Steve O’Neil, the Land Stewardship Project’s first community organizer who went on to serve as a mentor and adviser to the organization for most of its history, lost a battle with cancer on Monday. He was 63.
Steve was hired in 1982 by Ron Kroese shortly after Kroese and Victor Ray founded LSP. O’Neil’s first job for LSP was to organize meetings in southeastern Minnesota counties that had extremely high erosion levels. He opened LSP’s first field office in Lewiston, Minn., and organized our first farmer-led steering committee to guide the group’s work.
Steve set the tone for how LSP conducts its “education to action” meetings by bringing people together to discuss problems and create strategies for working together to solve them. He was instrumental in developing the Farmland Investor Accountability Project, which made national headlines in the 1980s for holding insurance companies accountable for destroying conservation practices on land they had taken over.
“Hiring Steve was one of the two most important things I did at LSP—the other being having Victor Ray teach us how to conduct meetings where farmers were able to talk to each other and learn from each other instead of just being talked at by so-called experts,” said Kroese recently.
Steve eventually moved to Duluth, Minn., where he did community organizing around homeless issues as well as public health. In 1989 he and his wife Angie Miller started the Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker Community, a combination of community activism and religious faith that became a voice for the homeless in Duluth. At the time of his death, Steve was serving his third term on the Saint Louis County Board, where he continued to advocate for the homeless and others in the community.
For his work over the years, Steve was recognized with a McKnight Foundation Virginia McKnight Binger Award for Human Services and the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless Bruce Vento Distinguished Service Award.
Steve also remained in close contact with the Land Stewardship Project during the past three decades, and served as a key mentor and adviser to its organizers.
He is being remembered by LSP staff and members as someone who used a combination of courage, passion and grit to fight for social justice. And he did all of this with a great sense of humor—who can forget that infectious smile? Steve was also known as someone who always showed respect when he was organizing on an issue, even when he disagreed vehemently with an opponent’s views. An avid gardener and fly fisherman, Steve had a deep reverence for the land, and a complete respect for farmers as stewards of that land.
Steve O’Neil selflessly helped innumerable people, communities and organizations over the years. The Land Stewardship Project was extremely fortunate to have been one of the early beneficiaries of his skills, passion and humanity.