Our Vision & Path: Reflections on Session 5 of HEAL’s School of Political Leadership

By Zoe Hollomon, Organizing Co-Director, MN Lead, Pesticide Action Network, North America

I have been a big fan of the HEAL Food Alliance for years. I learned about the School of Political Leadership from a couple of Food Justice organizer friends, Miah Ulyssee and Rebekah Williams, who were both part of HEAL’s first SoPL cohort. Participating in SoPL was a powerful experience for Miah and Rebekah and their organizing efforts, so I was really excited about the prospect of being part of a future SoPL cohort. I joined the staff at Pesticide Action Network (PAN) – one of HEAL’s member organizations –  last year in the fall. My SoPL teammate Vera and I were already organizing the Midwest Farmers of Color when I came to PAN and met up with Beverly and Tanya with the Toxic Taters Coalition. We were wanting to build an alliance between our groups and saw SoPL as a great opportunity to do that.

Our Vision and Path

My SoPL team – Communities Uniting for Farmer Health & Justice – is working to impact the decision making processes around pesticides, farming and racial equity in MN, through coalition building and narrative and art based projects. We are in a state (Minnesota) where 70% of agriculture is commodity farming that happens at an industrial scale and is heavily reliant on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Drawing in tens of billions of dollars each year, the agro chemical and large-scale agricultural corporations are highly invested in keeping the system the same, even though it poisons our people, contaminates our land and water, and exploits small and sustainable farmers. As mighty and resilient as we small farmers and environmental justice warriors are, we are up against a lot in our economic and political systems. But with the Baby-boomer generation of farmers retiring and the deep racial and social inequities that more people are seeing with the pandemic and uprising against racist police violence, we feel we are at a critical time to get more public, organizational and political support for deeper changes in our food system. 

This is about transforming our food system, in Minnesota, in this country, on this planet. This is about food sovereignty and the ways we are learning to heal the land and heal ourselves. HEAL understands how hard this work is, how much it asks of us as organizers of color, what the stakes are and why we need each other to win. SoPL gives us these chances to be together and be vulnerable, to share our big dreams and our fears; to learn from some of the best in our field and take on some of the biggest battles of our time.

Reflections on Session 5 of SoPL

For the 5th and penultimate session of the School of Political Leadership (which focused on strategic communications for campaigns), we learned amazing skills and insight from Communications Strategist & Trainer Nina Smith. Specifically, we dug into how how our voices can have a bigger impact through different media platforms. A major part of our organizing campaign is about reclaiming the narrative about who we are as farmers in Minnesota, and how our safety and wellness is directly connected to our food system.  Nina’s training gave us some insights to embody our power position with the media and amplify our message to the broader public.  

  • Know our goal and community we want to reach! 
  • For press, radio and TV, the time is short so being clear and bringing our main points to the forefront early is important.  This is very different from how we share our experiences in the community. Crafting soundbites feels a little strange but if we only have a few lines or a few minutes, we need to have clear messaging for what we stand for, why that’s important, and what people can do in support.
  • When we speak to radio hosts, interviewees or reporters’ stay centered on our message, if it’s a TV, live online interview, or radio spot- remember body language and tone are just as important as your message. Also practice with someone before an interview rather than just reviewing your written points, in real life the host or reporters may not follow a script. 
  • Just as we build relationships with community residents and organizational partners, building and maintaining relationships with press outlets we want matters. Research media contacts and think about what attracts them for a story or a group. We want access to platforms that reach our audiences and when we find those opportunities, we need to take care of those relationships so that they are there for us when we need them again. 
  • Earned media, or press, is valuable to help lift our issues and visibility to a larger audience. For our campaign, while our local events will draw people in a smaller geographic area, we don’t want to miss the chance to elevate the issue we’re fighting through larger press outlets and garner wider public support.

This training really helped us think more broadly about our organizing campaign. Beyond reaching out to our supporters to attend our events or respond to action alerts, we can use the press to elevate our issues to the regional or state levels, and that’s how we can build greater support for our cause and generate political pressure. I think we all know that media is powerful but feeling like we are in a powerful position, in an interview or on a radio show, changes how it feels to do that part of our work. The tips we learned here are also good for talking with elected officials.

Closing Out & Looking to the Future

Our campaign is an organizing one, where we’re bringing together core communities who are underrepresented (farmers and rural residents) to leverage power and find new strategies for making changes in our food and farming system. Through HEAL, we found some great tools for coalition building, like the HEAL Protocols and Principles, a great example of shared agreements between organizations with people of different cultural backgrounds but with shared goals of racial and social justice. 

We had great trainers, Navina Khanna, Jose Oliva, Nina Smith to give us their best advice and  knowledge on contextualizing the work, organizing tools for change and elevating our work through communications. There is never enough time but we really appreciate these sessions and the work of the HEAL staff. They worked hard to make our program special even though we couldn’t meet in person, and listened to our feedback to help meet our needs. We also connected with other cohort members and were able to learn and share about our communities and our campaigns. We also had some good out of session meetings with the Idaho team, and feel like we now have friends and partners across the country who are demanding the same changes in the way our food is grown and distributed and we can call on each other for advice and support.

Finally, We have the opportunity to change our local food system and impact the way the world sees food.  We have big bold dreams and through SoPL we got a combination of advice, technical skills and connections to help us get to them.

Zoe Hollomon is a Black, queer, food system activist, artist and farmer, who’s been organizing with BIPOC communities for over 17 years. She started organizing in food justice in Buffalo, NY and has since worked in NYC and Minnesota to grow food, build relationships between farmers and urban communities, and impact decision-making in food, farming and health-related policy. She co-founded the Good Food Purchasing Twin Cities Coalition in 2017, which has been changing Minneapolis Public School District’s food purchasing practices to better support health and nutrition, fair labor, environmental sustainability, local economy, and humane treatment of animals. Read more about Zoe »