MPIRG at 40

MPIRG – Minnesota Public Interest Research Group MPIRG Board Chair Kathy Dekrey testifies against lifting the nuclear power moratorium in the house environment committee.

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When Kathy Dekray, current Board Chair of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), and a senior at Augsburg College recently testified before the Legislature she argued against the removal of the nuclear moratorium in Minnesota.   She was the most recent in an endless list of MPIRG representatives who have expressed the position of MPIRG student members on scores of issues facing the state.

More than 150 members, former members and supporters of MPIRG gathered on Friday, January 21, to celebrate four decades of advocacy and involvement through this “grassroots, non-artisan, nonprofit, student-directed organization”.  The occasion gives Executive Director Josh Winters pause to reflect on the origins and future of MPIRG.

What Winters sees is change.  The Minnesota public interest research group, along with Oregon, were the first two campus-based public interest research groups.  Though the beginnings are often associated with Ralph Nader, Winters is quick to credit others, including Don Ross, who took a good idea and made it happen.  “A good idea is a good idea, but it takes people to do it,” Winters observes.

An intriguing question Winters raises is just how did a small cadre of students, volunteers and others create a statewide – actually national – network in a pre-social media environment.  The answer, he affirms, must be based in a deep commitment to grassroots organizing coupled with a shared vision to give voice to everyone.  That commitment is expressed in the mission of MPIRG to “empower and train students and engage the community to take collective action in the public interest throughout the state of Minnesota.”

Today some 70,000 Minnesota college students are members of MPIRG;  the ranks are augmented by hundreds of community volunteers, including many MPIRG alumni.

MPIRG operates on nine campuses throughout the state:  Augsburg College, Carleton College, St. Catherine University, Hamline University, Macalester College, U of M-Duluth, U of M-Morris, U of M-Twin Cities, and William Mitchell College of Law. The individual campus-based websites reflect a wide range of individual campus activities.

Campuses offer a mix of membership options, most in the refusable/refundable range, thus avoiding past conflict re. mandatory membership that at times have pitted campus conservative groups against MPIRG which they perceived as too far left of center – or organization that reject mandatory memberships out of hand.

The current statewide identified issues on which MPIRG members and volunteers are working include green transportation, health care for all, and affordable higher education. The roster of scores of issues tackled over the years range from solar tax credit to car lemon laws to a 2006 production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

An ongoing priority for MPIRG members is voter registration and involvement.  Clearly, students are focused on, but not limited to, youth engagement in the political process.

In Fall 2010 MPIRG was one of several organizations involved with what Star Tribune journalist Eric Roper referred to as “a minor battle of generations” brewing in Minnesota politics.  College students gathered at the State Capitol to express their concerns. Speaking as an MPIRG representative Carleton College student Ben Hellerstein raised the question “With only half as many people turning out to the polls, is everyone’s voice really being heard?”

Roper reflects on a number of factors students perceive to leave college students left out of the political arena.  The moved-up primary, for example, meant students were at work or out of the country.  Another issue cited by students is the fact that candidates’ tendency to court over-60 voters may ignore attention to students.

Winters overflows with ideas as he looks to the future – how to harness today’s social media without losing the essential “hands on” essence of the organization.   He speaks enthusiastically about community/campus based initiatives, e.g.  a research-based approach to mandatory business recycling in Minneapolis.

Another priority for tomorrow’s MPIRG is research, particularly in-depth and long-term research. At present, for example, MPIRG is initiating an extensive survey of photo ID on voting.  Another ongoing longitudinal survey focuses on a statewide survey of sexual violence and assault on campus; the report of that study is due out next fall

The recent 40th anniversary recognition offered an opportunity for today’s students and advocates to reflect on the legacy of MPIRG.  Students could learn about the roots of the organization, its accomplishments, changes and intent.  For alumni the event was an occasion to see how their legacy is being carried forward by ambitious and committed students equipped with new tools and putting them to the task of sharing a the vision of “common sense good policies.”

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