MPR News’ memorable stories from 2021

People smile and cheer.
In Oakdale, Olympic gymnast Sunisa Lee’s sister Shyenne Lee reacts as she watched Sunisa win the Olympic gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around on July 29.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Minnesotans could be forgiven for seeing 2021 as an unhappy rerun of 2020. COVID-19 continued to make daily life difficult. Communities still grappled with police shootings and calls to address racial injustice.

Still, amid the year’s struggles Minnesota saw a homegrown Olympian make history, and people found ways to connect and rebuild in a world searching for a path back to normal.

MPR News reporters covered joys and concerns across Minnesota in 2021. Here’s a look at some of the stories they felt compelled to tell.

Hope, resilience at White Earth amid pandemic

A man sits in his office chair next to a somewhat cluttered desk
Dr. Carson Gardner, medical director of the White Earth Nation’s tribal health department, has helped lead the fight against COVID on the tribe’s northern Minnesota reservation.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2019

Native nations in Minnesota were able to manage the early months of the coronavirus pandemic with relatively few cases and deaths, but that all changed in early fall.

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Dr. Carson Gardner, medical director of the White Earth Nation’s tribal health department, offered an honest description of what it was like to be in the midst of COVID-19 in Indian Country, where resources are limited. Listening became one of his most important tools.

“While we're social distancing and mask-wearing, we still talk to each other,” Gardner said. “We talk about problems and frustrations. We laugh together. We cry together.”

— Dan Gunderson, Moorhead

In Minneapolis, a ‘safe space' to process trauma after George Floyd’s murder

A woman sits at the end of a row of purple chairs.
Pastor Jalilia A-Brown inside of Shiloh Temple International Ministries on March 12.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Shiloh Temple started offering counseling and other services for community members at the start of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis cop convicted of murder in the 2020 killing of George Floyd while in police custody.

This story was an example of ongoing community efforts to help heal from generational traumas that were highlighted again by Floyd’s killing. I appreciated these individuals opening up about how they felt during a time of collective pain and grief in Minnesota.

— Nina Moini, Minneapolis

Dessa on making art in a pandemic

A woman poses for a photo.
Writer, singer and podcaster Dessa on a south Minneapolis rooftop on April 2.
Euan Kerr | MPR News file

Several years ago my talented colleague Chris Roberts told me I should always remember that while Dessa is recognized as a performer, the core of her being is as a writer. She has proved this time and again, not least with her memoir "My Own Devices," which mixed stories of touring with the neuroscience of falling in, and out, of love.

So getting Dessa's take on the pandemic and how she had kept things together during performance lockdowns just made sense.

We borrowed space on a rooftop in Uptown Minneapolis with a view of the city and sat down for a socially distanced interview using my 10-foot boom-pole microphone. And as happens every time I do an interview, I came away with a slightly different view of the world.

— Euan Kerr, Minneapolis

Student mural captures difficult senior year

Two students work on a mural.
South High School students Azalea Anderson (left) and Olivia Sather (right) work on different parts of a mural commemorating the year following George Floyd's murder inside of the Casket Arts Building in Minneapolis on May 26.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Megan Burks, producer of MPR News’ All Things Considered, had been working with these South High students through the year to tell the story of George Floyd Square and its people.

It was great to meet up with the students and document the way they were putting their own experiences of a tumultuous year into the creative process of the mural project.

— Tom Crann, host of All Things Considered

A year of rebuilding a Minneapolis neighborhood

A woman in an orange stands in front of a green sign.
Alicia Smith, Executive Director at Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, at the Midtown Farmers Market on May 22.
Nicole Neri for MPR News, file

Near the epicenter of protests launched in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, organizations in one pocket of Minneapolis worked to build a better, more just community.

Residents, community organizers and business owners in Longfellow took a look at where their neighborhood was and where they want it to be. Institutions shifted their missions, vowing to rebuild in a way that prioritizes both public safety and equity. 

— Jon Collins, Minneapolis

In Pequot Lakes, a school battle over race, equity

The outside of a school building on a sunny evening.
Teacher training around race and diversity became a flashpoint this year at Pequot Lakes High School.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News file

This story took me several weeks to report. I started working on it at a time when a lot of different districts were experiencing conflict at school board meetings about masks or curricula. A few people reached out to tell me about their situation.

Prior to 2019 or 2020, I don’t think I’d really heard much of the term “critical race theory,” so a lot of behind-the-scenes work for this story was spent trying to make sure I understood what CRT actually was, as well as understanding the very different ways these two opposing groups in Pequot Lakes defined and understood the term.

I tried to ground this story in actual experiences — reporting on discrimination or finding ways that peoples’ concerns about CRT were or were not actually having an effect in the district.

I loved reporting this, and I loved visiting Pequot Lakes. I’m so thankful to all the people there who shared their concerns, experiences and opinions.

— Elizabeth Shockman, St. Paul

COVID still killing unvaccinated, vulnerable; world moves on

A hand holds a book with a photo of a man at a dining table.
Michelle Gordon-Stroh holds a photo book showing a photo of her late husband Patrick Stroh at the home they shared in Prior Lake on July 29.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

This story still breaks my heart every time.

This was in the summer lull when we thought COVID was over, and yet we were recording deaths every day.

I wanted to talk to someone who had lost a loved one as the world was starting to move on, and Michelle Stroh reached out to me out of the blue about losing her husband to COVID.

