berry picking, harvesting and making honey.

“Sort of like an education on where food comes from and for the community,” she said.

Before finding her way back to Minnesota, Sutton worked across sectors in higher education institutions on issues of agriculture, food and water. Most recently she worked at the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she directed global outreach and managed funding and other initiatives supporting sustainability research collaborations.

Sutton brings an artistic perspective to her Extension role, with past works by her shown in prestigious places such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Universidad Nacional in Bogota, Colombia, along with other galleries across the country.

She describes her work as art that can be used to create alternative models for community and social engagement.

Projects led by RSDP are 100% community-led but Sutton hopes RSDP can provide resources to rural residents and farmers looking to tap into their more creative side.

“When you're talking about sustainability, there are so many ways to bring people into the vocabulary, and there's a lot of room for creative expression and art in doing that,” said Sutton.

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Creative expression is a tool for sustainability as well as growing stronger rural communities, said Sutton.

“What I do see in southeast Minnesota is a lot of artists and makers and in rural Minnesota, where there's a lot of artists making a lot of inspiring projects,” said Sutton. “And so I think there's already rich, fertile ground for connecting, you know, community driven projects that connect art, sustainability,”

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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