Good Works

Street Smarts

By Paul Wilner

The Organizing and Leadership Academy’s goal is to train future grassroots leaders through an intensive four-month fellowship, granting those who qualify a monthly stipend of $2,500.

Don’t mourn, organize. ¶ The East Bay- and Stockton-based TOLA (shorthand for The Organizing and Leadership Academy) has followed Joe Hill’s famous precepts since it was established by veteran political consultant Larry Tramutola and his wife, Ann, in 2010. ¶ The goal is to train future grassroots leaders through an intensive four-month fellowship, granting those who qualify a monthly stipend of $2,500.

Tramutola, who cut his teeth with Cesar Chavez mentor Fred Ross and the United Farm Workers, is now an adviser to the program, which is now directed — fittingly enough — by TOLA graduate Lolis Ramirez.

The group ( has mounted successful hands-on campaigns, including the push for soda taxes in Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland, which resulted in money for public health programs. A similar effort was on the way to victory in Stockton, starting in 2017, until the beverage industry executed a squeeze play threatening a ballot measure on taxes on any municipality.

Undaunted, TOLA organizers, who had gone door to door, sponsored school forums on sugary beverages and enlisted small business support. They recently mounted a counter-protest advocating a Coca-Cola boycott in the rural town, with the potential to spread its campaign statewide.

Moving on from their successes in the deep blue Bay Area, TOLA then went to the Central Valley to have an impact on underserved communities that need it most. TOLA’s mission resonates with Ramirez.

“I was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and my family immigrated when I was 4, crossing through El Paso,’’ she says. “We moved to Oakland, and then Pittsburg [in California], a very blue-collar community. I had no idea I was undocumented until high school, when I tried to apply for a job but didn’t have a Social Security card.”

She’d been studying nutrition at Chico State. But her life turned around after a 2011 summer fellowship with the Dolores Huerta Foundation that gave Ramirez firsthand organizing experience. She applied to TOLA the following year, and has been director since 2018.

“If we look at social change, it’s generally made by young people.” — Larry Tramutola, defending younger activists. (Olivia Wise)

She stresses the importance of one-on-one contact. “You can’t just go on social media or do mailings,’’ she explains. “You have to learn how to facilitate conversations at the door with people who may have cultural differences, and navigate a conversation with people on the direct link between sugary drinks and tooth decay and diabetes, and how that can lead to amputations and eyesight loss. It’s about core values, not just which candidate you prefer.’’

Tramutola concurs, adding, “The rest of the world is not like the Bay Area. We recruit fellows who are primarily people of color and teach them how to navigate organizing with real opponents — when the wind is not at their back and success is not predetermined. We want to serve folks in underserved, marginalized communities. You need to reach out to people who may disagree with you and still find common ground.’’

In the beginning, Tramutola’s political operation largely funded the nonprofit, but it now receives grants from the California Endowment and the Panta Rhea Foundation, with most of the money coming from individual donations. The organization is also open to cash infusions from Northern California tech giants and others.

Tramutola’s civic and social networks have paid off in the form of TOLA workshops given by the likes of former United Farm Workers leader Marshall Ganz, Northern California Planned Parenthood director Gilda Gonzalez and Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.

TOLA fellows, who go through a rigorous application process and are not allowed to take outside classes during the program, subvert myths about “entitled’’ millennials.

“The students are a little different than when I was in school,” Ramirez says. “But we focus on core values. Why are you here? How do you connect with someone at the door when you may only have 20 seconds?” As Tramutola sees it, “In every generation, there are people who want to make a difference and are looking for a way to do it. Back in the day, when I first got involved, I was frustrated that people were tanning at the beach instead of fighting against napalm in Vietnam. But if we look at social change, it’s generally made by young people. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez were in their 20s.”

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