Community development comes first for award recipient

Each year, the Bob Steffen Pioneer Award is bestowed by the Center for Rural Affairs to a person who works to make extraordinary contributions in building community engagement within their own communities. People who receive this award provide a model for innovation, stewardship, or community development.

Few people exist who show more passion for or work harder toward those goals than Hank Miller.

His tireless dedication to engaging and educating members of the Santee and Omaha tribes in Nebraska on food sovereignty and gardening has led the Center to choose Hank as the recipient of the 2019 Bob Steffen Pioneer Award.

As head of the math and science division at Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC), Hank provides assistance and guidance for developing family garden training in Santee, Nebraska. He has also helped make garden space at the NICC campus available for the Center’s demonstration garden and for community members.

“We’ve been doing gardens with the Center for eight or nine years, maybe longer,” said Hank.  “With that kind of partner, you can reach so many more people in so many different ways—it is important to work with good people whose philosophies line up. And, quite honestly, at a time when it was really difficult to partner up on the Reservation, collaborating with the Center was easy to make work.”

Hank says the direction NICC has taken, especially within the science department, meshes well with the Center’s work.

“Through the Center’s programs, we have really helped broaden the scope with outreach and farmers markets—just a lot of coordination with Center staff that was a huge asset to the Santee community,” Hank said.

Center staff members agree, and credit Hank with helping make their partnership a successful and productive one.

“Hank invited and welcomed Center staff to the Santee Reservation to begin work with Native American food systems,” said Sandra Renner, Farm and Community Program director with the Center for Rural Affairs. “When it came to expanding work with the Omaha Tribe, Hank spoke out immediately about the reliability and skills the Center brought to the table—validating us in such a way that opened doors we would otherwise have been challenged to go through.”

There are more projects in the works through the collaboration between NICC and the Center, including a greenhouse, which they hope will be built this summer. Hank says the greenhouse will offer much more than a growing space for plants.

Center staff will supply starter plants, and the science department will set up hydroponic and aquaponic systems, among other additions. Combined, all the components will provide educational outreach opportunities for entrepreneurship and research that the college and community can both utilize.

“Through all these gardening projects we’ve worked on, from greenhouses to farmers markets to cooperative baskets to preparing the soil and working on soil health to planting to production to harvesting to selling and the economics of it—those are all lots of mini entrepreneurial projects that benefit the community,” Hank said.

Offering these innovative ideas and providing opportunities for collaboration are just a few of the many reasons why Hank has been chosen to receive the Bob Steffen Pioneer Award.

“Hank’s encouragement and enthusiasm for our work has been a big push to keep developing projects with the Santee and Omaha communities,” Sandra said. “He has been a champion for the Center’s starting work around water quality and quantity, and environmental issues.”

And, though he feels grateful to receive the award, continuing the work he started years ago remains Hank’s top priority.

“When you put a career into being a teacher at a Tribal college, you hope to work with all the cool things the Reservation community has going on and assist on things they might need help with,” he said. “Being a non-Native, you try to learn about the culture and interact more, but it takes time to build up relationships and trust.”

Hank says that trust can lead to a partnership where every person and every organization involved wins, allowing them all to accomplish their goals.

“Over time, we’ve been able to do a lot of really cool things with the Tribe—they help us and we help them and the Center helps all of us,” said Hank. “I believe the mission of the Center and of NICC and even the Tribe all work together. So, it’s been pretty easy doing what I love and working with the Center when the philosophy and mission are much the same. I think this award represents the integrity of the Center, of NICC, and of our communities that we serve. I really appreciate the years of partnership we’ve had with the Center.”

Hank’s award is named after the late Bob Steffen who was nationally recognized as a pioneer in organic agriculture and agricultural conservation, and was a founding board member of the Center for Rural Affairs, which has worked on behalf of family farms and rural communities since 1973.