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Building a Successful Grassroots Nutrition Movement: Interview with Sara Soka

February 10, 2016

“It’s very easy to be cynical about politics. I can be cynical as well. But seeing policies being guided by a grassroots movement, with people who wanted to make this happen at all levels of power in the city, was inspiring.” — Sara Soka

Sara Soka was the Campaign Manager for Berkeley, California’s successful 2014 ballot measure for a local tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). The one-cent-per-ounce tax is funding school gardening, cooking, and nutrition programs, as well as community grants to address health disparities. In part 1 of this 2-part series, Sara shares the story of Berkeley’s successful grassroots movement for change and key lessons for other grassroots health and safety movements.

Sara Soka portrait shotGrassroots Change: Tell us about your work as a public health advocate before joining the Berkeley soda tax campaign.

Sara Soka: What’s funny is that I never saw myself as an advocate earlier in my career. I started out with a traditional public health research background, but was quickly struck by the importance of local coalitions in making public health change work. My first project after grad school was managing a healthy food access project in my home state of Wisconsin. I learned a lot listening to coalition members in a rural city as they puzzled out how to convince local restaurant owners and grocers to try healthy eating strategies. In all the work I’ve done since then – in public health messaging, farm to school, and tobacco prevention – I’ve been impressed by the ingenuity and dedication of local coalitions. Collaborating with the people in them is incredibly rewarding to me.

GC: How did you become the campaign manager for the Berkeley Soda Tax Initiative?

SS: It was almost accidental – I came to a coalition meeting! I’d moved to the East Bay at the beginning of 2014, attracted to Berkeley and Oakland because of the density of public health organizations based there, and the leadership role Berkeley and the region have played in public health. I’d joined a mailing list that announced the Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition was holding a meeting to discuss a soda tax. That was the first I’d heard of it, but because of my background in obesity prevention, knew how important this policy was. I decided to go and see if I could volunteer to work on campaign messaging.

The meeting room was packed with more than 50 people, all very energized, from across a wide spectrum: public health, doctors, lawyers, school board members, city council members and others. They had just gained the support of the local chapter of the NAACP. Hearing that, and of their full city council support, I had this palpable moment thinking, “Whoa, they’re going to make this happen!” It seemed that if any coalition would have the chance for a public health victory against a formidable opponent, this would be this one. The coalition leaders said they were taking applications for a campaign manager. I spoke with them after the meeting, and after a few interviews, they chose me.

GC: Let’s talk about the inner workings of the Berkeley campaign. You’ve talked about the passion, the power, the right endorsements, and the history of public health leadership. But what were the challenges?

Photo of Berkeley campaign leads (L-R): Larry Tramutola, Sara Soka, Laurie Capitelli, Xavier Morales, Kad Smith, Josh Daniels. Leads not pictured (partial list): Vicki Alexander, Martin Bourque, Lolis Ramirez, Holly Scheider, Linda Maio, Max Anderson, Darryl Moore, Clancey Bateman. Photo credit: Clancey Bateman.
Photo of Berkeley campaign leads (L-R): Larry Tramutola, Sara Soka, Laurie Capitelli, Xavier Morales, Kad Smith, Josh Daniels. Leads not pictured (partial list): Vicki Alexander, Martin Bourque, Lolis Ramirez, Holly Scheider, Linda Maio, Max Anderson, Darryl Moore, Clancey Bateman. Photo credit: Clancey Bateman.

SS: The biggest challenges in the first few months were aligning around direction, fundraising, and finding ways to get work done with very little money. The Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition was informal, made of local leaders who’d collaborated in the past. It wasn’t a longstanding entity that had been based at a nonprofit. While that may have created challenges in that we had to go through those early-stage weeds of figuring out how to make decisions and work together, it was also an advantage – the informality freed us up and let us be nimble. In the meantime, I was the only staff member, asking everyone I met to donate time and skills. Our coalition leadership volunteered a ton of their own time to move this forward.

The campaign had to find the right fit in our political consultant, someone with deep experience with ballot measure campaigns, and also understood the importance of engaging the Berkeley coalition. We chose Larry Tramutola in May 2014. He’d trained under Fred Ross, Sr., the same man who’d trained Cesar Chavez. Larry also runs an academy for young advocates, many of whom became involved in our campaign.

GC: How critical was the grassroots movement? Could five powerful people have just gotten together and done this without building a movement?

SS: It’s possible, but doing it this way was a better fit. Even though I was a newcomer, I was very aware of the local culture and anticipated people in Berkeley would react negatively when the soda industry came in and spent money on door-to-door campaigning and billboards. We could point to that money and say in response: “This is what we’re going up against.” It’s possible we could have gotten over 50% of the vote without deep engagement, but I think we carried much more legitimacy with it.

GC: How did you build the grassroots movement?

