Boulder-based organization lends a helping hand

Conscious Alliance’s latest efforts on the Pine Ridge Reservation

Courtesy of Consious Alliance

Living in what some refer to as the Boulder bubble, it’s sometimes easy to tune out the surrounding world and bathe in the beauty of this olivesized oasis. Conscious Alliance, a Boulder-based nonprofit, is trying to minimize that mentality.

Beginning with a food drive at a String Cheese Incident show in 2002, the organization has continued to team up with a multitude of bands and music festivals across the country to provide food to communities in crisis says Justin Levy, executive director of Conscious Alliance.

In 2007, Conscious Alliance began partnering with natural food partners to provide nutrition to youth. The organization’s latest focus is a food bank on Pine Ridge Reservation.

Located in Oglala, South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Reservation is roughly the size of Connecticut and has only one grocery store for 30,000 residents. Exacerbating the situation, nearly half of the population is under the age of 18 and unemployment ranges from 80 to 85 percent, creating a recipe for food shortages. To add, the reservation is the eighth largest in the country, and the counties within it are among the poorest in the nation. Alcoholism and dire living conditions contribute to low life expectancy, which hovers around 50 years old.

Denver is six hours away from the reservation, making it the closest major city, which Levy says is one of the largest motivating factors for Conscious Alliance getting involved. Populated by the Oglala Lakota tribe, or Sioux, the name given by the French, the economically isolated community is largely rural outside of the Pine Ridge Village where the tribal offices are.

Conscious Alliance has had a presence on the reservation since 2002; however, the food bank, also called the Food Sovereignty and Youth Empowerment Center, just opened its doors a few weeks ago. Open every Tuesday to anyone in the community, Levy says the 40-by-20-feet building can hold 25,000 pounds of food and is more than just a food bank. The building will also serve as a base for youth programming, including nutrition and exercise education.

Conscious Alliance receives most of its funding from the music industry by teaming up with bands and musicians for fundraising efforts. The organization also receives some grants and has joined forces with natural food companies — Justin’s, Plum Organics, KIND Snacks, Boom-Chicka-Pop and Suja Juice — in what Levy calls a “melting pot” of fundraising. In 2014, with support from these companies, the organization launched an all-natural products backpack program called “Bring Nutrition Home” at Loneman School, serving kindergarten through eighth grade in the town of Oglala.

“194 of the 250 students are considered homeless because of their substandard housing, and 100 percent of them are on free and reduced lunches,” Levy says. “Each week the kids go home with a bag full of healthy food for the weekend as well as nutrition and exercise education, not only providing food for the weekend to fill the gap of when they don’t have free and reduced lunches, but also providing an education around why it’s important to eat healthy and exercise.”

The high poverty rate, at about 50 percent, is worsened by extreme weather, like the 1999 tornado that “devastated a lot of the community housing,” and resulted in more than half of the community living in FEMA trailers, says Alicia Stolley, principal of Loneman School.

Located 3 miles from the food bank, Loneman School attendees benefit from the backpack program, whether from pride in having food to share, or from having food to eat over the weekend, says Melissa Blacksmith, a teacher at Loneman School. Blacksmith has a deep connection to Loneman School as it’s her alma mater, her son is a current kindergartener at the school, and she has taught there for 23 years. Many kids go hungry on the weekends but the backpack program is helping, Blacksmith says.

In partnership with the Kitchen Community, another Boulder nonprofit, Conscious Alliance also has a garden on the reservation that serves as an afterschool program for students at the Pine Ridge School. Kids learn math and science through the garden and the program has proved successful in its third year running, Levy says.

The nonprofit’s efforts on the reservation don’t end at food and nutrition. With few local businesses or activities, idleness on the reservation contributes to gang activity and youth suicide. From December 2014 to May 2015, nine people between the ages of 12 and 24 committed suicide. To get kids involved in something after school that teaches work ethics and dedication, Conscious Alliance has teamed up with the Denver-based Stronghold Society to build and facilitate a world-class skate park on the reservation. Partly funded by Jeff Ament, the bassist of Pearl Jam hailing from rural Montana, the two organizations have opened two skate parks on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the first in 2011 and the second this year. Levy and Conscious Alliance donated professional skate decks designed by the same artists that create Conscious Alliance’s concert posters. Wounded Knee Skateboards also gave away decks.

Levy says kids thrive when they get the right equipment and a professional skatepark.

“It’s amazing,” Levy says. “I know that kids didn’t skate before that and now, going to the second skate park opening, there are 12-year-old girls dropping into the bowl and just tearing it up, and it’s so impressive and so awesome to see.”

On Oct. 8, to help support the nutrition and exercise education programs on Pine Ridge, Conscious Alliance is teaming up with Chef Hosea Rosenberg of Blackbelly Market, and Nahko, of Nahko and Medicine for the People, for a fundraiser at eTown Hall in Boulder. At this second annual “Art that Feeds: Harvest Celebration,” local chefs will be preparing hors d’oeuvres in addition to an open bar and silent auction.

Conscious Alliance’s relationship to the community continues to get stronger everyday, Levy says, as long as the organization continues to put in the effort.

“It’s like working with any kids, it’s important to continue to show up.”