~ photo by Joshua Sutton

 Lisa Schelling likes plants, libraries, co-ops. Before she moved to Riverwest in August, 2010, she googled food co-op, and looked for something for rent within walking distance.

Less than a year later she is newly elected to the Riverwest Food Co-op board of directors and serving on the steering committee of the Public House, the new cooperative bar.

“I tend bar, too,” she adds. “We all tend bar.”

Lisa grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana. “It’s about 20 minutes south of Lake Michigan, about an hour from Chicago. It has a little, old-fashioned downtown – we could walk to the post office and bakery. I liked the sense of being able to walk everywhere I needed to go. I still seek that out.” 

Growing up in a small town was balanced with travel. “My mom liked to travel. We always took summer vacation: we would go to the east coast or the mountains or the southwest. We would drive so we would get to see the world along the way. My mom thought it was important for us to see the world. 

“Our trips had a yearly theme – we would drive route 66 or visit historical villages. I remember we would always eat in local places – try the local cuisine. I still travel that way – I eat my way through wherever I go. The two things I enjoy most about travel are eating and people-watching.”

When the time came to go to college, Valparaiso University was right in town. “I got a degree in environmental science. I worked for a couple of years at Indiana dunes with a plant ecologist. I got to count plants. I liked that a lot.” 

She liked it so much that she went on to get a masters in plant ecology at Ohio University in Athens. 

“Athens is a great little town in rural southeastern Ohio,” Lisa recalls. “It’s a great community. There’s the sense that you knew everybody.

“I worked in the local infoshop and lived in a housing co-op in Athens. It was the first co-op I was involved in – I lived there for two years. After that I was hooked ; I’ve been involved with co-ops ever since.”

Next, Lisa worked a series of seasonal jobs. 

“I was a park ranger at the Edison National Historic Site, giving tours of Thomas Edison’s historic home in New Jersey. I was an official park ranger – I got to wear the badge and hat.”

Next came a summer on an organic farm. “I worked at Cherry Grove organic farm near Princeton, New Jersey. I lived in a little travel trailer on the farm. Did everything, start to finish, from planting seeds to harvesting to working one of the farm stands. New Jersey is called the garden state – the central and southern parts have lots of open land and wood, lots of farms.”

Next stop: back in the Midwest to Bloomington, Indiana for a Masters degree in Library Science. 

“I started looking for a housing co-op right away, and found a group starting one up. I met them on Craigslist and we got together. I became the treasurer – that’s what I had done at my first housing co-op. We started with five people first year and grew to eight the second year. Last year they were renting three houses, and were up to 25 members.”

With her shiny new Library Science degree, she landed a job as the GIS Librarian (Geographic Information Systems) at the American Geographical Society Library at UW-Milwaukee. “Technically, my title is Digital Spatial Data Librarian. I work with digital mapping data.”

Some of us who haven’t been in an academic setting, and who don’t keep up with all the technological advances might have a hard time imaging what a Digital Spatial Data Librarian might do, exactly. Lisa explains. “There are classes that teach Geographic Information Systems at school, so students need data sets to work with. For example, a data set of city streets would be difficult to come by, but we have it on file and have permission to share it with students, so they can learn how to make maps and use the GIS software.”

So, is this the new way maps are made, now? Lisa reassures. “There are still cartography classes where you can learn traditional map making skills, but more are made digitally than by hand.” Good to know.

What’s next for Lisa? “I feel like I’m just getting started with so many things here. The food co-op, the Public House, the cooperative alliance – that’s pretty exciting. We’re gardening in Kilbourn Garden this summer.

“I feel like I have a lot of enthusiasm to offer the community. And I believe in co-ops.”

Lisa’s vision for the future includes a lot of cooperatives. “Ten years from now, I would hope to see more co-ops starting up. The reason the Public House exists is to fund the Cooperative Alliance, which in turn can fund other co-op start ups.”

There could be a co-op bakery, butcher shop, and more. “I would like to see more neighborhood sustainability – more businesses in the neighborhood so you could do everything you need to do right in the neighborhood. I would like to see that in all neighborhoods, but I like to think we’re working towards making it happen right here. 

“When all those little pieces come together, it makes the community stronger. A food co-op, a newspaper – the more of those pieces that come together, the stronger and more resilient your community is.

“Having a local economy is important. Keep the money circulating in the community. That’s really powerful. 

“That’s how you change the world.”