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Grand Marais as an Incubator. Blandin as a Catalyst.

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Anne Brataas spent her childhood camping across rural Minnesota, most memorably in and around Ely. Years later, as a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune, she would report on the contentious efforts to designate that great, wild swath of northern Minnesota as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Her adoration for the Arrowhead only grew and finally, in 2015, she relocated to Grand Marais.

“Those camping trips, just being in the woods. That’s what I loved. That was formative,” Anne explained. “When I reunited with the north woods as a young reporter during the protests, I just loved the spirit of the folks up here. ‘We don’t want to be a playground for people from the Cities. We have a lifestyle up here. We clawed out a life here, and this is not an easy place to be. Try it in the winter sometime.’ I just loved that ethos.”

Growing up around the energy of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Anne’s passion for science and nature came quickly and naturally. So when she moved to Grand Marais, she expanded on her already varied and accomplished career – as a reporter, science and technical writer, researcher, curriculum developer, visual communicator and author – through her science writing consultancy and turned more of her attention and energy to working with young kids.

“People erroneously think that children cannot write stories. They are super smart, capable and willing. The one thing kindergarten to fourth graders can’t do is physically write or type very well,” Anne explained in describing her time working for the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth’s summer enrichment programs in St. Paul as a master teacher for 20 years. “But I know their potential. They can tell stories better than most adults. So I became a scribe for their ideas and stories, and I did that for 20 years, helping kids voice their ideas in children’s newspapers.”

And that was the lightbulb for Anne in moving to a smaller community. “I started thinking, what if we had a nonprofit where we really start doing that all the time? That felt like my calling. You’re in a place that’s small enough. That’s the beauty of Grand Marais — it’s like a little incubator. A natural one. I can see everyone I need to see in an hour. I didn’t know this kind of community intimacy growing up, and I just love it. That you can make stuff happen. So that’s what I started doing.”

Anne launched Minnesota Children’s Press in 2018 and, with the help of three different Blandin Foundation grants, has connected her community in new, creative ways. “I wanted kids visible in the community so people could see and respect them as agents of creativity and agents of positive things, not just life forms waiting to grow up and become something interesting. They are interesting today, and they are capable today,” she shared.

“I have such gratitude and respect for Blandin. Their grant opportunities have always been super creative, soliciting ‘innovative’ or ‘unusual’ ideas. There’s always a little twist nudging you towards ‘think bigger about what people really need.’ And I really appreciate that.”

And when it came to those grant opportunities, Anne always considered children first.

Broadband Innovation Grant (2017) → Kids’ Online Civic News Service

Anne sought to help rural kids overcome the digital skills opportunity gap by creating an innovative, broadband-based, kids’ civic digital news service on the website they built: In addition to a successful news service launch, Anne and the kids attended Broadband Day on the Hill in St. Paul, with one child, Sammie Garrity, then 11, testifying in front of the legislature about how her classmates who live up the Gunflint without broadband have to sit in their parents cars outside the library in town in order to use the internet to complete their homework. Now 18 and in her first year of college, Sammie is already an associate opinion page editor at the Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Arrowhead Intelligent Regions Program Grant (2021) → Trash Museum and Mapping Project

This Blandin grant asked applicants to bring a creative problem solving mentality to address community problems differently. In downtown Grand Marais, there is often excess trash during the summer months – coffee cups and ice cream containers and pizza boxes – as the bins aren’t big enough. Anne and her team of elementary students set to collecting – literally picking and sorting trash! – and mapping what parts of town collected the most trash. First, they displayed it in a trash museum so the community could learn about the community problem and the creativity of children. Then, they took their litter map to the city council to help inform the implementation of litter prevention and keep the town and lake clean.

Boost Grant (2022) – Letteracy Desk

This Blandin Boost Grant cycle sought creative placemaking projects that bolstered arts, culture, natural resources, creativity, and created opportunities for people to come together and feel connected, invested and proud of where they live. Anne’s idea invited residents and visitors to stop along the shore of Lake Superior, put down their phones, and write a letter — to whomever they wished, about anything they wished. She and her group of children writers and helpers facilitated the mailing of more than 3,000 cards in the first three months.

The Letteracy Deck idea that Blandin seeded is expanding in its second year to provide visitors even more engagement with Cook County’s sense of place. Letteracy Deck will be based on the Cook County History Museum deck, and  will include children co-creating a pop-up history mini-museum: “A History of Grand Marais Letters” highlighting early letters to and from Grand Marais, as well as the pioneering contributions to community-building made by the Ojibwe mail carrier John Beargrease.

“Anne is the embodiment of placemaking: collecting and generating ideas and connecting people, bringing them along with an idea, from concept to implementation and onto the next iteration,” explained Mary Magnuson, Rural Placemaking Grants Program Officer at Blandin Foundation. “These kinds of changemaking and community building efforts are great examples of Blandin’s focus on rural placemaking, small communities and fostering collaborations.”

Blandin Foundation has been catalyzing ideas like Anne’s and supporting the future of Grand Marais since 1981. From developing alternative education programming and conducting land use plans, to operationalizing a biomass heating system and developing cultural public broadcast programming, Blandin Foundation has provided 22 grants to the area totaling nearly $700,000. In addition, four broadband initiatives with Cook County over a six-year period increased connectivity in the region, and 51 community members participated in six different Blandin Leadership Program cohorts between 1996 and 2016. Read more about this decades-long community-foundation partnership.

Where do Anne and Grand Marais go from here? Wherever the curiosity of children and the needs of nature take them, Anne says. “A professor and mentor of mine once encouraged me to say yes to everything that doesn’t hurt you or other people. Those are words I have and will continue to live by.”

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