New Film Highlights the Power of Organizing

by on September 18, 2023

Between the Sun and Sidewalk is Inspiring

How does a film capture what it means to build community power via organizing? We see a great example of this in an inspiring new film, Between the Sun and the Sidewalk.  After seeing a preview last week I feel compelled to get the word out to activists and everyone who cares about grassroots organizing process: Helen De Michiel’s film is a must see.

The film tells the story of young Oakland organizers who went to Stockton, California in 2017 to build community support for passing a soda tax. The organizers were part of The Organizing and Leadership Academy (TOLA). Founded by former farmworker organizer turned political strategist Larry Tramutola, TOLA trains young people in organizing and leadership development.

The Stockton effort followed successful soda tax campaigns in Albany, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. All saw voters health concerns raised by drinking soda overwhelming big money opposition.  Tramutola tells his young crew at the outset that after suffering these defeats the American Beverage Association would spend whatever it takes to prevent success in Stockton.

His prediction proved more accurate than even he realized.

At the time Stockton had  a progressive mayor in Michael Tubbs, who appears in a few of the organizer meetings. Stockton residents also had a high risk of diabetes, for which sugar-filled sodas are a primary cause.

What is Organizing?

Everyone talks about the need for “organizing.” But many confuse organizing with mobilizing. Mobilizing can be done via tweet; organizing is a time consuming process that builds power by spawning community leaders.

De Michiel follows the young organizers as they knock on Stockton doors trying to get health surveys filled out and establish a relationship with residents. The larger goal is getting people to become campaign volunteers and to then have them enlist their own friends and associates in the campaign.

Organizing is not easy. The film shows it can be frustrating, demoralizing, depressing and boring. Most movies focus on the high points of campaigns—this film tells the complete story.

TOLA organizers are surprisingly honest about their critiques of the campaign. One notes that they are coming to Stockton with a specific policy agenda rather than asking residents what is important to them. Another questions Tramutola’s requirement that they increase door knocking to six hours a day; he asks “what is the logic behind this?”

That same organizer also said he was tired of older generation’s (i.e. Tramutola) using their past successes to justify strategies for current campaigns. But the key TOLA leaders—such as Christian Garcia and Aurora Castellanos—share the Cesar Chavez-era farmworker movement’s commitment to long hours, hard work, and personal accountability. They subscribe to the Fred Ross Sr. adage that he instilled while mentoring Tramutola: in organizing there are no short cuts.

Garcia is the son of immigrant farmworkers and the film shows where he was raised in the barracks of a strawberry farm in Watsonville. Castellanos is a DREAMER who, like Garcia, has made political organizing their career.

It’s incredibly inspiring to see this new generation of organizers combining strategies from the past and present to build community power. If you are feeling down about the country’s future, this film will  revitalize you.

Political Realities

TOLA leaders warned the young organizers that the American Beverage Association (ABA) could spend as much as $500 million to defeat the Stockton soda tax measure. Little did anyone suspect that the ABA would come up with an even more nefarious strategy for preventing the soda tax from reaching the ballot.

The film shows Garcia first learning about the strategy when he gets a photo of then Governor Jerry Brown enjoying time with the head of the ABA. Garcia and the team then learn that a backroom Sacramento deal will prevent soda tax measures from being on the ballot for twelve years. The ABA had qualified a statewide ballot initiative to make it harder to secure tax increases; Governor Brown and Democratic legislative leaders backed a deal requiring the ABA to drop the measure in exchange for a soda tax initiative ban.

It’s a terrible move for California. But it enables the film to show Stockton activists storming the legislative chambers and speaking out against the deal (San Francisco’s Scott Wiener is heard emphatically denouncing it).

That a backroom deal scuttled their work reflects how California politics often works. But the newly trained organizers were not deterred. To the contrary, the film ends with the organizers and those they organized more committed than ever to fight for social justice.

Between the Sun and the Sidewalk is realistic about the challenges organizers face. The backroom deal just highlight’s the film’s core theme: challenging this type of politics requires organizing to build community power.

Go to the website to learn how you can arrange a showing of the film for your group. I encourage film festivals to include Between the Sun and the Sidewalk in their showings.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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