By Tyler McDaniel
At Rethos, the intersection of community and the built environment is central to our mission and programming. Through our education program, these two things meet in the most hands-on way possible. This meeting would not be possible without the help of our knowledgeable, community-driven teachers. One such teacher who has made a huge impact on Rethos over the years is Laura Leppink. If you’ve attended one of our classes throughout Minnesota, you may have interacted with Laura and experienced her reciprocal approach to teaching and knowledge building.
In 2019, while obtaining her Master’s in Heritage Studies and Public History from the University of Minnesota, Laura joined Rethos as an intern. It was during this time that she first met Education Manager Natalie Heneghan. The two quickly hit it off and Laura began teaching classes. Despite her broad knowledge base, she admits that before her first class—a workshop on how to handle rotted wood—she was incredibly nervous.
While Laura’s relationship with Rethos began in 2019, her experience with hands-on preservation trades began years before, stretching across many geographic regions. After graduating with an Anthropology degree from Lawrence University and looking for her next step, Laura began to consider the intersection of hearing stories, exploration, and a love of hands-on work that she developed in her high school shop class—a love that at one point had her considering a career in carpentry or attending trade school. With these things in mind, paired with a recommendation from her twin sister to consider Americorps, she soon took an Americorps position with Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps, based out of Duluth, MN. A Minnesota native, Laura felt like moving to Duluth would allow her to further explore her home state of Minnesota while learning more trades skills and further strengthening her bonds to place through the stories and relationships of others.
Laura was bitten by the preservation bug and wanted to expand her skillset further. After her time with Northern Bedrock, her itch for adventure took her west, to California, for a position with Point Reyes National Seashore Association. Laura worked around Point Reyes restoring a number of historic features, primarily focusing on windows. This time along the sea shore is credited as forming the basis of her knowledge for window restoration, skills that she would eventually bring to Rethos and spread throughout Minnesota. Sharing stories and experiences with fellow trades people along the shore led to a connection with the Western Center for Historic Preservation.
For her next move, Laura applied to the Western Center and soon found herself in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming learning at the Western Center for Historic Preservation. This also became her first experience with teaching. Leading groups from various historically Black colleges and universities, as well as volunteers from the Whitegrass Duderanch, refined her skills and gave access to a diverse array of stories and perspectives. Laura was enamored with the intersection of people, places, and the stories therein and, after a year spent refining her trade while expanding her skillset, it was time to return home.
Laura became immersed in preservation practice back in Minnesota, with graduate studies in progress, a burgeoning relationship with Rethos, and a place on the Northern Bedrock board of directors. It was also during this time that graduate school began to expand her perspective on historic
preservation. Instead of viewing historic preservation as buildings, trades, and regulations, she shifted to considering historic preservation as a field or philosophy encompassing many subfields.
Combined with a love of stories and newfound focus on equitable representation, Laura’s research began to drift into disability justice. She started fostering disability justice at every level of historic preservation practice, not only recognizing the importance of highlighting places and people who have contributed to the built environment but also incorporating a disability justice lens into the trades. Laura is seeking to reevaluate how we view those in trades and who we view as capable. At the same time, she’s grappling with questions of what it means to have an accessible site and how accessibility fits into the often rigid frameworks of preservation regulation.
This inclusive community centered approach is one that Laura seeks to bring to her teaching with Rethos as well. Since coming on board as an intern in 2019 she has become a regular fixture of our educational offerings throughout Minnesota, teaching classes on window restoration, rotted wood, and more. What has kept her coming back to Rethos is what she describes as an organizational practice of public historic preservation: an approach that doesn’t feel inaccessible, stuffy, or intellectual but is instead using historic preservation as a tool to uplift communities using their own resources. In classes, this translates to helping people feel knowledgeable while empowering them to make better decisions for their communities.
An empowerment-centered approach is central to Laura’s approach as teacher, but she doesn’t want her status as teacher to take precedence over the exchange of ideas. An exchange of ideas is the most important part of teaching to her, and even as a teacher, she is constantly learning from those in attendance. Laura has learned that anyone can learn these things and it’s never too late to start. All in all, she hopes that her classes communicate that we are all learners figuring it out together for the betterment of the individual, but more importantly for the community.
To get window repair tips featuring Laura, visit the Rethos YouTube channel.
Photos 1, 4, 5 & 6 by Brian Fisher.