Past Recipients

Since 2015, MCN and the McKnight Foundation have presented the Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Awards to individuals who have served communities across Minnesota. In partnership with the McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation that advances a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive, four Minnesotans, two from the Twin Cities metro and two from Greater Minnesota, each received $10,000 in recognition of the significant impact they have had on the state of Minnesota and its communities. 

Each of the honorees below received a cash prize from the McKnight Foundation, and were recognized during MCN's Annual Conference and in a feature by Pollen Midwest.

2020 Honorees

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Patti Ballan - Rainer, Minnesota
Patti ran her father’s furniture business for almost 25 years, but when it came time for her retirement, there was a dilemma: she didn’t want to leave another empty building in her small town. Along with her husband, they transformed the furniture store into a co-working space. 

Although COVID-19 changed their plans, it didn’t slow them down. Starting in March, Patti began providing free space to students who couldn’t access their online classrooms from home. Although she is passing up revenue opportunities, she continues to allow nonprofits and students to use the space for meetings and internet availability, free of charge. 

Learn more about Patti's historic preservation work.

Lisa Bellanger - Minneapolis, Minnesota
A passionate community organizer, Lisa is committed to the preservation of Native traditions and sharing them with the next generation. For years, Lisa has worked across her community, selflessly providing traditional rituals, customs, and practices at American Indian funerals, volunteering to provide traditional healing practices at hospitals, and assisting incarcerated American Indian women with support and resources.

This summer, as uprisings reached their peak in response to the murder of George Floyd, she worked with the American Indian Movement to create community patrols that helped protect American Indian businesses.

Learn more about Lisa's work to preserve Native traditions.

Desralynn Cole - Minneapolis, Minnesota
Desralynn is a self-proclaimed village auntie of North Minneapolis, where she grew up and returned after graduating from Fisk University. In the aftermath of protests demanding justice for George Floyd this summer, many residents in North Minneapolis found themselves without access to groceries or basic necessities. Working with the Northside Emergency Resource Pop Up, Desralynn coordinated over 150 volunteers that distributed food and supplies to 8,000 people across her community.

“It was personal for me because I can get resources, but there are people who cannot. And if we’re going to shut down buses because we’re afraid of a little civil unrest, then I’m going to step up in a way that is going to even the playing field.” 

Learn more about Desralynn's community organizing in North Minneapolis.


Hani Jacobson - Saint Cloud, Minnesota
After moving to the United States, Hani became a registered nurse and has since been an advocate for immigrants and families of color, identifying barriers to medical care and working to eliminate them.

When the pandemic began to engulf the country, she knew who could be the most at risk. She joined the Somali Community COVID-19 Task Force, making appearances on Somali radio, driving to different businesses to translate safety protocols, and walking door-to-door, handing out masks and informing people of risks. “Education and health, they’re related. It’s the lack of access and understanding of how to navigate these systems. Parents are facing housing and food insecurity, and on top of that, they are fighting for their health,” she says. 

Learn more about Hani's healthcare equity work.

2019 Honorees

  • Shanene Herbert, Minneapolis

  • Jamil Jackson, Minneapolis

  • Shirley Nordrum, Cass Lake

  • Patti Reibold, Red Wing

2017 Honorees

  • Angela Edwards, Minneapolis
  • Jon Vang, St. Paul
  • Abdirizak "Zack" Mahboub, Willmar
  • Millicent Simenson, Bemidji

2015 Honorees

  • Tom Johnson, St. Paul
  • Wilbur Neushwander-Frink, Mankato
  • Mary Powell, Shoreview (Honorable Mention)
  • Robianne Schultz, Perham (Honorable Mention)

2018 Honorees

  • Joe Day, Bemidji
  • Memoona Ghani, Maple Grove
  • Carol Orban, Ely
  • Wynfred Russell, Brooklyn Park

2016 Honorees

  • Deborah Jiang-Stein, Minneapolis
  • Koresh Lakhan, Duluth
  • Qamar Saadiq Saoud, Minneapolis
  • Dr. Arne Vainio, Cloquet