Funding Rural | Episode #14: Building Collaboration with Brenda Smith

Philanthropy talks about collaboration regularly – Brenda Smith with High Desert Partnership lives it every day. She and her colleagues work to build common ground and relationships between seemingly disparate stakeholders in rural Harney County, Oregon. Collaboration is fostered and supported from the ground up; and comes from all sides. This was especially evident in the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016. The narrative of that event as well as the story about rural Harney County and it’s residents, was told in mainstream media, yet the local perspective was not included.

“These are complex challenges. If it was a simple problem we probably wouldn’t need cooperation.” — Brenda Smith

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More about Brenda Smith

High Desert Partnership Brenda Smith


Brenda has been the Executive Director of High Desert Partnership since 2015. She has a Ph.D. in Agronomy from Oklahoma State University, a Master of Science in Agriculture from California State University, and a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Science and Management from the University of California.

Her deep interest in collaborative work started years ago when she trained in facilitation while teaching at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the 1990s. She has had various professional experiences that range from starting and managing her own business of an intensive market farm using the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model to market vegetables and cut flowers, to conducting agricultural research, to starting a university on-farm internship program, to developing outreach products for land managers. These experiences have led her to better understand the complexities of working in partnerships. Her work has given her an appreciation of landscape-scale management and the importance of addressing land management’s social issues.
She believes High Desert Partnership’s work is essential because an organization in a community
committed to supporting groups working together actually shifts the collective conscience, and much more positive work can be accomplished.

Brenda has been in Harney County since 2008, first to work as a weed scientist in developing ecologically based management for invasive annual grasses and served as the Outreach Coordinator and Agronomist for the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center for nearly a decade. In 2019, she was named Harney County Chamber of Commerce’s Woman of the Year.
Today, in addition to her work with High Desert Partnership, she also grows flowers in the summer for local subscriptions of Harney County Buckaroo Bouquets and is a Board Trustee of Eastern Oregon University.

A lot of times, those harder conversations happen in collaborative meetings. We do talk about, ‘what is your worst fear?’ And interestingly, when you take it to a high enough level, we are all the same.” — Brenda Smith

Discussion Questions

  • How does your organization support intermediaries in regions where you are not located?
  • What does collaboration look like with your grant partners?
  • How do you collaborate with other funders?
  • How do you get information about communities you work with?


“We do want clean water. We do want functioning land. We want resilient communities. It’s hard to argue against that.” – Brenda Smith

Transcript: Episode #14| Building Collaboration with Brenda Smith

​​Erin Borla:  0:10  

You’re listening to Funding Rural. I’m Erin Borla with the Roundhouse Foundation in Sisters Oregon. Collaboration is a buzzword that’s like catnip for funders. When folks on the ground come together to solve problems and can present a unified front to a foundation, that can often be a homerun. But the truth is, those collaborations are hard to build. It takes a lot of time, conversation, and people who are willing to work together. Brenda Smith knows a thing or two about rural collaborative efforts. She’s the Executive Director of the High Desert Partnership. A nonprofit in Harney County, Oregon. She’s a weed scientist by training. She has a PhD, and has been a college professor. She has some chops, but now she’s focused on working within her community to get stuff done. Oftentimes, in the rural West, there’s a mixture of private landowners and public lands, and that can create tension. Public policy is set from afar, and when it comes to implementing it on the ground, it’s important that federal agencies build relationships with farmers and ranchers and those using the lands in the spirit of collaboration. Harney County where Brenda lives is the largest county in the state of Oregon. And is unfortunately a county outsiders may have heard of, because of the Malheur occupation. A group of armed militants took over a federal wildlife refuge outside of Burns a few years back. We’ll get into that in our conversation and the picture that was painted by the national media about this area. But I wanted to start by having Brenda describe this place, and just how big and rural it really is.

Brenda Smith:  1:37  

Harney County is 10,000 square miles. That’s bigger than seven states. 

Erin Borla: 1:45

Pick one of those states, which one?


Brenda Smith: 1:47

Connecticut, I think. So, yeah.

Erin Borla:  1:51  

And what’s the population? Do you know? Offhand.

