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  • Charlie Plant

Travels with Charlie: The Mississippi River, Minnesota

On the road again . . . bottom up, top down

I recently spent a couple days with Doug Thomas, HFFI Regional Coordinator in Minnesota. It was a bottom up, top down trip. I talked with foundations and a principal in Minneapolis, a couple of CTE teachers who have Fellows, and then Doug and I went on a road trip way up north into the Mesabi Range.

The Mesabi Range is an amazing place. It’s a 110 by 50 mile geological formation of low hills that is almost pure iron ore. For over a hundred and thirty years it has supplied almost all of America’s iron ore to make steel. The world’s largest strip mine is there. The ore grade material was mined out decades ago and the area has been economically depressed. There are mile upon mile of black mountains of mine tailings. It is a land of generation upon generation of miners – “Rangers” as the rest of Minnesota calls the area folk, a somewhat derogatory term – uncultured, uneducated, rough.. Some of the most violent labor strikes in history have occurred there – the miners led by the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) against Rockefeller and Carnegie. Iron mining is a tough, down to earth business, and the people there are tough and down to earth. I loved it. One of the pictures is of a mine in Hibbing Minn. – Bob Dylan’s home town.

We met with Joe Gabardi, a second generation CTE teacher from a long line of “Rangers.” His dad taught for over 30 years at Nashwauk-Keewatin high school, and when he retired Joe Jr. stepped in. They didn’t even have to change the nameplate on the classroom door. He averages almost ten Fellows per year which has been a boon to his economically stressed kids. His principal wasn’t the catalyst, he just made it happen – from the bottom up.

We also met with a local community foundation, the CEO of the Chamber of commerce in the area’s largest city, and the director of an agency that has control of millions of dollars generated by a tax on the ore mined. Doug will follow up to see if we can work out a cost sharing pilot to increase the reach of our program – this is the top down work.

Frankly, I have more confidence in the ability of the Joe Gabardi’s in education to change it than the school principals and superintendents of the world. It’s been those closest on the ground working with kids that have made the Harbor Freight Fellows program happen – CTE teachers, counselors, advisors. I have talked to so many county assistant superintendents, principals, foundations, who all say “yes, yes! We love it!” and nada schmada happens. We get a hold of one good CTE teacher and bingo!

Doug and I left his place in lovely 70 degree weather. The next morning up in the range it was 30 degrees! Here's a picture of me and Joe, of a mine in Hibbing, Doug scraping our windshield, and a clip of us by a lovely little stream, the not so mighty Mississippi River . . .


Charlie Plant Coordinator, Harbor Freight Fellows Program


To find a fellowship near you or become a mentor, contact Charlie at:

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