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Building a Successful Grassroots Nutrition Movement: Interview with Sara Soka, Part 2

April 4, 2016

We were getting far outspent by the beverage industry, but they couldn’t match the wealth of support we had from people and organizations across Berkeley and the Bay Area. The opposition gained very little legitimate backing in Berkeley, even among the business owners they tried to recruit. The culture of support in Berkeley for the soda tax was that strong. – Sara Soka, Campaign Manager, Berkeley vs. Big Soda

Sara Soka portrait shotSara 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 2 of this 2-part series, Sara shares the story of Berkeley’s successful grassroots movement for change and critical lessons for other movements.


Grassroots Change: You had the opportunity to see different types of coalitions in your earlier public health work in Wisconsin, and nationally, before moving to California. Did that experience inform your approach in the Berkeley campaign?

Sara Soka: Yes, I was lucky to have traveled and met people working on public health projects across the country. That earlier experience showed me how coalitions get things done. Even though every place is different – different leaders, different political leanings – there are always organizations that people respect and that can make things happen, stories people hold in common, and values they share. I’m fascinated by the different ways coalitions fit these pieces together to make their communities healthier.

GC: How do you assess the passion of individuals involved in a coalition? How do you know whether the advocates in a coalition have what it takes to succeed?

SS: It’s something I learned through the repeated experience of meeting people who are passionate and effective. As a group, they have to have enough skill and experience to navigate the process to get the change they want, but just as importantly, they have to believe that they can do it. I saw that during the first coalition meeting I went to in Berkeley in February 2014, and we honed it during the campaign, became like a tight sports team.

GC: After becoming Campaign Manager, how did you harness the power of Berkeley’s grassroots soda tax advocates?

SS: I would think about what that person or their organization could offer and try to plug them in in a way that was useful to the campaign and meaningful for them. 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. In the final months of the campaign, as Larry Tramutola, our campaign’s political consultant, would attest, we shifted priorities so everyone spent some time on the essential work of voter contact — walking Berkeley streets and making calls. By then, people were bought in and willing to do this disciplined work.

GC: What can you share as far as the size of the budget, or monthly expenses, to give scale of funding?

SS: In September 2014, we had raised and spent about $75,000. Our money came from people making donations of anywhere between five dollars to several thousand dollars – there were many small donations, many around a hundred dollars. October is when we began getting bigger donations, one from the American Heart Association that funded our first mailer, then others from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Bloomberg, and Action for Healthy Food.

GC: Do you have any sense what the opposition spent?

SS: Over $2.4 million. Our campaign ended at under one million. For months, though, we were running on a shoestring budget and needed every grassroots donation we got just to print enough yard signs and materials. We were getting far outspent by the beverage industry, but they couldn’t match the wealth of support we had from people and organizations across Berkeley and the Bay Area. The opposition gained very little legitimate backing in Berkeley, even among the business owners they tried to recruit. The culture of support in Berkeley for the soda tax was that strong.

GC: Do you have any insights into why Berkeley succeeded while a similar campaign at the same time in San Francisco didn’t?

SS: Part of it is because of tax law in California – in 2014, San Francisco decided to run a proposition with conditions that required a two-thirds majority vote, while Berkeley’s measure required just over fifty percent of the vote. A majority – 55% – of San Francisco voters actually voted in favor of their soda tax in 2014. They did well, especially when you consider that industry spent $10 million against them. San Francisco’s trying again this year, running a revised proposition that needs just over fifty percent of the vote, like Berkeley’s.

I know the San Francisco coalition worked very hard in 2014, and that they have popular support. In Berkeley, we were able to build a wall of community support industry couldn’t scale. That was more difficult in San Francisco in 2014, possibly because it’s a much bigger city than Berkeley. But I think they’ll do it this year.

GC: So, outside of politics and policy change, what are the potential benefits of grassroots movement building to public health in general?

SS: It’s a way to build inclusion, voice, representation, and power in public health.

GC: How do you know when a grassroots movement, such as Berkeley’s, has been successful?

SS: Obviously there was the policy win itself. But just as important, everyone involved felt like they contributed to that win, and to the good things that have happened since – the city of Berkeley is funding school nutrition programs and community grants. People are very proud of what happened and want to carry it forward and help other communities. When you have something great happen you want to show everyone. It’s true for a lot of powerful grassroots movements – the experience becomes a big part of your life.

