The COVID-19 pandemic placed inequity into inescapable view, forcing more of us to ask how we can address the persistent and systemic divisions that leave too many outside of the circle of human concern. Community leaders with diverse lived experiences are quietly addressing these divisions, and while doing so, they are expanding our definition of belonging and broadening our vision of whom we deem essential.


Meet The Heroes

Every year, the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits honor four change agents who exemplify this critical work of building strong communities. This year’s Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award honorees work in and with their communities — helping them connect with one another, secure resources, and tell their truths.

The dominant culture in our society often builds barriers to belonging — leaving many identities and communities on the outside, looking in. The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened this unjust phenomenon, but these four honorees are finding more ways to tell more people: “you belong.” Ruth, Richard, KingDemetrius, and Rawhi are all leaning into their strengths to strengthen their communities in turn. But all are quick to note that their power lies in the collective:

“None of this is even possible without everybody helping,”says Rawhi.


And even as challenges deepen, so do the opportunities for growth. This year’s honorees believe, as Ruth says,“Everyone has the capacity to make change.” All it takes, according to Richard, is ​“compassion, consideration, and respect.”

These honorees shine a light, helping us see truth and find paths towards greater equity and justice — and they invite all of us to do the same.


“All of us have a light to shine,” says KingDemetrius, “Will we turn it on?”


Alia Jeraj: Writer
Alia Jeraj (she & they) is a performer, writer, and educator in the Twin Cities. With support from MRAC's 2018 Next Step Fund and as a part of Pillsbury House Theater's 2020 Naked Stages cohort, Alia continues to explore their connection to the songs and stories of her ancestors. Alia's bylines include American Craft, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, and Pollen Midwest. When not singing, writing, or working to subvert mainstream education systems, you can find Alia curled up with hot chai and a book, or somewhere near a body of water.
Nancy Musinguzi: Photographer
Nancy Musinguzi (they/them/theirs) is a Ugandan/Liberian, first-generation non-binary/trans American documentary photographer, multidisciplinary artist and storyteller based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over the past 8 years, they have dedicated their visual storytelling and reflexive research practice to documenting the nuances of contemporary American life, identity and culture through a critical lens. Since 2014, they have installed solo and group exhibitions and guest curated gallery shows in collaboration with early-career and emerging artists, community organizations and foundations, universities, high schools, and youth-led collectives. They have also self-published 8 photography books, and most recently with Wise Ink Publishing, The Letter Formally Known As Q: Voices From Minnesota’s Queer Immigrant Community, in 2021. They are also a 2021-22 Black Seed Fellow.
Ivy Vainio: Photographer
Ivy Vainio is a direct descendant of a Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe tribal member. She has been a photographer for five years documenting multicultural and specializing in American Indian cultural, public, and social events. She has had five photography exhibitions in the last two years – four of which feature her images of powwow dancers. Her photographs have been featured in local, regional, national and international magazines, books, and newspapers. Some are featured in three public collections. She lives in Duluth Minnesota with her husband and son.
Kallie Rollenhagen: Photographer
Kallie Rollenhagen is a photographer based in Northfield, Minnesota. She shoots senior photos, engagement shoots, family sessions, or business environmentals in southeastern Minnesota or the Twin Cities.
Leeya Rose Jackson: Art Director and Illustrator
Leeya Rose Jackson is an Art Director, Graphic Designer and Illustrator. She is the Creative Founder of Noisemakers Design.
Ruby Oluoch: Studio Manager
As Pollen Studio Manager, Ruby manages the relationships and collaborative processes that connect Pollen Studio's design and storytelling expertise to our mission-driven client projects. Her previous experience includes managing communications projects to advance gender and racial equity statewide. Ruby believes telling stories is an act of love and resistance, and she is the proud organizer of several literary circles in the Twin Cities. Her favorite place to read is on the plane ride to her next travel adventure.
Jerome Rankine: Editorial Director
As Editorial Director, Jerome is the keeper of Pollen’s editorial voice and vision. He works with Pollen’s talented stable of writers to produce stories that entertain, enlighten, and invite readers to take action. Jerome spends a lot of time hunched over keyboards--either editing the latest Pollen feature, or composing music in his home studio. He’s active in local politics, less active on social media, and more active in his kitchen.