Justin Levy digs up Conscious Alliance’s grass roots.
When you think of how most non-profit organizations got off the ground, you might imagine a situation of suffering: a gloomy call to action followed by a taxing triumph.
This is not that story.
This story emerges from the dancing feet of a String Cheese Incident concert and extends from the helping hands at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Conscious Alliance has a lot of happy faces behind their movement toward hunger relief and youth empowerment. Take it from Executive Director Justin Levy. The way he sees it, the story of Conscious Alliance is the story of those folks. Allow him to introduce you…
Jam Band Born
From the floors of the Fillmore in Denver, circa 2002, Conscious Alliance kickstarted what would later be known as their famous ‘Art that Feeds’ Food Drive when an artist, Michael Everett, donated a highly sought after commemorative event poster that was used as an incentive for fans to donate food. In total, it allowed them to collect 4,000 meals. It gained such rapid traction that the following food drive brought in twice that. Needless to say, the band was eager to get them on board for all of their shows.
“It’s not a one-person show, it’s a movement we’re all behind, and the music industry harnesses that in a big way,” Levy explains.
Now, fifteen years later, Conscious Alliance’s impact is undeniable. They’ve distributed 2.5 million meals to over 30 communities; they’ve engaged hundreds of volunteers who have collectively contributed 100,000 hours to hunger relief efforts; and they host nearly 100 food drives at concerts and festivals each year with a growing roster of bands including STS9, Jack Johnson, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Phish and Dave Matthews, as well as major festivals like Bonnaroo, Lockn’, Electric Forest, and Wakarusa. Their network has expanded significantly, and as Levy explains, it extends well beyond just their Boulder base.
While studying at the University of Colorado, Founder Justin Baker became invested in Native American Studies and read a book written by an elder from Pine Ridge Reservation in rural South Dakota. While Pine Ridge is about the same landmass size as Connecticut, it only has one grocery store, and the distance between communities and resources is vast. From the start, Conscious Alliance knew they wanted to take their mission 350 miles north.
In 2005, the organization opened their first food bank on Pine Ridge; in 2013, they installed a Learning Garden; and in 2015, with the help of Plum Organics, Justin’s and Suja Juice, they launched the nation’s first all-natural backpack program for kids, where out of 250 students, over 100 of them are considered homeless.
Building on the growth they’ve sprouted, Conscious Alliance has implemented a family garden program, so that kids who’ve enjoyed gardening at school can start gardens at home. Levy smiles thinking about a young boy whose life changed in one of those gardens.
“He’d recently lost his mother,” he says. “His grandmother said that he was suffering badly from the loss, but since he’s been working his garden every day, it made him happier…That’s what makes us happy.”
The Real Heroes
When asked about his favorite memories, I feel a strong presence fill the small space of his office…
It’s Hannah Marx: a 13-year-old, who’s been volunteering with them since she was three, visiting Pine Ridge, helping carry meals after an event and continuing to host food drives at her school.
It’s Dolores Price: the woman who runs the food bank in Michigan, stacking and loading boxes of food, eagerly preparing for all the Electric Forest fans, a community that could be looked at as counterculture, to take over her property for the weekend.
It’s the little girl at the Pine Ridge skatepark their friends at the Stronghold Society built and her fearlessness dropping into the bowl.
It’s every person that has volunteered, contributed and been impacted by Conscious Alliance’s cause.
Reflecting on their work, Levy says, “When I think about those moments, the accomplishments, and lives we’ve changed, I’m always struck by how fortunate we are to have so many amazing people working together and making it happen.”