community collaboration

Current JV, Molly Richard (Billings, MT ’12-13) reflects on the impact of collaboration within the JV and larger Billings communities:
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The ladies of Billings, MT collaborate to hold up JV housemate, Andrew, during a photo-op.

I am repeatedly reminded that committing to community involves actively engaging in an ongoing experiment in collaboration.

My placement in Billings as an Organizing Assistant at Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting Montana’s natural resources and unique lifestyles, grants me endless opportunities to witness the power of people collaborating with one another. When environmental injustices threaten their lands and life ways, Montana’s farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, and urbanites are quick to join forces and take control of their collective fate. They realize their destinies are intertwined and that, as an organized group, they have significantly more power to defend what is valuable to them.

Working alongside community members in the Billings area to create viable local food opportunities is a cooperative effort I am thrilled to be a part of this year. After meeting individually with people from all areas of the local food spectrum, several community members and I agreed that we could do much more to improve the local food system if we stopped operating as segmented pieces within the established food structure. In a matter of weeks I witnessed teachers, soup kitchen managers, farmers, FoodCorps members, and locavores establish the Billings Local Food Collaborative.

The Collaborative operates as an umbrella group of organizations and citizens that meets once a month to share resources, knowledge, and project initiatives. We share a common goal of linking consumers to their food and to food producers in order to create ecologically conscious, socially just, and economically sustainable food options in the Yellowstone Valley region. Tangible results have come through the connections created through the Collaborative over the past few months: the Housing Authority of Billings gave extra composting worms to the Salvation Army’s garden project, Master Gardeners, a volunteer gardening group. They also assisted teachers and students map a plan for a school garden at a local high school, and the chair of the school district’s Health Advisory board began helping a rancher navigate the ins and outs of the district’s food guidelines to determine the feasibility of getting his produce into local cafeterias and concession stands. Divided, all we could do was talk about what we wished would change about the food system in Billings, but in collaboration with one another, we began to make change. From this experience, I am learning that real progress is made when community groups cooperate with one another. If one local food group succeeds in Billings, not much changes in the city’s food landscape; but if ranchers, farmers, restaurant owners, gardeners, and grocery shoppers all decide to put their resources behind a common goal, the possibilities multiply.

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Molly Richard, third from the top, with her Billings community members.

Of course, community living daily shows me the effects of collaboration, as well. The limits of what my fellow JVs and I can accomplish together are so much broader than anything any of us could do alone. Without each other, we would not be able to successfully pull off a flash mob, to locate and chop down the perfect Christmas tree, or to pay for necessary medical procedures. Yes, medical procedures. After enduring a week or two of a swollen face and a throbbing jaw, it was apparent that I needed to get a wisdom tooth pulled. Being the only non-AmeriCorps member in my household, I did not have the contingency funds to pay for a tooth yanking—not for a safe one, anyway.  My five community mates, knowing I had no AmeriCorps contingency money to tap into, compiled funds to help me cover the cost of my medical bill. Alone, I would have had to suffer through infected gums or break my promise to JVC Northwest to only spend my stipend money, but thanks to my community’s willingness to collaborate and share resources, I was able to stay healthy and within budget. Caroline, Andrew, Dana, Mallory, and Rachel truly exemplify the value of community and I am ever-so-grateful for their generosity and compassion.

Through my JV community and my encounter with community organizing, I am learning first-hand that working together by engaging in collaboration is a marvelous expression of the core value of community. As one of my fellow JVs wisely pointed out to me, the roots of the word “collaboration” are “co” and “labor”—to work together.

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