VIRGINIA– Women and men across the region gathered virtually Thursday to recognize women as a driving force.
The 4th Annual Rosie Awards was hosted by The Women of Today magazine, which is part of the Duluth Media Group. At the event, six women were honored who “have gone above and beyond in the Northland!” the event’s website reads. The celebration honors women nominated in six categories with the highest, the Rosie Award, going to a woman who is a driving force in the area.
The planned March in-person celebration was canceled and produced virtually due to COVID-19.
Rosie the Riveter, the cultural icon used in campaigns to recruit female workers during WWII, is the namesake of the award. Her slogan, “We Can Do It!” continues to empower hard working women today. Since its first use, Rosie the Riveter has symbolized the strength and the moving force that is inside every woman.
“She symbolizes strength and resolve,” said Marlise Riffel, the 2020 Rosie Award recipient, in an interview this week. The honor comes on the heels of her being named to the Minnesota 50 Over 50 list in 2019.
The Award Goes To...
“I was really surprised!” said Riffel. “Kimberly Stokes won this award last year and I thought they wouldn’t give it to an Iron Ranger two years in a row.”
Riffel, a definite driving force in the area, has earned this award for her hard work on the Iron Range. She lives in Virginia with her partner, Ellen Taube.
“What I know is that when we decided to retire and stay here I said ‘If I’m going to live in this community, I am going to help make it the best community I can!’” Riffel said. “We seriously thought about moving. We had done the traveling, looking and planning but decided to stay. The walkability of our community was very important to me.”
On the average day you can find Riffel, 69, gardening, on a Zoom meeting or writing grants. In true Marlise fashion, she didn’t miss this week’s farmer’s market to watch the Rosie Awards. Instead, she brought a hotspot to the Old Gun Club where she spends every Thursday afternoon.
Virginia Market Square’s new location is the Kline-Cuppolleti Park Facility on 9th Avenue West on Chestnut on Silver Lake. It is open every Thursday until Oct. 22, 2:30-6 p.m. with local goods produced within 50 miles.
“Last week we had a total of 17 vendors,” she said. “A lot of our new vendors normally do craft fairs but they can’t this year as they’ve been canceled. That is lucky for us as we have a huge selection of food and crafts from our region filling up the park. This new location is great and we are getting a lot of foot traffic.”
Career Prepared for Retirement
Riffel had a successful career teaching sociology at Minnesota community colleges. In 2009 she was named the Minnesota Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). She continued teaching until 2015 when she retired. Since then, she has been working toward her goal of making this community its best possible self.
Before teaching, Riffel had worked for several different community support organizations in Ill. where she had learned to write grants. “That is what takes the bulk of my time right now,” said Riffel. “Grant writing is a skill that a lot of our organizations need but can’t necessarily pay for.” So Riffel steps up.
“Let me look in the folder to find out which year we started that,” said Riffel while listing the many groups she has founded, nurtured and continue to support in the past five years. When Riffel comes to the Mesabi Tribune office to interview about her various projects, she always brings neatly organized stacks of paper in file folders. With COVID we had decided to hold this interview over the phone but it was easy to imagine her flipping through folders.
Papers shuffle through the phone. “This folder only goes back to 2017, but I know we started earlier than that. Let me check my email.” A few moments pass with soft clicks. “OK, I’ve pulled up several hundred emails about the group. The first email only goes to 2016 but it looks like we were already working on meetings. It must have been 2015 when I wrote the grants.”
Riffel was talking about the Range Together for Youth, the LGBT youth group in Virginia. Duluth has had a group for years through Lutheran Social Services but they had failed to start a successful group in Virginia.
“We knew we needed one on the Range,” Riffel said. So, in 2015, her and Taube hosted a potluck at their house. “We pulled together some people and got to work. That first year I wrote three grants. I’m on the advisory committee.” The committee meets monthly to provide support for the youth groups. Recently, they have been delivering care packages to LGBT youth in rural areas.
These groups are active in Virginia High School at both junior high and senior high levels. Currently, the group is meeting virtually.
“With COVID, many of these kids are extremely isolated,” said Riffel when explaining that they want to help youth maintain healthy mental health while separated from support.
A common thread through much of Riffel’s work is creating better community access to healthy, locally grown goods.
“The thing that I’ve been involved in the longest and which takes the most time is Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability (IRPS).” Riffel said she has been working with IRPS at least the last nine years. “I’ve helped out with our annual EarthFest and was the coordinator for 2020. We had to cancel due to COVID. Last year we started an annual Pasty Festival and we hope to have a drive-through and virtual event this year, tentatively the first weekend in October.”
“I’m also involved with something else new and exciting with IRPS, but I can’t tell you,” Riffel said. She paused. Then added, “yet.”
Through IRPS Riffel wrote the initial grants for the Rutabaga Project, Community Gardens and Food Forest programs. She wrote grants for funding, launched and now manages Virginia Market Square, the local farmer’s market. The first year, grants from the Virginia Community Foundation got the market up and going.
“I rode around with the Mayor of Virginia, looking at city property and finding where we could start the Community Gardens,” Riffel recalled.
Each time she mentioned a different project, Riffel gave credit to those who worked with her or now run a program. She dropped names like Lorrie Janatopoulos, Jody Guy-Krulc, Erika LaMar, Paula Larson, Kelsey Gantzer and Devan Ekmark. Riffel describes herself as “just a volunteer” for these groups she started or manages.
To support area growers, Riffel writes a column every two week for HomeTown Focus called “Grown on the Range.”
“I write stories and about things grown on the Range by local farmers and growers.” These columns are collected on the IRPS blog, where she is a board member.
For three years, Riffel worked with the Lyric Center for the Arts raising money and writing grants for the storefront restoration project. “It was a delight to see the front of the building getting back to looking like it did in 1912.” She was part of the group that raised $45,000 to match that amount in grants.
The Lyric is still raising funds to continue the restoration of the historic theater and building.
Riffel is also an active member of her church where she just retired after 10 years as the religious education coordinator. The youth group also installed a Children’s Little Free Library in front of the Mesabi Unitarian Universalist Church at 230 7th St S in Virginia as part of their curriculum modeled after the magic world in Harry Potter. The program was a success as it taught the seven principles of their faith.
Healthy, Locally Grown at Home
In their spare time, Riffel and Taube are avid gardeners. “Ellen and I grow a ton of our own food. Out back, where we were going to have our chicken run, we have a chicken run memorial garden.”
One project of Riffel’s that had a sour ending was that of pushing for a chicken ordinance in Virginia. The ordinance would have allowed for up to three hens and no roosters for every permitted household. It specified the size of the chicken coop and run required for the premises. No heating elements beyond a water dish would be allowed in the structure.
Now, still focusing on access to healthy, local food, brussel sprouts grow where the hens would have run.
Riffel and Taube have milkweed and flowers throughout their yard. Their house property butts up against City property and they recently got part of that designated for pollinators.
Five other awards were presented at the Rosie Awards ceremony.
The Most Engaged Volunteer was presented to Therese Guba.
The Silent Advocate was presented to Geri Hamilton.
The Mentor Award was presented to Kathleen Cargill.
The Leadership Award was presented to Rev. Kathy Nelson.
The Spirit Award was presented to Shawna Mullen.
We congratulate all the Iron Range women nominated for these awards. Thank you for all you do for our region.