— Catharine Richert, Rochester

Trailblazing theater group remembered as founder battled cancer

A newspaper clipping with a photo of people with masks.
Veronica Mendez looks through an album of memorabilia from Teatro Latino, which was founded by her mother Ana Maria Mendez in the 1980s.
Nicole Neri for MPR News, file

Ana Maria Mendez helped found Teatro Latino, a groundbreaking Minneapolis theater company that began in 1981 and staged its last play nearly two decades later.

As Mendez battled terminal cancer this year, her daughter wanted to make sure everything her mother accomplished was remembered.

Ana Maria Mendez died at age 74 in July.

— Vicki Adame, Minneapolis

Tears, cheers as Suni Lee wins Olympic gold

The Tokyo Olympics transformed St. Paul’s Sunisa Lee into an international star. Her family was crucial to that effort, and watching them watch her was amazing.

Gathered in Oakdale, a crowd of more than 200 family and friends cheered as the 18-year-old nailed the vault, then the uneven bars — Lee’s strength. They watched (some between their fingers) as Lee stumbled a bit on the balance beam, but recovered.

She sailed easily through her floor routine, and as her closest competitor stepped out of bounds on the floor, the excitement grew in the room.

And then the scores came. Lee had won the gold medal.

— Peter Cox, St. Paul

In Duluth, closing the 'adventure gap'

A young girl goes rock climbing.
Nine-year-old Ryleigh Robinson ascends a rock face at Ely's Peak on Aug. 20 in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News, file

This story has all the elements that, to me, make a great public radio story. There are strong characters who are working hard to solve a problem they’re passionate about. There’s an interesting scene that helps to tell the story and transports listeners there with lots of sound.

It’s a story that really highlights the strong sense of place that people have for northeastern Minnesota — in this case the outdoor activities like climbing and biking that draw many people here.

It also sheds light on an important issue a lot of people might not be aware of — how public entities are pouring money into developing these outdoor recreation amenities, but at the same time, how participation in these activities remains overwhelmingly white, even as the state grows more diverse.

This quote from Dave Pagel really gets at the essence of the story: “With this development comes a moral obligation to make sure that everyone in the city can enjoy those amenities,” Pagel said. “We have to make sure that these don't become corridors of privilege.”

— Dan Kraker, Duluth

Hmong Minnesotans see parallels in Afghan refugee crisis

A man with his arms crossed stands in a room of Hmong artifacts.
Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul on Sept. 23.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

For many, the United States’ evacuation from Afghanistan in August 2021 drew painful memories. To those in the Hmong community, seeing the Afghan people fleeing the Kabul airport brought them back to the Secret War in Laos.

Some intimately described their memories escaping persecution and genocide, growing up in refugee camps and assimilating into the U.S. after their journey.

This story specifically stuck with me as a reminder of how much refugees are still affected by policy and war, even decades after. The long-lasting impacts can be heard and seen from those directly affected, and from the further removed generations of young Hmong Americans, who are trying to understand what happened to their elders and piecing together their own history and identity.

As Kao Kalia Yang so powerfully put in our interview, “The Afghanistan story is the Afghanistan story. The Hmong story is the Hmong story. But they have a whole lot more in common that many of us are comfortable with. Because history repeats itself. Because we are told to our faces, that whatever lessons may have been there, those lessons were not learned.”

— Hannah Yang, New Ulm

In St. Cloud, students seize chance to hone native Somali language skills

Two people stand for a photo.
Ahmed Jama (left) and Munira Ahmed are two of about 40 students in the St. Cloud school district taking a yearlong Somali language course for native speakers. The two Tech High School students say they hope to improve their Somali reading and writing skills and learn more about their cultural identity.
Courtesy of Ryan Unger, St. Cloud Area School District

I’d heard about the St. Cloud school district starting a Somali language class for native speakers and was intrigued. Instead of the usual focus on teaching recent immigrants English, this course helps Somali American students improve their multilingual skills, reconnect with their heritage and cultural identity, and keep their native language alive.

Reporting this story was a challenge because the school district wasn’t allowing any outside visitors due to COVID-19. I was able to interview one of the course’s instructors and two students via Zoom. They were open and willing to share their histories and what they’re hoping to gain from the course.

Since this story aired, the St. Cloud school district has decided to offer Somali as an elective language available to all students, not just native speakers.

— Kirsti Marohn, St. Cloud

Giraffe surgery: Tricky task, happy ending

an anesthesiologist attends to a giraffe
University of Minnesota veterinary anesthesiologist Erin Wendt Hornickle attended to Skeeter the giraffe at Como Zoo as he underwent treatment for a broken foot bone.
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

Like a lot of Minnesotans, the giraffes at the Como Zoo have been among my fondest childhood memories, and when I heard Skeeter had been anesthetized to fit him with a shoe to fix his broken foot, I felt a pang of panic: That's a lot of animal to bring down.

I asked the zoo if they'd let me watch when farriers returned to remove the shoe, and they said I could, if I stayed out of the way.

It is a truly frightful wait as the anesthesia takes hold and no one knows if such a huge and gorgeous animal will survive the fall. But it is equally inspiring to see people from all over the country come to an animal's aid, treating Skeeter like they would a member of their own family.

I can still hear the vet choking back tears when Skeeter awakened and stood up. After all the death and destruction and angst of the last year and a half, it was truly heartwarming for something to end so happily.

— Tim Nelson, St. Paul