Brenda Smith:  1:54  

Yes, yes. There are 7400 folks in Harney County. So over 10,000 square miles, the bulk of the folks are in sort of the main commerce, you know, city of commerce is Burns and Heinz, and there’s 3500 folks between those two cities. And that’s where everyone comes to do their shopping. And that’s where the hospital is for that whole area.

Erin Borla:  2:24  

And for context, that distance is, is far. So you’ve got folks living down in Fields, which is two hours. 

Brenda Smith:  2:34  

Oh, at least. Yeah, that’s about 140 miles. Yep.

Erin Borla:  2:38  

That’s, that’s some distance and really differing opinions, differing things. And when people don’t get the opportunity to connect on a daily basis, like you would in a city, or you’re even here in burns when you’re next to each other. Oh, I’m gonna go talk to the neighbor. And we’ll just work this out. That doesn’t happen. Right. Just because of distance. Yeah.

Brenda Smith:  2:56  

Yeah. And yeah, you know, just I know, folks will think well, why? Why would, why would there be tension between, you know, public and private land management, but public land managers have to take in multiple uses. So the public land is for multiple uses. And it’s not always going to be managed the way the rancher might manage their private, private grounds.

Erin Borla:  3:29  

And yeah, that’s where we start bringing folks together around. Yeah. And that’s how you and I met? Is when we we first started doing our big rural expansion here in Oregon through Roundhouse. Hearing all the great things that y’all were doing down here in Harney County, it’s always wonderful to, to get to meet new people. So tell us a little bit about so High Desert Partnership does a lot of work around public private partnership and building coalition, but you have a few other projects that you’re doing as well. So I don’t want to miss out on talking about those. 

Brenda Smith:  3:56  

Yeah. Yeah, we, as as you say, Erin, we did get, of partnership really did sort of get its its start between, you know, public and private land management. But we actually convened six different collaborative groups. It is always been our board’s interest and desire that sort of all the work is around community and the community is going to benefit from the work and sort of all the decisions that are happening within these collaborative groups are to the benefit of the land, the people, our rural economy. So these other collaborative, so so we convene a wetlands collaborative that is around some crucial land that’s on the pacific flyway that is very important to migratory birds. We convene a forest collaborative and a wildfire collaborative which is really about the sagebrush steppe range lands and, and management. But to add to that we have Biz Harney. And that’s our economic opportunity collaborative and how we can help small businesses or rural economy, entrepreneurs. Youth opportunities. And then we also have a Youth Collaborative. And what’s really interesting about that is when I first came on with high desert partnership, and they’re really like, how do we begin to sort of take this holistic view? We just had the three collaboratives, I think, at that point, and so we started asking around in the community, and people just naturally talk about youth, like, every, just youth, everything. And so we knew that we could coalesce around youth. But the thing that High Desert Partnership, we really tried to bring people together to decide on how we move forward with projects and programs. It’s not like, well, we think that the youth needs internships in Harney County. We hear that from the collaborative and the folks that we’ve gathered to the table. That’s what we’re hearing from them, and then we’re trying to like, okay, so how do we make that happen? What, what are the challenges that we have to overcome? What are the bottlenecks we have to overcome? To be able to offer this opportunity to our youth. The one thing that is interesting with our, our collaboratives, is that because particularly on the, the land management side and our you know, forest wetlands, is that we like to say that if you, if you have a love and concern for Harney County, you’re welcome to the table. Right. So, we have a lot of partners who do not live in this community. And I actually think that strengthens our cooperatives from that standpoint. So conservation groups that that may not have, you know, a base in Harney County but have an interest in it. For example, Portland Audubon, and their, their long standing interest in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. You know, they’re at the table.

Erin Borla:  7:31  

Well, I think that brings up a good point of they’re showing up, right? And that they don’t just have an interest from afar. Decisions made about me without. That’s my new favorite phrase. No, no, no, you have to, you have to come you have to show up. That’s been sort of the theme that I’ve heard through all of these conversations, is showing up. And you know, we talk about a lot in philanthropy, I always joke that our job is really easy. We sit behind a desk, we write a check, the people that are doing the work are the ones that we really are that are that are out there on the ground, and they’re they have the hard job people like yourself and others, and what can philanthropy do to to better understand your, your work and be here? 