SS: If someone walked into the campaign office or sent the campaign an email, wanting to get involved, I would think about what that person could offer and try to plug them in in a way that was useful to the campaign and meaningful for that person. I always tried to value the importance of building a relationship with someone coming to us voluntarily, listen, and build respect. That’s huge. Then people feel invested, empowered. If there’s enough of that happening, enough people who feel this way about the work, then you have a movement.

GC: So far, you haven’t talked about egos. Sometimes that can crater a movement because someone or an organization comes in and wants to take over. I’m just curious if you ran into that with the Berkeley initiative.

SS: Yes, there were egos – I mean, everyone has one, right? But during the campaign, we channeled our attention to our shared goal, which says a lot for the people I worked with at the helm of the campaign.

GC: What was your messaging like?

SS: We tried to keep it very simple and focus on how sugary drinks affect our kids: One in three children will get diabetes in their lifetime, sugary drinks are a major contributor to this disease, and the tax is the right first step to change this. Also talking about how the soda industry, like big tobacco before it, targets youth and people of color, and how this is not ethical.

GC: You took them head on.

SS: Yeah, and we would just go back to those points: this is about kids, this is about health justice. Once the American Beverage Association started sending its money, we talked about the industry’s unprecedented influence in a Berkeley election.

GC: I’m curious if you felt people understood the bigger picture. Did they understand the long-term health affects, or was it at some point: let’s go after Big Soda.

SS: For most people it was both. Very much like with tobacco… a harmful product plus the beverage industry behaving badly.

GC: The combination of the two things, yeah. How do you think the soda tax is changing social norms in Berkeley?

SS: Well I think there’s a lot more awareness of the health harms of sugary drinks now. And people are reminded of the importance of the food and drink choice people have available to them – what’s affordable, what’s available, what’s marketed. As the tax revenue comes in, the Berkeley City Council has put money towards community grants meant to change the disparities in diabetes rates across the city. Berkeley churches, nonprofits, and the city’s public health department are collaborating on projects that propose to do this.

GC: It’s that inspiration part.

SS: Seeing a success story. Yeah.

GC: The snowball effect right ? It happened in Berkeley so it can happen elsewhere. What about tools or resources or aids that you feel were effective? You talked about several things – the right political consultant, about engaging volunteers. What are some of the other tools, resources, approaches that you felt were critical to success?

SS: Good public health messaging – keeping it short and personal. Sharing the most compelling and personally relatable statistics, the ones that are simple, surprising, and memorable. Money’s important early on for coalition development and messaging work. It’s been difficult for sugary drink campaigns to find money early on.

GC: What about social media and other technologies. What tools did you use?

SS: Mostly Facebook and Twitter. Most of our Facebook followers were local, so it was good to promote events and calls for volunteers. Our Twitter audience was broader, so we used it to communicate with the larger public health community nationally, and with media.

GC: What advice do you have for other grassroots movement leaders in their communities, whether they’re working on nutrition or other issues?

SS: The importance of having that coalition building early on – a rock solid coalition. You can attempt to convince people through the health data, but you still need local political weight on your side.

GC: The whole thing seems to go back to power of a grassroots movement, as was the case with tobacco control. So how would you describe the well of power that came with this soda tax movement and how this translated into the capacity to touch voters?

SS: It was the local power brokers at the table – the city council, leaders of the community organizations, the school board, the people with direct ties to the constituents – that is what mattered to the voters, not the beverage industry. It was the power of the constituents, and the ability of the leaders to both communicate a message to the constituents and engage them. But also the capacity piece that comes from finding meaningful work for individual advocates so they feel a personal responsibility and ownership for the campaign.

GC: And you took the time to do that. You mentioned the one-on-one conversations with people who would walk in and say, “I want to help,” and you would find something that would make use of their skills. That sounds like it was really critical. Is that true?

SS: It’s extremely important because you need to be able to depend on your volunteers. And though Berkeley’s known for a proud history of activism, this was a very inclusive movement that fell outside stereotypical visions of what activism is. I was moved by the number of times, say in September, when I’d be closing up the office on a Sunday night and a family would walk by the door and ask, “Oh, what are you doing, what’s this campaign?” Then they’d ask if they could get involved, and I’d say yes, come by on Saturday.

GC: Did you consider yourself an activist going into the Berkeley campaign?

SS: No.

GC: Coming out of it?

SS: Yes!

GC: It’s now part of your life story. It sounds from your story that a grassroots movement like this can change perceptions of power. Is that so?

SS: This campaign changed the people who were involved in it. One man in his twenties who was part of it said he never wanted to be involved in politics before, but now is part of the local health commission and mentors other young people in becoming politically engaged.

It’s very easy to be cynical about politics. I can be cynical as well. But seeing policies being guided by a grassroots movement, with people who wanted to make this happen at all levels in power in the city, was inspiring.

Coming soon:  Part 2 of our interview with Sara Soka. Learn more about the Berkeley Soda Tax grassroots movement – how they turned their passion into a compelling vision that united advocates and activists alike, how they developed an effective strategy, and ultimately how they focused their resources to build a powerful and successful movement.