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Published: 2005/11/12
by Randy Ray

Conscious Alliance

Conscious Alliance is a three-year old 501©3 non-profit organization that coordinates food drives for local and national food banks as well as helping out impoverished Indian Reservations in the western United States. Their table can be found at String Cheese Incident and Sound Tribe Sector 9 shows as well as Dead tours, Phil Lesh & Friend shows, the BIG Summer Classic and the inaugural Vegoose festival. By donating ten non-perishable food items, concertgoers can get an official event poster. Collecting and distributing nearly half a million pounds of food has launched the Alliance into the front ranks of American charitable food organizations. This fact was not lost on the Jammys as the organization won the 2004 Mimi Fishman Community Service Award (Baker describes this as not only a great moment in the growth of our organization, but also created the exposure for us to be recognized for other awards like the E-Town Achievement Award for Community Service thats aired on the radio to over a half million people. It also put us in the New York Times for the first time when the Jammys were covered in the following days newspaper) .
After the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster, CA Executive Director Justin Baker and board member, Don Strasburg flew to Houston to help out with the local food banks and the NOLA evacuees. CA managed to raise $50,000 for the relief fund, as well. This level of philanthropy is merely a beginning for the young, solid organization as Baker states, Our goal is a million pounds of food collected and distributed in a year. sat down with Justin Baker for a unique discussion about the challenges and triumphs of a non-profit organization based in Boulder, Colorado but prepared to go from coast-to-coast to achieve its goals. *What is the importance of the Conscious Alliance web site? *
The web site is the heart of the organization. The Internet has always been our largest source of community awareness and if people dont know when our food drives are happening, we dont get donations. Its how we get the word out and get the poster images out for people to see and thats really what drives the success of the food drivespeople seeing the posters, people writing letters. We still dont have an on-line store because its been hard to develop with the amount of time and resources that we have. It is an upcoming thing that should be up for the new year. All the posters will always be available for donation. The site is how we get the word out besides group e-mails from different bands and all the bands that were affiliated with and their web sites.
The web is really what drives our food drives and lets people know about Conscious Alliance. Im very lucky to have a lot of pro bono people on board. Our publicity team, Madison House, donates all of their time for us. I met our Web Designer and Director of Web Marketing, Romulo Bada, at a String Cheese Incident concert. He worked so hard that he hadnt seen a concert in three years, walked in, saw our table and decided they he had to help develop our web site. Ever since then, hes been a great friend and did our whole web site for free. Hes got his own search engine that he developed and hes a really brilliant guy. The web site is his project as much as mine. He almost has the whole on-line store ready to go. Were actually going to come out with a clothing line that we started this summer. He has some high markings in Google standings and he thinks that through the Internet, we can expand this to everywhere. So far, it works pretty well. He also developed a Conscious-based search engine that has a whole page on the site. Romulo Bada is also a doctor, as well. Hes a really smart guy and he felt it wasnt a coincidence that we met. Thats what the logo is all about that we useHunab-Ku, Mayan for synchronicity. *Why is the CA logo significant? *
I use the Conscious Alliance logo because when I was younger and I went on concert tours for fun with String Cheese when I was in college, I used to make T-shirts with that logo and sell them in parking lots to make money to be able to go around the country. I ended up selling that T-shirt to pretty much all of the guys in String Cheese and all of the guys in Sound Tribe Sector 9. Thats how I got to know them. Because the logo on the T-shirt is the symbol for synchronicity, its still our logo because synchronicity is kind of what brought this whole thing together. It wasnt supposed to be a non-profit organization; it was just a good idea to get more food to the [Indian] Reservations I was going to during spring breaks in college. *When did you start organizing food donations? *
In high school, I helped start a Food Not Bombsa community meal group that collects surplus food by writing letters to different businesses from the local area and serving the food to homeless people once a week. I got really involved in starting that when I was about 15. I also helped to start one in Boulder, Colorado when I came to college in 1998. It kind of transformed because it wasnt going as well as I wanted it to like the way it was in Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up. The homeless people [in Boulder] are kind of taken care of and theres a lot of other places for them to eat so, all of the food I was able to collect in the Bolder area through different stores after writing letters and getting money, I started bringing to Indian Reservations. I started going to Navajo and Hopi Reservations my sophomore year spring break and, then, I just decided that I would do that every spring break. *Why did you decide to take the food to Indian Reservations? *
Personal interest. I was a Religious Studies major in college and I had a focus on Native American religions. It was just kind of my own spiritual path. As I started going to different reservations, it became a very powerful experience for me every time I went. My brother, Evan and I got invited to do sweats by Medicine Men and we were adopted into an Oglala Lakota tribe last year in South Dakota. It was really a heart-driven thing. My senior year spring break, I thought, instead of spending the money to raise money to buy food, it would be easier to print Michael Everett posters for a dollar and give them away for ten food items. That was a good idea that went really well and it just kept going from there. Its just a better way to get more food for these trips to the reservations that I was making. I was able to turn it into a career and I kind of lucked out on that one. *How were you able to turn Conscious Alliance into a career? *