Brenda Smith:  8:13  

Yeah, I think and I think philanthropy is starting to understand, but you know, one thing about, you know, writing that check, and, and, and providing resources to folks is, it has typically been fairly competitive. And so, in some ways, when you’re trying to bring people to the table, but if they think they’re gonna get money from so and so because that is their, you know, priority and funding. There, it it sort of, it makes a little rough. Right? Yeah. So, {yeah scarcity right?}, yes, exactly. Coming from the scarcity mindset, as opposed to having the full, full resources.

Erin Borla:  9:03  

So as do you have an example of where you think philanthropy has made a difference in some of the work rather than caused a burden? And no just on funding you don’t need to blow smoke, it’s fine. It’s one of those like, no, that was really helpful, because that helped leverage this or that or.

Brenda Smith:  9:20  

Oh, yeah, so philanthropy has really, really helped our organization with, you know, I would say more capacity dollars. So that, you know, we can, we can have some people helping coordinate and, you know, collaborate and figuring out who to bring to the table and, you know, helping us with grant writing. And yeah, it’s been, it’s been really. And I would say it’s a specific example is let’s see, we just finished this grant up, but it was an 18 month, state funded grant to do landscape scale management for wildfire resilience and, our wildfire collaborative had been meeting for some years. So we did have a nice group that was coming together, Had never really done a lot in terms of project funding and implementation. Right. So it’s been more in the planning. And so it was really interesting to see those partners who had been working together, coming to consensus on, you know, what was needed for wildfire resiliency, now have this opportunity for some funding. But I think, you know, we were able to do the coordinating piece we even pulled in, so all of our collaboratives are facilitated by an outside facilitator. So we’re not really driving that bus even.

Erin Borla:  10:56  

You don’t have to see him at the grocery store. Oh, sorry, I had to cut you off on that thing.

Brenda Smith:  10:59  

Exactly, exactly. So just we’ve, we’ve, we’ve been able. So we were successful in bringing those wildfire partners together, everybody sort of had their project. We put in the application, and we got 70,000 acres of invasive annual grasses treated, we got several 1000 acres of juniper treated. We’ve got fire lines treated, and partners got their work done. I just felt like that was a really great example of a pretty substantial amount of money getting out on the ground, the way the agency wanted it on the ground, the funder wanted it on the ground, and the partners came together. And the fact that we had philanthropic funding to support our capacity was huge in that. So.

Erin Borla:  12:07  

So as you have people come to get I mean, these are, these are all amazing stories. And I, like I said, I’ve been so impressed with your work, but how it’s not always sunshine and roses. Right? What happens if somebody disagrees? You you have an outside facilitator. 

Brenda Smith: 12:22  

Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah, collaboration is not for everyone, for sure. I mean, I have to remind myself of that too.

Erin Borla:  12:31  

I’ll have to tell my teenagers that at home. Collaboration is not for everyone. This is how this is going to go. 

Brenda Smith:   12:34  

Yeah, exactly. Yes and it starts at home. I’m the mom you’re the kids. Yeah. So yeah, I mean, it. A lot of people don’t have the patience for collaboration. And then, you know, there’s that sort of that whole litigation thing that hangs over public lands, so that I don’t have to collaborate, I can just litigate. But are you actually going to get what you want? And so I think that’s what I don’t know. Yeah. There’s lots of places that, you know, it’s, it’s maybe not the best option. The one thing I say is that these are complex challenges. If it was a simple problem, we probably wouldn’t need collaboration. {Or it’d be solved,} it would be solved {it would have solved it} it would have solved it. Yeah. So. But yeah, it is sort of just this constant building relationships. And I do think that’s sort of the basis. And the, the foundation of our work is that it’s this one on one relationship building that needs to happen. Even before you come to the table to collaborate, right? Or what is this all about? Right? So there’s a lot of conversations that need to happen. And a lot of it needs to happen on one on one. It’s not like okay, we’ve all gathered you together here today. At this one happy table and we’re gonna go away and it’s, it’s gonna be wonderful. Because it really isn’t it is. I have a couple of, I’d say early career staff folks and you know, getting them to know that, I’m sorry this one particular partner is not feeling good, right? And they may not ever right like you, you may never have, it may always be challenging to work with him, but it’s worth leaning in, to try to try to make it happen. So.

