Educator Story: Spark-Y Youth Activation Lab

Zach Robinson, Executive Director of Spark-Y.

Zach Robinson, Executive Director of Spark-Y.

Spark-Y, Youth Action Labs
 
4432 Chicago Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55407 

You can stop by their offices to take a peek at the different aquaponics set-ups, mushroom cultivation kits, vermacomposting projects (yes, the stuff with worms!) and say hi to some of the best humans you’ll ever meet!

If food is more of your thing, stop by Gandhi Mahal and enjoy some delicious produce grown right from their new aquaponics system Spark-Y built and installed this summer

Inside Spark-Y's headquarters. 

Inside Spark-Y's headquarters. 

Tell us one interesting fact about where we are.

Well Spark-Y’s office used to be Amazon Book Store, which was a woman’s bookstore and the building we’re next to is a woman’s health and legal services center for rehabilitation. Because of that, this location has got a strong, feminine mother earth energy going on which I think is kinda cool, so that’s an interesting fact hopefully.

Spark-Y Interns working on various projects inside the lab.

Spark-Y Interns working on various projects inside the lab.

Tell us about your operation.

Mary Hellen Franze founded Spark-Y (then called YEA Corps) in 2009 and we also established our 501C3 standing then. We started out by doing a youth garden program and I was a founding board member. Later in 2011, we basically started what really is the programming today. We started with a partnership school at the Minnesota internship center and that was amazing. We did the first prototype aquaponic project and it just kinda spiraled and took off from there. Essentially every year since then we’ve not only doubled financially but also operationally as well.

2011 is also the year we launched our summer internship which is about 20-25 interns, high school and college age that come together to do awesome community based sustainability projects, agricultural projects and organizational building so like grant writing, curriculum writing, things like that. This means they’re gaining these awesome entrepreneurial job skills at the same time as they’re learning about sustainability and what it’s really going to take for us to step up to start to protect the earth. Basically that’s an overview of where we’re at and we do. The real goal, the real mission for us is to empower and inspire youth.

The hands on systems that we are building are the vehicles for this experience, once you go through that, it changes you. I’ve seen it in their (the youths) eyes at every single school site. It’s cool as well because with these hands on project, they can be adapted to any age and it can also serve any demographic and socio-economic status. Right now we’re in say the more affluent Zoo School and also in North Minneapolis and at the end of the day, ALL of our youth are actually so much the alike! We tend put labels on this but they are all just amazing, bright and ready to go once you authentically engage and respect them. They’re doing something they want to do - so you know it’s not just memorizing facts and regurgitating them on a test. We’re hopeful that inspiring youth with sustainability is the path to changing the world.

Zach covering announcements and action Items with the interns.

Zach covering announcements and action Items with the interns.

What are you most proud of this season?

So this school year was our biggest school year, we had five school partnerships and five on a wait list. As any organization starts to grow, you need figure out how you’re going to continue that growth and maintain everything moving forward.

A couple awesome highlights from this year was that the Timberwolves foundation gave us a donation so myself and Travon who is one of our stars from North Minneapolis, got to go out and get a check from Crunch at the Timberwolves game. We got our own suite and it was just really cool that they recognized the work and our youth. It was a really fun experience.

I’m also super proud of our mushroom cultivation kits. I think they could be huge for us because we’ll probably sell them for a little more than a traditional mushroom kit but we do that to fuel our youth to do this work. They’re actually inoculating substrate with mycelium to make this educational mushroom kit. When you buy a kit like that, not only do you get the awesome yumminess and coolness of culinary mushrooms - that are by the way a Minnesota Native Oyster strain, but you’re really funding the process behind this really cool product, I’m super excited about that.

I just get really excited about everything that we’re doing though so I’m proud of all of it.

Test set-up in Spark-Y's headquarter.

Test set-up in Spark-Y's headquarter.

How did you become involved in this work and what drives you to do it?

I got involved through the path that a lot of people seem to find now which is a weird synchronistic mix of events that lead me here…

When I graduated from college in late 2006 early 2007 I did an internship with the Indiana State Senate and also a renewable energy technology company out of Indianapolis. That experience inspired me to start the solar company that I now co-own and run, Green Circuit and through that we did a photovoltaic project through Hennepin County, I started going to these networking events. At one of the networking events I met the founder of Spark-Y Mary Hellen Franze, we started talking and she had this idea about a youth empowerment organization that she wanted to start and she asked me to be a board member. I said that would be great, I’m not on a board yet and this is pretty good. So once we got on the board we started doing a youth project garden in Edina.

Around this time, my good friend Ayan (Hargrove) told me about what Erica Allen, Will Allen from Growing Powers’ daughter, was up to in Chicago with aquaponics. I thought, this is so cool, I’m doing this non-profit thing right now and we need another project and so we took that idea of using aquaponics as an educational vehicle for empowering youth and that’s really where it came to fruition. Ayan and I designed everything about the project, I thought of the curriculum, the processes we have and designed, the 5 E’s of sustainability (Environment, Economy, Equity, Education, and Empowerment). I guess the rest is history as they say, that’s how we got into it.

I started doing this as a volunteer and in 2012 I told the board 20-30 hours as a volunteer was unsustainable so I just asked for a job and they gave me one, it was a big risk, but it was an amazing thing.

Spark-Y Student made mushroom growing kit.

Spark-Y Student made mushroom growing kit.

What are the biggest challenges you face or are currently facing this year?

For Spark-Y the biggest challenge is also kind of a good thing. I mean right now we’ve got a ton of demand that we can’t serve. Several school programs, administrators, teachers and even just interested private individuals and corporations that want to see this happen. The typical growing pains any organization or business faces along with constant fundraising needs are our biggest challenges.

