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Grassroots Change Interview: Lessons from the Boulder Soda Tax Victory, Part 1

December 6, 2016

Inspired by Health Equity

On November 8, 2016, voters in four US cities approved soda taxes – San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, California, and Boulder, Colorado. These communities joined Berkeley, whose voters approved a tax in 2014, and Philadelphia (in June 2016). Cook County, Illinois (including Chicago) followed, on November 10.

This interview series, “Lessons from the Boulder Soda Tax,” delves into three related aspects of grassroots movement building. The first looks at how social and health equity motivated supporters of the Boulder soda tax, in an interview with Jorge De Santiago and Elena Aranda of AMISTAD, a nonprofit promoting health and human rights for Boulder’s Latinx community. Part 2 features lessons in coalition building and local policy making from Angelique Espinoza, the Healthy Boulder Kids’ Campaign Manager. Part 3 examines the soda industry’s legal challenges during the campaign, with Hillary Jorgensen, JD, Director of Policy Change at Healthier Colorado.

This interview has been edited for length.

Grassroots Change: How did you get involved in the Healthy Boulder Kids [soda tax] campaign?

Jorge De Santiago: We began inviting people from our community to build a coalition over a year ago. I jorgetalked about our experiences with obesity and diabetes in our Latinx community — I shared what I’ve seen through our work at AMISTAD, and as a youth soccer coach. When I saw people coming who worked with children and families, and on equity issues, I realized this isn’t just me who is concerned; there is a large group of community members and organizations who want to do something. I was hopeful we could actually make changes.

We didn’t have consensus at first. It took some time to come to agreement on a citizens’ initiative to raise revenue for health equity. Then we starting talking to potential champions.

GC: What was your message?

JDS: That soda affects our Latinx community’s children most. We needed to pass this measure to bring those children out of the shadows. We had to show everyone that this inequity was really happening, even here in Boulder.

Health equity, to me, is about poverty and racism that exists in our community. Some elected officials don’t want to accept that this exists. They think the programs they already have in the city, the scholarships they provide, the housing they provide is enough. They don’t see that it’s still very hard for many families to afford sports and healthy food, or in some neighborhoods, can’t even get clean water in their homes.

Invisibility has always been a problem. Our community is diverse, but most people don’t want to see it. We have Latinos, immigrants, a strong LGBTQ community. When the community doesn’t validate that we’re here, we have to demonstrate that we’re here. For Latinos, systematic racism starts with kids in schools and continues all the way to when the city doesn’t validate our existence. It’s like we’re being told, “If you can afford to be here, great… if you can’t, leave.”

The democratic process lets the people be heard. This was initially brought forward as a citizens’ petition so it wasn’t up to the City Council to decide; it was up to them to put it on the ballot and let voters decide. The Council is elected to represent the people of Boulder, and this was an initiative that came from the people to improve the lives of children in Boulder.

GC: How do you think the soda tax revenue should be spent?

JDS: Our tax was specifically earmarked to fund health equity. Latinx leaders were involved from the very beginning. But our coalition had difficulty because polls said that health equity wasn’t a top message for voters. Polls measure the current of the waters, but this was the opportunity to say the truth. I think that people in the Boulder area are ready to hear these issues. We also heard members of the public question why we were so focused on Latinos, or think I’m biased as a Latino. Let’s get real: Latinos are the ones who are really struggling in Boulder. This is what the data show.

Communities who are most affected by these issues need to get organized. If a government is leading the effort, you need to work together but also make them accountable. To say “We’re here, count us in,” not just watch from the fence. Be engaged, be proactive. Be the watchdogs and make sure the revenue is invested in equity, make sure your communities will see real benefit and changes. The funds must be for the community, not just to fill a budget.

GC: When did you realize how hard the soda industry would fight against you?

JDS: We knew from the beginning. Our message to the City Council was ahead of the game. We were local, we knew the members personally. The industry didn’t know these guys. When industry hired a local firm, they started to meet. At the first City Council meeting, there was only one industry person there. After that, they started building up and everything changed. All I could say was, “Bring it on.”

The soda industry’s strategy was to scare the City Council with legal threats [which will be covered in more detail in part 3 of this series.] Our message was that the Council represents the citizens, …they’re elected by us. Everything came to a head when the City Attorney began to recommend that the City Council go against our citizens’ initiative. I was thinking: Are we going to let this one attorney stop us? Are we going to let these nine council members stop 9,000 of its citizens [who signed the petition]? At that point I felt like we were going to fail. It wasn’t clear where we were going to go from there.

It took a long time, a lot of meetings, a lot of discussions, a lot of disagreements, but finally we pulled together as a group. We finally accomplished our first goal and got the measure on the ballot for voters.

GC: What advice do you have for future grassroots campaigns?

JDS: From a grassroots perspective, we must speak up for our communities. For example, we need education, prevention, and more infrastructure for the Latinx immigrant community. If you build a strong coalition, you can hold the [soda tax] revenue accountable to make a difference.

  • Define who you want to benefit. If it’s for Latinx communities or low-income kids, they need to be at the table. Or have a sub-committee. Have a channel for them to advocate for what their community really needs.
  • Consistent equity message. The message of health equity must go from the beginning to the end of the campaign.
  • Organize. Get real people behind it. It’s fine to have the experts, but community input is important from the beginning.

GC: What would you have done differently?

JDS: The education process needs to start earlier and continue throughout the campaign. Start early with stories and data to back up the issue. When we wait until the campaign starts, that’s too late. Then when it comes to the measure, people already know what’s at stake. You should be doing education well before a policy even is introduced. Once you have built foundation of knowledge, there is no way you can be vulnerable to industry messages.

We need more community-based funding to do this essential education. It has to be done in phases. We started backwards. We started with the issue and the policy, but we were so worried about the logistics. We spent a lot of time asking questions about the specifics about how it’s going to work, some of which could’ve been put toward building power in our community. We need foundations and funders to pay attention to this.

Elena Aranda: We needed to see real stories of people, how they are living, their testimonies for how they are impacted. When you use a story, people can identify with it. They say, “I know this — this also happens to me.” It unifies us in the same reality. We have to tell stories about immigration, health, and our resilience so that other people can identify and tell their own story.

If we show a story of success, it shows people we can do this. Even with all the obstacles, barriers, culture, and language we can make a change. One story can change many other families. For Justicia Refrescante, first we went looking for the best stories, but then we decided to just be casual and choose normal stories. And they are the most powerful because they are real and relatable.

JDS: I think more focus on implementation is necessary to make sure that the families affected by the soda industry will get the support they need to have healthier and better quality of life. We must make sure the funds are used for that purpose. I feel a responsibility to be the watchdog to make the system accountable for that goal. If the soda industry continues to come into our community, I want to keep challenging them. I want to face them – one on one – because I think we have to model that we have to speak the truth. We can’t be soft and gentle when it comes to the health of our community.

Jorge De Santiago is the Executive Director of AMISTAD, a Latinx-led social justice nonprofit. He served on the Executive Committee for Healthy Boulder Kids, the successful soda tax campaign in Boulder, Colorado. Elena Aranda runs AMISTAD’s Programa Compañeras, promoting Latina leadership and community health. Boulder voters approved a ballot measure for a 2-cent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) on November 8th, 2016. Their educational campaign with the voices of community members impacted by health injustice can be seen at JusticiaRefrescante.com.

Special thanks to Sara Soka for covering the Boulder soda tax movement for Grassroots Change.