Our first food drive was in the spring of 2002 with String Cheese at the Fillmore in Colorado. We did another one with them during their July 4th run. The first food drive we got 4,000 pounds and the second, 8,000 pounds. So…the doorway was there. Its really extraordinary as a result of String Cheeses fan basethe power and generosity of their community. The Dead sponsored us to go on their tour two years ago and we had 20,000 pounds after 37 shows across the country. We raised a lot of money on that tour. The amount of food we raise with String Cheese based on the size of the crowds is also incredible because there are so many young people donating. As we go around to different food banks and organize for them to do the pickups as were on the roadlocally, thats what we hear as a compliment more than anything else. Were hitting an age range that doesnt typically donate to food banks or drives16 to 22 years old. *Groups like Second Harvest are involved, as well? *
Yes. We coordinate with Second Harvest locally and nationally. Certain trucks will deliver half of the food to Indian Reservations and half will go locally. We had so much food from the last tour with String Cheesefrom the Northeast to the Southeastthat I couldnt drive the truck anymore. It was actually 7,000 pounds over the payload. Weve actually broken truck suspensions before. Legally, I drove it for weeks when I wasnt supposed to be driving it. (laughs) I rent Penskes across the country and they really help us out, too, with extremely affordable pricing because we rent in such high volume with them. The truck was full halfway through the last String Cheese tour that we were able to give away 12,000 pounds to Hurricane Katrina victims through the Atlanta Food Bank. *Lets talk about how you helped in the relief of Hurricane Katrina victims. *
We have a great board of directors. Steve Simon, the Indiana Pacers owner, called me up and said that I should see what we could do. We thought it would be a good idea if I wrote a letter and said, that we had five grand and who can match it? Three days later, we had almost 30. Sector 9 did a show for us in Santa Cruz, California and there was a bluegrass show at the Fox in Boulder with Yonder Mountain String Band and a bunch of other musicians that raised another 16 grand. All together we were able to raise well over $50,000 for Hurricane Katrina victims. We made sure that every dollar that was donated on PayPal would be used to buy food. We were raising money from other places like those benefit shows, our Board of Directors and the Mimi Fishman Foundation on-line auction to cover overhead expenses like the trucks that needed to go down to Houston.
We worked directly with the Houston Food Bank and Costco storestheyve been really good to us. Luckily, we got the last Penske rental box truck in Houston. One of our board members came down, Don Strasburghes also a Jammy Award winner the year I wonand he got a truck from Pace Concerts, a Houston concert promotion company. They let him take a huge 26-foot box truck for the weekend. We did one big load from Costco and once we got to the Houston Food Bank, they were seriously understaffed and unprepared for an extra 100,000 evacuees. They asked if we could just stay for as long as we could. It was just so hectic there. With everything going on and so many people donating, the number the Houston Food Bank said they got was a million pounds of food in a weekend. They had huge carnival tents set up with a huge volunteer effort. They had Don and I working out of two loading docks. Wed Mapquest a new shelter or a church setup, which decided that they were going to distribute. I stayed for five days and then came home for a few days. We ended up filling up a whole semi-truck at the Dave Matthews Band Red Rocks benefit showover 30,000 pounds of food, 26,000 in the semi-truck alone. That event went extremely well and I flew back to Houston to go to the food bank after that to help unload and deliver.
After we got to Houston, we realized that everyone in all of the hotels needed food, too. These were the people who couldnt get into the Astrodome. We had all of this food that we had got from Costco so we started delivering to hotels. Most waking hours in Houston were spent doing food stuff. Don and I delivered approximately 200,000 pounds of food out of the two loading docks. 14-hour days for five daysa lifetime memorable experience. It changed the face of Conscious Alliance as far as what we have the ability to do and that we can do relief efforts on the spot like that. $30,000 is a lot of money. If you shop correctly you can get a lot of food and the food bank needed specific items like certain kinds of baby formula, diapers in certain sizes, just corn versus other types of vegetables, and beef jerky because people getting off of the buses needed protein right away. We filled the wish list of what people wantedpallet after pallet. *That was obviously an unplanned event. Can you talk about planned events that you have coming up? *
The Conscious Alliance is heading to the Mississippi Coast to engage in our third trip delivering food to victims of Hurricane Katrina. We will start our deliveries in Waveland, MS, where food donations are benefiting the New Waveland CafThis Cafs a relief project run by some longtime participants of Rainbow Gatherings. They have been serving up to 2000 meals a day in a town completely devastated by the storm surge.
Because of generous donations from: the Rex Foundation, the Unbroken Chain Foundation, the Mockingbird Foundation, the Mimi Fishman Foundation, the Mark Van Foundation, Macromedia, the Jambands Community, and everyone that donated to our on-line fundraising campaign, we will be able to secure another $20,000 of specific food items requested by shelters feeding victims of recent Hurricanes in the Gulf Region.
