Fare Thee Well Interview Series: Justin Levy

With The Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary shows approaching, and HeadCount organizing a “Participation Row” non-profit village at the shows, we are running a series of interviews with key people from non-profits and various social good initiatives tied to the Grateful Dead. Today, we talk to Justin Levy, the Executive Director of Conscious Alliance

Conscious Alliance is a national 501(c)(3) non profit that has been combating hunger in communities of crisis since their inception over a decade ago. The organization has provided nearly 2 million meals to those in need and spearheaded youth empowerment programs, striving to educate those who may not otherwise be privy to sustainable & healthy living environments. 

You’ve been involved with Conscious Alliance since 2004. How did you initially get involved with the organization?

When I was in high school I developed a program with my guidance counselor to bring at-risk youth in the Chicagoland area to Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota. After graduating, I met the founder of Conscious Alliance at a String Cheese show and found out more about what the organization was up to and how they were connecting fans in the music world and also supporting Native American reservations around the U.S. It sparked my interest and I immediately started volunteering and coordinating tours for them.

Can you talk a little bit about how the organization has expanded within the last decade?

We started out by doing food drives at concerts, engaging young people in giving back to the local community where the music played and working with bands like The String Cheese Incident ant STS9. From there we have tapped into music festivals, working with some of the major music festivals around the country like Lockn’, Wakarusa, Bonnaroo and Electric Forest. So we’ve really expanded the festivals we’re working with and also the musicians we’re working with. We’re working with Phish and Dave Matthews now, Jack Johnson, Michael Franti, and with String Cheese and STS9 are still some of our major supporters.

Since our inception we’ve been able to distribute just under 2 million meals. We’ll hit 2 million meals this year, actually. We have also partnered with a ton of natural food brands now. So in addition to the food that we collect at concerts, we’re also working with groups like Plum Organics, a baby food company, and Justin’s Peanut Butter, Whole Foods and Suja Juice. They’re really the drive behind the healthy food that we’re able to provide in our food bank on Pine Ridge Reservation. And it’s still within the vain of what we’re up to. In a place where diabetes is so high, life expectancy is only 48 – 52, we’re able to provide really nutritious food.

In addition we’ve created emergency food relief and programs that are teaching young kids about nutrition and exercise education while providing them healthy food. We have a backpack program on Pine Ridge that we’ve launched this year. Each week the kids go home with a backpack full of healthy food from some of those leading brands as well as lessons on exercise and nutrition. We have a learning garden up there, so kids are learning how to grow their own vegetables and they’re learning math and science and other curriculum through a learning garden platform at one of the elementary schools.

How many festivals & events will Conscious Alliance attend this coming summer?

We have an ever-growing list. I would say we’re going to be at 15 – 20 major events.

How can you compare that number with the first years?

It’s interesting. The first couple years it was just a few events and we were working with String Cheese and we went on STS9 tour. We’ve had bigger years with events as far as hitting everything we could. Part of our growth is really now picking and choosing which events are going to be most lucrative. Instead of that rapid fire approach where we’re just trying to be everywhere, we’re really now working on our partnership events and where we can have the biggest impact and get the word out there. And every week we’re adding new events.

Conscious Alliance was a part of the Participation Row at Lockn’ the past two years. Can you tell me about your organization’s experience with Participation Row? 

I think it’s amazing. I think that the whole concept around Participation Row is genius, honestly. It’s part of our model as well to figure out how to engage fans and we’ve done that through our Art That Feeds program, providing people with posters for contributing. I think what HeadCount has created—not just having it be Conscience Alliance, HeadCount and Rock the Earth as three examples but really inviting a bunch of non profits who may or may not be used to tabling in the music industry and providing them one, the direction on how to do so and two, A lot of great feedback and a lot of great ideas on how to engage fans as they come up to the table and then creating the opportunity, and really laying it out for a lot of non profits on how to not only engage but to capitalize on it through the auction or the sticker program and now the postcards for Dead 50.

HeadCount and Conscious Alliance kind of grew up together and we’ve been lucky in how we’ve been able to engage fans and share networks, but there are a ton of other non-profits and tabling isn’t easy. It’s easy to go and set up a table but how to have that time be effective can be hard and I think the platform you all have laid out and the way that you communicate it and promote it has helped and will continue to help dozens of charities.

When you do a Participation Row or go to a show, the hard goods and the money that you take in go to a local organization. For the Soldier Field and Santa Clara shows, can you tell me where that will end up going?

All the food that we collect is going to the local food banks in the area. It’s the one that is closest to the stadium so our model there is let’s give back where the music plays and I think we’re going to be able to raise thousands of meals at those events. With the money raised from those events we support our ongoing hunger relief and youth empowerment efforts. Of the money that we raise, 86 cents out of every dollar goes directly towards projects, that’s where we finished last year and we’re on track here again. We’re working with these natural food companies who say to us “We’ve got 10,000 natural baby food meals. Do you want them?” and it costs us $1,000 in shipping and we get organic baby food. So with the money that we raise we are able to purchase a lot of food in bulk and really we’re not purchasing we’re just paying for the shipping. And it’s such high quality product

Many of the organizations involved in this particular Participation Row have specific ties to the Grateful Dead? Is that something that is true of you or Conscious Alliance or is it really more the whole scene?

It's very much the scene and the people involved in the event. We kind of grew up with Madison House but we have participated [in Dead tours] before. We did the entire Dead summer 2004 tour, in 2006 we did the entire Phil Lesh tour and a RatDog tour. Rat Dog was on tour with String Cheese so we kind of hit both of them at the same time. We also did 22 nights with Phil and Trey.

It’s very interesting to hear about your progress and the progress of a lot of these non profits who kind of grew up at the same time.

Yeah it’s special. The festival piece is definitely one of our major public faces in some ways but there are so many other things happening for Conscious Alliance and we’re still a growing non profit and things are still hard at certain points. We don’t have the biggest staff in the world but we definitely are pushing our youth empowerment programs through and providing outlets for youth to explore their creative side through art and music an many other programs as well.

Is that based in South Dakota near your food bank or is that project expanding elsewhere?

We’re really focusing a lot of our youth empowerment programs on Pine Ridge as well as Denver. There’s a big native population within Denver as well. But Pine Ridge is the same size as Connecticut and there’s only one grocery store for 30,000 people and half the population is below the age of 18 so we feel like let’s focus and really try to make a difference.

Anything else you'd like to add about Conscious Alliance?

Our goal is really just to encourage young people. Since we’ve been around for a decade we’ve been able to see some of our fans who were some of the first to bring food to concerts and then they became volunteers of ours and now they’re in their career and they’re able to participate in Conscious Alliance in different ways. And now we’re seeing the next generation of young people coming up and we feel lucky to still be a part of it.