It’s a social issue, it’s a science, and it’s hard to quantify – maybe you can’t.

GC: What advice do you have for other movement leaders in their own communities?

SS: The importance of coalition building early on – having a rock solid coalition. Understanding what motivates people where you live, and working for sound policies that build on those motivations. And to communicate not only with relatable data and facts, but with stories. Create opportunities for your neighbors to tell a story about why this issue matters to them, and make sure the right people hear their voices.

GC: Grassroots Change is focused on understanding the ingredients for building a successful grassroots movement, regardless of the issue being addressed. From the evidence we’ve seen so far, the key ingredients are passion, an effective grassroots goal, and building the power to make change a reality. What we’ve observed in other movements is that those three things need to get translated into a clearly articulated vision that takes the passion and says: “Here’s the future world we want to create.” And the goals need to be translated into a strategy that’s well thought out, and translates into steps to get where you’re going. That means movements need resources and capacity to achieve those stepwise goals. What do you think about the Berkeley vs. Big Soda movement in those terms? What fueled the passion, goals, and power, and how did you inside the campaign translate that into a concrete vision and strategy?

SS: So the initial passion that fueled it was twofold. Parents and teachers in the Berkeley Unified School District wanted to find a way to keep much-loved cooking and gardening classes running after its federal funding got cut. A sugary drink tax made sense as a solution, because the tax and the classes are both meant to create habits that keep kids healthier for life — reducing the risk that they get diet-related diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease down the line.

People also got passionate about the soda tax because the city’s public health department released a report highlighting race- and income-related health disparities in the city. For instance, African Americans in Berkeley are four times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than whites, and 14 times more likely to be hospitalized for it. On top of that, kids of color are more heavily exposed to sugary drink ads and marketing. This is clearly a health justice issue, and that drove people to action.

Everyone felt the tax was the right first step for the health of our kids. The strategy was to pass the tax, despite the financial resources of the beverage industry. Our strategy was also to make sure funds went toward programs in Berkeley that dealt with these diet-related health issues. It wasn’t as easy as earmarking soda tax revenue for these programs because of conditions in California tax law. We had the tax measure establish a panel of community health experts who would make recommendations about how the city should spend funds to deal with these health issues. Then we kept the grassroots advocacy going to hold the city council accountable, and made sure they followed the panel’s recommendations.

GC: So the strategy was passing the tax and creating the panel. Let’s talk about the power and how you built the capacity for the movement. First, who was at the table?

SS: Power brokers. Leaders of community organizations, school board and city council members, people with very direct ties to constituents. They were the ones who had relationships that mattered with people in Berkeley, not the soda industry.

GC: So how would you describe the well of power that came with this movement and how this translated to the capacity to touch enough voters?

SS: I think it’s really from the full spectrum of people and organizations that supported the campaign. There were teachers, doctors, nurses, pastors, elected officials.

GC: Was it the power of these leaders, these individuals who were elected, or was it the power of the people, the constituents, who were holding their leaders accountable?

SS: Both. Berkeley constituents were engaged members of the coalition from the beginning, and their passion further encouraged leaders to support the campaign. If constituents are the most important people to local leaders, then the leaders are going to follow them.

GC: It seems that the ability of the leaders to both communicate a message and engage their constituents was key. In other grassroots movements we’ve seen a dialogue, a virtual conversation occurring between grassroots activists or constituents and leaders. Did that relationship develop in the Berkeley vs. Big Soda movement?

SS: Yes, that relationship was essential. There was true passion for this tax from both sides.

GC: There are a number of assumptions that are sometimes made about what constitutes a “grassroots movement.” One is that “grassroots” means all volunteer. In the case of the Berkeley movement, was it important to have grassroots professionals as well as volunteers?

SS: It was extremely important to have some grassroots professionals because you need a backbone structure, right? As I said, we were running on a small budget, and were lucky to have Larry Tramutola’s organizing fellows as backbone staff for our voter contact campaign. Ideally we would’ve been able to afford more paid staff early on. But we were lucky to have highly skilled volunteers and leaders, some people who could offer time in-kind, and resourcefully made it happen.