We have our annual Turkey and Toy Drives for different Indian Reservations in the western states. Because of the support from our generous donors and those of you who will donate in the upcoming weeks, we will be able to deliver thousands of turkeys and holiday meal fixings to the impoverished Indian Reservations in our network, as well as to hurricane victims in the Gulf States. Pine Ridge and Rosebud were the first two that we always delivered to and we deliver to Crow Creek and Lower Brule in southern South Dakota and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana. Weve started to increase the places where we deliver and increase the volume of turkeys. Ill be bringing 700 just to South Dakota before Thanksgiving. We still have money from Katrina so we will also be delivering turkeys for the December holidays. The Houston Food Bank is getting me a list of some of the low-income housing where hurricane evacuees have been placed. They are working with the mayor to do that (I was just talking with him today). Ill probably have a truck and Ill put baskets together with stuffing, turkey and other holiday meal items. Ill use the list of low-income evacuees and Ill deliver to them. With the help of Tribal Elders, these meals will end up in the households of hungry families who otherwise would not be sharing in a holiday meal.
The month of December kicks off our Holiday Toy Drive. Events throughout the music community and state of Colorado will secure multiple trucks of toys that will find their way to hundreds of families on multiple Indian Reservations and hopefully to the Gulf States, as well. People can check our web site for details on how they can be a part of this gift-giving opportunity. Posters will also be available for mail-in donations.
Musicians Assisting Disaster Efforts, A Conscious Alliance of Voices, Vol. 1, is an album compilation with the proceeds going to help Hurricane Katrina victims. The Deep Fried Pickle Project produced the CD and partnered with Conscious Alliance. The album is due for sale on CAs web site in late November. The CDs roster includes Umphreys McGee, the Gourds, Split Lip Rayfield, Hit and Run Bluegrass, Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, Jefferson Hamer with Ben Kauffman from Yonder Mountain String Band, Zen, Kathryn Keats with Darol Anger, Cornmeal, Steppin In It, Toni Brown Band, the Tallboys, Stairwell Sisters, and the Deep Fried Pickle Project.
Funds from benefit CD sales will be used to provide food, formula, baby supplies, toys and other supplies to hurricane victims during the holidays. Daniel Boone Daniel of Deep Fried Pickle Project also hopes to deliver musical instruments to some of the New Orleans musicians who have lost their livelihood. Woodwind and Brasswind, based in South Bend Indiana, have agreed to donate musical equipment. Conscious Alliance will also be at the following events where attendees can donate food: Michael Franti and Spearhead at the Harvest Ball, November 25-27 and the New Years Eve Shows for String Cheese Incident, Sound Tribe Sector Nine and the Yonder Mountain String Band.
As far as the Indian Reservationsits important to remember that a lot of charities get forgotten about when major disasters like Hurricane Katrina happen. After the tsunami, for example, all of the annual money that people donate will be gone so a lot of the smaller charities will be hurt. Were definitely not going to forget about our focus, which are the local food banks and the reservations. Its just meant a lot of overtime.
Probably the best part of the story is that after three years of planning a food storage unit on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, it is finally erected as of three weeks ago. We had Indians laying the concrete and putting up the walls, which are steel-framed. Its a 24×22 storage unit that will be permanent with power and heat so the non-perishables will be at room temperaturea National Food Pantry. All of the money that we generated to construct the unit was from a series of benefit shows that we had done called the Rebel Alliance which were held at the Fox Theatre in Boulder. These events have involved musicians from String Cheese Incident, Steve Kimock, Robert Walter, Fareed Haquekind of the superjam format that Rebel Alliance generated to earn the funds.
Were going to keep doing these Rebel Alliance shows so we can support the current storage unit and construct new units, too. The point of the storage units and the work we do on these reservations isnt so much to make people self-reliant. The units are for emergency food supplies, which go out at the end of the month when peoples money runs out. There is pretty much no commerce up there on the reservation, no jobs and the food that the government sends is awfulcommodity food. The biggest problem is alcoholism. On Pine Ridge, the figure is 80%. The food we bring thereI would call it the Grandmother Network within the communitythe grandmothers that are taking care of thirteen children who all live in one house because every parent is a full-blown alcoholic. Thats where our food goes.
We get e-mails from conservative Christians who tell us: why waste your time on those people? Madison House Publicity put out a Hurricane Katrina statement about the Federal Governments failure. I got an e-mail from someone who said they would have donated to our organization but for the fact that we had to take that kind of political stance and that we should be ashamed of ourselves because we were jumping on the bandwagon of people pointing the finger. I could see youre very proud of yourself. I wrote back: Maybe if you spent time doing something positive instead of criticizing young people who are, you might have something to feel proud about, too.
When we were in Houston, some of the evacuees volunteered to work for us. They were a group of young men that grew up in the projects and had never left New Orleans. We paid them a hundred bucks a day to help out. We ended up getting money together so one of them could get an apartment in Houston. One person named Teddy I flew out and he ended up doing two weeks of a String Cheese tour with me for Conscious Alliance.
He didnt know what to expect; he just needed to get out of Houston because he had nothing left. He wrote this song called Weather the Storm and he ended up getting on stage with String Cheese in Atlanta. I want to emphasize that it is really easy to donate a can of food or a dollar and it really does make a difference but when you bring people together in a community, it can really help change the world. Every community can help out with these problems without having to rely on federal agencies.

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