Five things I learned from HEAL’s SoPL Cohort

By Marlene Manzo, Political Leadership Coordinator

I began working with the HEAL Food Alliance as the Political Leadership Coordinator in February 2021. A big part of my job, which I was really excited about, was helping to coordinate the School of Political Leadership (SoPL)! The 2021 cohort is my first example of what the SoPL curriculum is capable of, and how this dynamic program supports the work of community leaders across the country. After five months of planning and executing our virtual sessions, these are five things I learned:

1. We do this for our communities

One of the essential learnings from SoPL is that our work is led by communities in need, and it serves the most marginalized folks in our communities. The reason folks engage in SoPL is not for saviorism, but for liberation. Everyone is fiercely committed to the health and wellbeing of their communities, and it shows in their work.

2. Be strategic 

When so many issues of injustice intersect, it’s hard to get clear about the direction in which you want to go. Being strategic about who you want on your team, what messages you want to send out, and what issue you want to tackle first allows for more clarity and momentum in your work. It’s easy to get stuck in the vision and forget about the execution. I witnessed folks get very clear about what they wanted to do, and adapt their campaigns based on the political landscape in their cities.

3. Focus on who is on your side

We all know who our opponents are – they are easy to identify. But do you know who is in support of your work? Who can you engage with and build community with? Who is ready to volunteer alongside you and bring in even more people power? Who has the resources and connections you need? Rather than focusing on persuading folks who aren’t open to your ideas, build with those who are eager to jump on board with you, and educate those who are on the fence. Don’t spend your valuable resources on people who are committed to misunderstanding you.

4. It’s not what you say, but how you say it

When communications guru Nina Smith facilitated our fifth SoPL session (which focused on strategic communications for campaigns), she taught us how important tone and body language are when communicating to the media. Understanding that communication is expansive and includes our body movements, eye contact, the intonation of our voices, and our presence provides us with the tools to engage with our audience in more intentional ways. What I took away overall is to be thoughtful about the message I want to give off, not just with my words, but with my whole self.

5. You get what you give! 

This one is a bit cliche, but really resonates with me. Marla (HEAL’s Political Education Director) and I got creative with planning the curriculum for SoPL. We tried our best to make SoPL a worthwhile virtual experience, while holding the grief of living and working in a pandemic. We learned a lot from the cohort as they shared their regrets and their needs from SoPL. Our last session was the most touching. We spent time affirming each other, reflecting on the experience, and sharing personal stories. At the end, I realized that our hard efforts had paid off. All the moments we incorporated for grounding, play, rest, and connection fostered a virtual space where our cohort felt comfortable among one another. They contributed so much to the heartwarming sense of community that was palpable even through Zoom. We all grieved not being able to meet in person, and that’s especially true because together we created a space that was truly delightful. When you give to folks generously, you receive generosity in return. That’s what SoPL felt like this year – even amidst a pandemic. 

Now that this year’s SoPL has come to a close, I am looking forward to growing and learning with our next cohort. Keep an eye out for our call for applications for the next SoPL cohort, later this year!

Marlene has 11 years of experience supporting community-based initiatives through the non-profit sector and in academia. Born and raised in Sunnyside, a rural agricultural town in Washington state, they spent summers picking cherries with their mother and sisters. As the child of Mexican farmworkers they have witnessed firsthand the challenges many land workers face. They hold a deep respect and connection to the land thanks to their family’s passion for farming, fishing, bee keeping, and gardening. Their commitment to community resiliency and environmental protection is their guiding force for ongoing work with HEAL. Marlene earned their B.A. in Society, Ethics, and Human Behavior from the University of Washington. They are based out of Washington, D.C., occupied Piscataway territory.