BEMIDJI -- After years of seeing environmental problems causing hurt in her community, Renee Keezer knew something had to change.

So, she decided to enroll in White Earth Tribal and Community College to get her degree.

Now, a few years later, she’s just a couple of months away from graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and Indigenous studies, and a number of prestigious internships -- including one with NASA -- under her belt.

Post-graduation, Keezer already has a position lined up working for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe as a pesticide coordinator and hopes to continue researching the impacts of agriculture chemicals on people and the environment.

How did she get there? Keezer credits the support of her husband Justin Keezer -- who was also recently inspired to go back to school for a business degree -- as well as support from her community.

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Nudge into science

After graduating high school in 1999, Keezer got her start in continuing education at the White Earth Tribal and Community College in 2014, with the goal of taking Ojibwe language classes.

While Keezer herself is not enrolled or a descendent, her daughter is Anishinaabe, and Keezer felt she could better help her daughter to understand her culture by taking language classes.

Then, she found herself drawn to science. “He gave me the nudge into the science,” she said, gesturing to Justin. “We were driving and I was looking around and thought, ‘I don’t like all these farm chemicals.’” When Justin prompted her to explain why she thought they were bad for the environment, she didn’t have an answer. So, she set out to figure out the kind of impact pesticides and farm chemicals were having on the local environment.

Keezer presented at the American Indian High Education Consortium which led her to an internship with NASA. When most people hear NASA, they think of rocket ships and space exploration. Keezer said this isn’t always the case.

“A big portion of what they do is with the earth sciences,” she explained. “They deal with a lot more than just space, they deal with stuff with the changing climate, changes in vegetation, working on changes in the water and water quality.”

Keezer worked to create a vulnerability index showing the potential impacts on the land, water and wild rice from farm chemicals.

“My big focus was the impacts modern agriculture is having on our environment, specifically the impacts it’s having on the wild rice and the water quality,” she said.

She graduated from WETCC in 2016 with honors and then enrolled at Bemidji State University to study environmental science with an emphasis in environmental health and toxicology. She is also seeking a degree in Indigenous studies and a minor in Ojibwe.

Currently, Keezer is a senior at BSU and is working at the American Indian Resource Center on campus.

During the fall 2020 semester, Keezer was also named the first recipient of the Raymond and Margaret Carlson Public Service Scholarship. The scholarship recognizes a BSU student who has demonstrated exceptional commitment to the community and public service.

“The people here at BSU have been so wonderful and shown such amazing support. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for the people here at the AIRC and my teachers,” she said. “This is not something I ever would have been able to do on my own, it’s been through the support of the community.”

Overcoming obstacles

Keezer’s accomplishments are made all the more impressive by the hurdles she’s overcome to reach them.

“I’ve had a lot of health issues, I’m a cancer survivor, I’ve had 15 surgeries, four of them while I’ve been a student at (BSU),” she said. “I understand the pain of the people who are sick and I don’t want anyone to ever be as sick as I’ve been. A lot of it is environmentally caused. It’s from the foods we eat, the chemicals in our water, the pollution in our air.”

Keezer said the many health issues present in White Earth and Mahnomen County caused her to want to further investigate agricultural impacts and try to help. She noted that Mahnomen County is currently ranked the least healthy county in the state by the Minnesota Department of Health.

“My theory is it’s due to the extensive chemical use. They changed the land, they took out the White Pine and they converted a lot of it to agriculture,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life and health of the people.”

Keezer lost custody of two of her children around 14 years ago and said they are her inspiration to keep pushing for change -- in both herself and the environment.

“I have to do better. I have to do better for my kids than what I was doing,” she said. “If I can’t be in their lives, I want to at least do something that will make their world a little better. At least give it a good go.”

Renee and Justin Keezer are both deeply involved in tribal and local politics, as well as social justice issues.

The Keezers said when they attend protests and take stands on political issues, they want to make sure they are fully informed and can help avoid band-aid solutions and deal with underlying issues.

“It’s a lot different when you can sit down and coherently have a conversation and explain why you’re mad. You can explain the things that are coming with these problems, and then you get people to start changing their minds,” Justin said. “We feel that if you’re educated on a subject and you know a little bit more about it, then they’re less likely to say, ‘Throw those protestors in jail.’”

The couple has worked to help eradicate harmful drugs in White Earth and prevent overdoses. The two helped organize a “March on Drug Dealers,” with a message of, ‘We love you, we don’t want you to die, we don’t want to lose any more in our community,” Keezer said.

Keezer is hoping to let all of this positive momentum continue to propel her forward. She’s already been offered a position working for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe as a pesticide coordinator, which she will officially begin after she graduates in May.

She said her goals for the next five years center around, “trying to implement long term management plans to improve the quality of the environment and human health.”

Two of her goals are to implement larger and more concrete buffer regions between farmlands and waterways to help avoid chemical runoff and to push for a ban on Round-Up.