Erin Borla:  14:59  

A lot of the work that we, we are trying to tie things together here through this, this podcast is around, one explaining what rural looks like, what frontier looks like as far as a landscape, right. When we think of a city or a town, sometimes it paints a certain picture and based on whatever your history is, and in the winter of 2015 2016. Here in Harney County on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge was, was occupied or taken over. So tell us a little bit about that. And about your experience here as a, as a Harney County resident.

Brenda Smith:  15:33  

Yeah. Well, that was really interesting time. I had actually been with the High Desert Rartnership for about a year. {A freshie}. I was I was new in that. I am not Harney County raised. So I at that, at that point, I’d guess I’d been there, I’ve been here about 10 years, maybe. Which is like no time, {still not a local} like no time is still, yeah. But what’s really interesting is Harney County has always really felt like home to me. So I, you know, I know, I’m not of Harney County, that that’s clear, but I’ve always felt really accepted. And, you know, it just feels like a really good place. So with that, yeah. So some folks that have had issues with the federal government for quite some time and sort of, you know, the narrative of take back our lands and poor management and all of that. So they essentially thought they might have some traction in Harney County due to some ranchers that had been prosecuted for a wildfire that had happened. And I couldn’t even begin to go into that, but essentially, you know, just basically, folks that just thought they were gonna come in and take, take things back essentially. Thought they had some traction out at the refuge, National Wildlife Refuge, because I think it was out of town, mostly, you know, it’s basically 20 miles from town. It was over a holiday and a vacation period, so maybe not a lot of people out there. So they did take over the, the refuge. And what I think’s interesting about that is it was the refuge director and a neighboring rancher that started High desert Partnership. And it was that refuge manager who was currently out there when this occupation happened. So, a High Desert Partnership board board member was like right in the middle of that. So we were really in sort of a, I was in a really weird situation, new organization, realizing that sort of what the narrative of these militia occupiers were saying, was not what’s been happening in Harney County. Like folks have been working together and had been really mending tensions and tenses and all of that for quite a few years. And so, yeah, it was just really sort of, surreal in in being in the community. And I think the story I have that I guess I would share around that is the Harney Basin Wetlands Collaborative had applied for an Oregon watershed enhancement board, big grant, Focus Investment Partnership Grant. We had gone through all the sorts of interviews and the reviews and like this was the sort of the first funding to do some landscape scale projects that were down at the refuge and surrounding ranch lands. I was actually coming back from the OWebb board meeting when we had received the funding that we had got the notification that we received the funding. I was out between Bend and Burns and it was about 11 o’clock at night and these unmarked vehicles were passing me, and it was basically the end of the {oh, wow,} the occupation when, yeah, there was the {the big end look it up.} The big end. Yeah, the big end. {Yeah}. So I just I just always thought that was like sort of the juxtaposition, right like this big occupation. But we just were entrusted with basically $6 million to do this work. Because we had been coming together and working together. And yeah, I just don’t feel like that is the story that was was heard across the land. You know, the ranchers actually, when when the occupation ended, that the ranchers held, they actually planned and held a big meal barbecue for the refuge, folks. {Yeah}. So yeah.

Erin Borla:  20:59  

Have you seen any, any, blowback is definitely not the right term. Any, what’s been the response after that? You mentioned that barbecue, you mentioned people {Yeah}, pulling together? And {yeah} how’s the community come together? 

Brenda Smith:  21:13  

Yeah, I would. I don’t know if the community really feels maybe, as, I think it did impact the community. Overall, I just think maybe that everything’s not maybe as rosy as we would like to believe it is or something to that effect? I don’t know. One thing is, is that we had a few folks ask us, you know, what was the High Desert Partnership role in trying to bring the community back together? And we, we had a lot of conversations around that. And what it, it ultimately came down to was, like some, some, you know, aunts and uncles or, you know, brothers and sisters have to solve that on their own. If they participated in a way that was bad behavior, or like they were in disagreement. They got to solve that on their own. That is not something that you know, an organization can do with a facilitator or not.

Erin Borla:  22:24  

What’s your lane? Not family therapy. 

Brenda Smith 22:26  

Yeah. Yeah, right. Yeah, exactly. We are not family therapy. So.

