By Kyle Peerless

I am so grateful for the TOLA program. The curriculum and guest speakers we are exposed to in conjunction with our campaign work allow us to develop skills to become effective at connecting with people in a way that provides perspective and inspiration, and the impetus to take action against injustice.

In the “Personal Narrative” curriculum inspired by former UFW organizer and current Harvard Professor Dr. Marshall Ganz, Ganz discusses how connecting one’s personal story to a communal narrative and ultimately an urgent call to action are the key elements to building social movements. One of Ganz’s particular reflections resonated deeply with me:

[Movements] tell stories because they are not just about rearranging economics and politics … they also rearrange meaning.

Being a part of the Measure HH Soda Tax Campaign in Oakland has helped me to understand that the essence of organizing is acting to rearrange and reprioritize what matters in our communities. It is about posing the question: What do we want our story to be going forward?

Participating in the soda tax effort has made me hyper aware of the exorbitant and unregulated amounts of sugary beverage advertising that our children internalize on a daily basis. This grotesque level of advertising explains the current diabetes epidemic we see in this country. Thinking about the role that the industry plays in our society’s poor health outcomes becomes even more frustrating given that our opposition to the measure is the American Beverage Association (ABA) – the very trade group representing corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

In the face of such forces, our team is out each day speaking with voters in person in order to educate them on the current health crises in Oakland and how this legislation can enhance the city’s ability to combat the negative health effects of these drinks. When talking with more skeptical voters, I often reference my own upbringing by telling people that I — like many other kids who participate in sports — drank Gatorade religiously throughout my childhood to replicate athletes like Michael Jordan who I saw endorsing these products. By connecting my story to the cause in this way, I have found that voters are more receptive to our message as it causes them to reflect on the manipulative way in which beverage companies advertise to children and the adverse impacts this is having on community health.

The campaign has become a microcosm to me of how special interests and money in politics hinder our ability to understand and develop solutions to issues facing our communities. Come Election Day on November 8th, we expect the ABA will have spent close to 10 million dollars attempting to shoot the measure down, which is more money than has ever been spent in the history of Oakland on a city ballot initiative. Given the ability of the beverage industry to not only contribute to the poor health of Oakland residents, but also profoundly distort their political dialogue around the merits of these products, the importance of incorporating my own personal narrative into the organizing work we are doing has become very clear to me.

There is no doubt it will be a tough fight, but by working to pass Measure HH we are redefining our relationship to sugary drinks and rearranging meaning for the health of Oakland children.