Ana Munro

Ana Munro smiling by creekJune 2023 – Ana Munro’s two youngest children are enrolled at Highlands Elementary School, and her family has had five other students pass through public schools. She feels enormously grateful for the outdoor enrichment programming offered through Highlands – but can’t help but notice a regrettable trend. 

“Locally, our schools do a nice job arranging away camps for elementary kids and their families. As students grow into middle and high schoolers, though, these same valuable opportunities tend to fade away.” Moreover, the programs that are available for those age levels tend to be cost prohibitive for many would-be campers. 

Munro is by no means the only Edina parent to notice this discrepancy, but she has a unique vantage point on the phenomenon. Munro is a Global and Cultural Studies faculty member at North Hennepin Community College (NHCC), and a vocal supporter for the kinds of learning that can only take place outdoors.

“Nature is so important to me. It’s a source of joy and rejuvenation,” she explained. “For years now, I’ve really wanted to explore ways to bring Twin Cities students outside to experience nature for themselves.”  

NHCC provided Munro the springboard to do exactly that. In 2015, she co-created and piloted a traveling immersion program geared toward high school and college students with Native American ancestry. “We took [participants] to different reservations in Minnesota and Wisconsin to learn about tribal history from Indigenous leaders.”

COVID-19 forced an abrupt halt to the initiative, but also proved an unexpected catalyst for expanding Munro’s vision. 

During the pandemic, “I attended a Zoom workshop put together by the YMCA,” she shared. “The YMCA had done some research with the University of Minnesota on equity gaps for people of color in Minnesota.” Among other disparities, this research brought into sharp focus that “Y camps, and especially overnight and family camps, are used predominantly by white upper- and upper-middle-class people.”

Drawing inspiration and confidence from the successful NHCC initiative, Munro approached YMCA of the North about partnering on an inclusive and sustainable outdoor immersion program. Camp Northern Lights in Babbitt proved particularly receptive to the idea. 

In its original incarnation, the Environmental Justice and Nature Immersion Program (EJNIP) enrolled a cohort of students from four school districts (including Edina Public Schools) in a credit-bearing class anchored by a five-day travel experience. 

Munro led the crafting of a curriculum which, as the name suggests, focused on environmental justice and ecological stewardship. “Students learn about threats to the Boundary Waters from proposed mining operations … as well as metro issues, like the health costs of the [Hennepin Energy Recovery Center] trash incinerator on our downtown community.”

Munro enlisted speakers and other curriculum support from a network of Minnesota organizations, all of which share her vision for clean natural spaces which can be appreciated by and are accessible to everyone. These included the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and – a camp favorite – the International Wolf Center.

“The Wolf Center was a highlight. Students learned about wolf tracking and telemetry at Camp Northern Lights, as well as the Ojibwe relationship with the wolf,” Munro shared. 

In addition to proving popular with students and partners, the inaugural EJNIP experiment met with approval from funders. Munro and NHCC will not just continue this class in Fall 2023, but expand offerings thanks to a dynamic grant portfolio contributed by the Minnesota DNR, Education Minnesota Foundation and the Minnesota Humanities Center, among others. 

Munro is particularly excited to supplement the existing model with an overnight camp closer to the metro – this one without the expectations that come with a college curriculum and credits.

“Later this summer, we’re taking a group of Edina middle and high schools to a Three Rivers Park location in Baker,” she said. 

Activities will include camp staples like canoeing, campfires and plant identification. However, much like with the NHCC course, the nucleus will be education around conservation and cultural heritage.

Registration has already outstripped Munro’s expectations by 50 percent. Only a small handful have ever gone camping before.

“School is all hustle and bustle and requires assignments and grading that can feel punitive to some,” Munro said. She’s confident that students from all walks of life will find the EJNIP a welcome change of pace.