Erin Borla:  22:32  

Yeah. Well, I think it’s so interesting, just the portrayal of what what rural is in that particular instance, was such a highlight, of where people sort of dove into what the their preconceived notions was of a community, like Burns and or Harney County in general. And.

Brenda Smith:  22:53  

Yeah, you know, that just you just when you said that made me think about one thing I thought was really interesting sort of being in the community is, many of our ranching families have a member of the family that works for a federal agency, whether it’s a Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management, or Fish and Wildlife. So I thought it was interesting that, like, folks with one for answers in that, like, guess what, part of that family is an agency family? Right. Yeah. So, I mean, a lot of times, you know, those, those harder conversations that happen in collaborative meetings. We, we do talk about, well, one of our facilitators is, you know, what is your worst fear? And, interestingly, when you sort of take it to a high enough level, we all are the same. It’s, it’s sort of disagreements about how we get to that space. You know, we do want clean water, we do want, you know, functioning land. We want, we want resilient communities. It’s hard to argue against that. It’s, you know, we get into the spaces of how we get there is how.

Erin Borla:  24:03  

And it’s even the language sometimes, right? {Yeah, yes} I’m like, we want a place for our children and grandchildren to live and love and thrive. And we are saying the same thing. {Yes} That our urban counterparts are saying {yeah,} we’re just using different language. {Yes exactly} So, I so appreciate the work that you do. Bringing people together and and recognizing that we are trying to get to that. What’s the end goal? What’s the end game? {Yeah} Kind of cutting through baloney to get there.

Brenda Smith:  24:41  

Well I, I just really appreciate that Roundhouse came into my life and and our organization’s life and just, yeah, sort of the authenticity that you bring to funding and philanthropy and.

Erin Borla:  25:01  

Well, we’re trying.{Yeah} I mean, I, I appreciate that a lot. It’s, it’s definitely trying to find the balance. Of how do we, how do we work in both worlds? Right. But I think the biggest piece that has been a surprise to me has been, it’s one, it’s not a surprise that there’s amazing work happening. What’s shocking to me is that nobody knows about it. {Nobody knows about it} And how do we elevate those stories? And talk about talk to the Brenda Smith’s of the world in the high desert partnerships in the world and and say that, gosh, we’re doing really incredible things in these communities. And let’s share it.

Brenda Smith: 25:38  

Yeah, yeah, well, thank you for that. Because, yeah, there’s just never enough ways to share it, it seems like, so.

Erin Borla:  25:55  

Brenda really talks about the disagreements, and how there are disagreements, and sometimes there’s fear in that in fear of like, No, we just want to move forward and have people be positive. And we all want to work together. And we want to show collaboration, that we should embrace those disagreements, because ultimately, we all want the same thing. We want the clean water and the healthy land and the legacy for our children and grandchildren to be able to experience the land that we live on, and that we play and recreate on. And so how do we embrace those disagreements, to be able to pull together a really strong movement forward, right? So collaboration can be hard? How are we as funders looking at those collaborative efforts on the ground? You know, I think we get asked a lot about collaboration. And oh, we have this great new program that’s coming up. And we’re collaborating, and we know everybody, it’s such a buzzword for folks. So I think with roundhouse, what we’ve tried to do is really get to know folks on the ground, which we’ve talked about a lot. I mentioned in previous episodes, our grant review committee that’s made up of folks from across the state. So getting feedback about, hey, this applicant says that they are working with these six organizations. I know that they’re not, or yeah, they, they’re great. They really are appeal and people together. I think having that voice has been really, really helpful. And sometimes that’s that’s hard to do. But But recognizing that, that that’s a really important piece and knowing sort of how people are showing up in space. Right. And I think we also want to think about how we access narrative, and especially as funders, right, when we are interested in doing work, are we only getting information from national media, or are we looking at at local news media, or are we actually talking to folks in those regions? I know we talk about that a lot, but I think that’s a really important piece, is really understanding how we have an impression or what the impression is of a community that we’re trying to serve. Thanks so much for listening to funding rural. As always, you can check out more information specifically about high desert partnership, Brenda’s collaboratives all the wonderful things that they’re doing down in Harney County, at We’ll have a transcript of the episode and more information available there.

Transcribed by A.I. Please forgive any errors.


Published On: May 27th, 2024 / Categories: Funding Rural Podcast /