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Back in high school, Makenna Short had no plans for what to do after graduation. Her ADHD made classroom work challenging. She describes herself as "lost and unsure" about her future.

"One of the things that I always really struggled with was feeling very small in the world," said Short, who is now 25. As for a career, "I just knew I wanted to help people in some capacity, trying to make a difference. But it felt so far away."

Then she became involved with Spark-Y, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that educates young people, in school and beyond, through hands-on learning projects involving sustainability and entrepreneurship.

The Y stands for Youth, ages 6 to 24, and Spark-Y has served thousands of them: teaching public school students in classrooms and hiring them as paid interns or apprentices to work on real-world construction projects. The projects, developed through community partnerships, typically focus on urban agriculture or stormwater management and enhance science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) skills.

Short's ambition was sparked, so to speak, when Spark-Y showed her a way to accomplish her goal of making a difference in her community and set her on a new life course.

"It was such a different way to approach education than I was doing in lot of [traditional] classes," she said. "It gave me empowerment."

Short was involved in Spark-Y for years. She became an intern, leading the organization's construction of a sustainable, timber-framed picnic pavilion in Minneapolis' Beltrami Park. She met with city officials, "talking about zoning and permits and how to make a full pavilion structure using no nails" (timber framing uses traditional methods of building, with heavy timbers secured by wooden pegs).

After high school, Short attended the University of Winnipeg in Canada, earning a degree in environmental studies. Even then, she continued working for Spark-Y. "I just couldn't let it go," she said.

These days, Short is a senior council assistant in the city of Edmonton, Alberta, where she helps develop local community projects. But she still hasn't parted ways with Spark-Y. She currently sits on its board of directors.

"I love the organization so much," she said. "It gave me so much confidence that one person can make a difference — and that person could be me."

A symbiotic metaphor

As still more evidence of her loyalty to the Spark-Y program, Short has an aquaponics system in her home, a six-foot structure with a 90-gallon fish tank full of goldfish where she grows food such as microgreens and berries.

A similar system plays an important role in Spark-Y's mission.

A massive timber-framed aquaponics system is the centerpiece of Spark-Y's Urban Agriculture Lab, located in the restored 19th-century Casket Arts Building in northeast Minneapolis. Spark-Y's CEO and executive director, Zachary Robinson, calls it their "World Headquarters," with characteristic ambition.

Abigail Peters checks on plants in the aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Urban Ag Lab.
Abigail Peters checks on plants in the aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Urban Ag Lab.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Robinson, who is 40 and radiates exuberance, explains the student-built aquaponics system. As with Short's, its shelves are lined with edible greens and connected to a fish tank. Water circulates through the tank and the plants; fish waste feeds the plants and the plants clean the fish water.

The symbiotic system could serve as a metaphor for the structure of Spark-Y itself. Young people maintain the aquaponics system for paid job experience. The produce is harvested and sold to local co-ops, restaurants and community-supported agriculture programs. The sales help support the organization. The trained students go on to help reduce worker shortages.

The central objective, always, is changing young people's lives.

"We want to help youth that need it the most" by providing training that opens their minds to possibilities. "If they don't know what they want to do when they show up, usually there's that spark."

Spark-Y helps them build skills, self-confidence and ambition. It practices diversity to help narrow racial and economic achievement gaps. Recently, Spark-Y has started a Youth Pathways, a diversionary pilot program to reduce recidivism among juvenile offenders and encourage them to imagine a better future.

"I don't care if you got in a fight, got drunk, stole a car — what are you going to do going forward?" Robinson said of participants, whose charges can get dropped if they complete the program.

Spark-Y also works with experts who serve as mentors to the young people and can help them with future job opportunities.

"I had one kid that went on to start his own greens business," Robinson said. "We want to meet students where they're at, help them go forward to their destiny."

Guiding toward destinies

The word "destiny" pops up a lot in Robinson's conversation. Thoughts lead to words, he likes to say, and words lead to actions, which lead to character, which leads to destiny.

Robinson bounces enthusiastically from one concept or anecdote to another, often wrapping them around mini science lessons. Recently, he said, he visited a classroom where eighth-graders were preparing for a science fair. He asked one student how his project was coming along. The student told Robinson he hadn't done any of the assignments.

Spark-Y apprentice Nick Branton works on constructing a frame to serve as storage and plant habitat at Spark-Y's Urban Ag Lab.
Spark-Y apprentice Nick Branton works on constructing a frame to serve as storage and plant habitat at Spark-Y's Urban Ag Lab.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

So Robinson offered some quick examples, bounding from how the heart pumps blood that carries oxygen to cells, to how a potato can be used to power a lightbulb, and from there to cellphones and batteries and electric currents. The student was inspired to propose a scientific hypothesis.

"That's another way to inspire youth — create a connection that makes sense to them," he said. "For some reason our culture creates a vibration youth think is cool."

Robinson graduated from Indiana University's Kelly School of Business in 2006. After a brief stint as a policy intern for the state of Indiana, he moved to Minnesota, where in 2007 he cofounded a solar energy company and a Minneapolis hip-hop record label. He joined Spark-Y's board of directors at 24, moving to operations director and becoming its executive director in 2013.

Robinson and Spark-Y have won a number of awards, including an Environmental Initiative Award and a Rising Young Professionals award from Minnesota Finance & Commerce, both in 2020, and this year a Community Impact Award from Twin Cities Business.

Spark-Y has partnered with private companies such as Cargill, Lube-Tech and the Royal Bank of Canada, public entities including the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, Hennepin County and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization.

For the past four years, Minnetonka-based Cargill has supported Spark-Y with a $50,000 annual grant, along with the other volunteer and mentoring efforts.

"When we see the passion that someone like Zach brings, that's when it gets exciting," said Andy Joehl, trading lead for Cargill's North America Food Solutions team."We have a lot of trust in Zach himself, as a person."

A Spark-Y raised garden bed is under construction outside its 'World Headquarters' in Minneapolis.
A Spark-Y raised garden bed is under construction outside its 'World Headquarters' in Minneapolis.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Staffers from Spark-Y spent a number of years teaching a classroom program at Edison High School in Minneapolis called Edible Agriculture School Yard Professionals (EASYPRO).

"In terms of the effectiveness for engaging students and getting students to think outside traditional experiences, I think it's really effective," said Principal Eryn Warne.

Spark-Y projects this year include installing a rain garden at Eastside Neighborhood Services, planting a roof garden at the Mississippi Watershed Management headquarters, facilitating a STEM camp for kids ages 8 to 14, building an outdoor oven at the nonprofit WEE Farm (Wellness and Education for Everyone) in Savage, and filling planters at Minneapolis City Hall.

"This is the future of how all public works could happen," Robinson said.

But again, the organization's symbiotic efficiency is a side benefit — the main goal is preparing young people for their futures.

"We really just want kids to be able to chart their own destiny," he said.