We’re like wow! We’ve got all this demand but now we’ve got to figure out how to serve it and still be sustainable so I don’t think we take the road that a typical 501C3 or non-profit takes where it’s just donations or it’s just charitable grants and things like that. We’re doing revenue-based models, which are a concept of sustainability, you have to be self-sustaining, generate revenue and take care of yourself so that’s why we charge program fees. We’re also developing ways to sell produce that we’re making in our labs and also other ideas like the vermacomposting systems and the mushroom kits. In a nutshell, I would say our biggest challenge is serving the demand and then making sure we’re capable of meeting that demand financially.

Students working out the details of a Vermacomposting system, capable of composting a large portion of a restaurants waste.

Students working out the details of a Vermacomposting system, capable of composting a large portion of a restaurants waste.

How can people support what you’re doing?

So there are a couple of ways. First thing is, just let people know about us, if they’re really excited about what we do, let people know. A more direct way would be to get one of these kits, because if you have a vermacomposting kit in your house you’re diverting waste. Hennepin county estimates that about 30% of all household waste is compostable so if you’ve got a vermacomposting kit in your house that is breaking down organic food waste you are going to help renew the earth's topsoil which is a huge global problem but you’re also mimicking what nature does as well by not land filling your waste.

The kit not only helps you, but it’s going to help fund our organization, it’s a great way to have this win-win situation going. The mushroom kit will do the same thing - and an even a more direct way to help us is to simply make a donation.

I’m willing to meet with anyone anytime about partnerships and about bigger opportunities that might come around. The main programs that we do are the flagship school programs which is a year long, integrated, full circle program where we build the hands on systems, not just aquaponics but the vermacomposting and spiralina mushroom systems as well and the internship. Those are our two main programs and then all year we’ve got what I call the operations team and it’s a mix of staff and volunteers – youth teaching youth. So it’s like college age youth going in to high schools to teach them. So if you’re interested in just volunteering or supporting, that’s another great way to get involved in one of those three areas.

Fish swimming in the Aquaponic system. 

Fish swimming in the Aquaponic system. 

What do you think is currently missing from your community?

Oh wow. I feel like… this is weird but I feel like there is a sense of community missing from community. I don’t know if that makes sense but there’s a separation that somehow happened between not only nuclear families but also how families connect. It’s starting to come back but I just like a common interest and a feeling of connectedness in that what I do to you effects me and if I help you I help me and I help my family.

I recently went on my honeymoon to Peru and the Inca there have a Chicana which is a powerful indigenous symbol that represents all sorts of levels of their culture but the three principles of it were the yung-chi, yung-ki, and mo-nai, they’re kinda the basic governing principles of the culture. The first one is, if I help you, you help me, like I scratch your back, you scratch mine and to me, that principle right there, is the one missing from community.

Here in America, there’s this disconnect from a lot of the ancient human wisdom we’ve ever had because 300 years ago it was cut off. So now we’re not practicing these principles anymore and that’s why I think a lot of people are feeling empty inside and quitting their jobs, because they know at the core that what they are working towards might not really be worth anything.

Water filtration system, dripping water to feed tomato plants.

Water filtration system, dripping water to feed tomato plants.

What qualities do you think it takes to be a farmer?

My favorite quality of a farmer is that a farmer can be synonymous with a warrior. I’ll tell you this connection because it’s really close to me personally. So I do Aikido, which is a Japanese martial art that translates into the path of harmonizing energy. The founder of Aikido, a man named O-Sensei, coincidentally who the character Yoda was based off of so you could picture this guy, he said that farming is budo - and budo literally in Japanese means to halt the thrust of a blade but it also means to preserve and cultivate life.

Who better to preserve and cultivate life than a farmer? If you’re talking about budo as defense and protection of the people, it’s so close to a farmer. So this man was considered one of the greatest martial artists ever but he was a farmer too.

Also just the hard work of my grandpa as a farmer, I was born in Iowa and my grandpa was a farmer my entire life, he would wake up at sunrise or 2-3 hours before and then go to bed after sunset and that was his life you know, he worked the land and had this amazing relationship that a lot of us are unplugged from. So I guess those are my favorite qualities of a farmer.

School of fish in Spark-Y's tank.

School of fish in Spark-Y's tank.

What gives you the most hope for the future?

I don’t have hope for the future. I have faith and knowing for the future. I think Faith is a much better word than hope because hope implies maybe not, that maybe things wont go right. What gives me faith for the future is you, it’s me, it’s everyday doing my best to try to make the world a better place and if I can do that, anyone can do that. And in fact so many people are doing that and it’s really this amazing thing.

 

Seeing all these kids click when you’re in the classroom and you say what is the strongest material pound for pound on this earth and they say “diamonds”, “rocks” “steel” and steel is the strongest material that man makes and they make it in a huge oven at thousands and thousands of degrees, but nope the strongest pound for pound material is spider silk made at body temperature from a bacterial and fungal reaction so now scientists study that and say we’re going to make bridges out of that. You tell a young man or a young woman that and it clicks – that “oooh” that right there is faith for the future. Our youth are our future, literally, figuratively; anyway you want to cut it. So that gives me faith.

 

What are your favorite sources of strength and nourishment?

Well there’s lots of ways to look at it. I think my wife she’s my rock, she’s my everything, I love her, I’ve been with her for 10 years. Definitely aikido, just training and connecting with other people in that way charges my battery for sure and on the literal level for nourishment – what’s the first thing you do when you’re born and the last thing you do before you die? Breathe. That’s the nourishment we need every minute but it’s such an amazing thing to consider: It’s a way to connect with ourselves and it’s also what we need to get oxygen to all of our cells, which is a cool connection to nourishment. My family and my work also charge me up and who can resist some amazing food as well?