The Tomato Struggle: Messaging Sustainability for Action

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

By Olivia Nava

My background is in social justice and the arts, so you can imagine my excitement at finding an MBA program rooted in both sustainability AND design.

One of our courses this semester is called Live Exchange. It teaches us effective communication that relies on an understanding of how words structure thought and action. Before the semester began, I expected to not only learn about authentic interpersonal communication, but also how we can effectively message sustainability.

Last month we completed a segment of this class called, “Teach Us Something in Seven Minutes.” It’s a dynamic group presentation that aims to teach a concept from one of our core classes in a fun and interactive way. When we first rehearsed in class, one group’s presentation ended with asking the audience to stand up and take a pledge. The pledge was, “if I have the option to drive, walk or bike in the next 24 hours, I will choose to either walk or bike.” Simple enough, right?

What happened next was unexpected and disappointing. Our instructor advised the group not to ask the audience to make the pledge in their final presentation because she wanted to avoid making our audience uncomfortable by having to stand up and make this pledge. I found her response deflating because I was excited by my classmates’ call to action.

Out of concern that I had misinterpreted my instructor’s comments I requested time to talk to a couple weeks later. She was open and addressed my concern by pointing out that in this program our messaging of sustainability needs to be more sophisticated; she had felt that the group’s pledge was too narrow and simplistic. We must be able to provide more options for people to deal with climate change beyond the commonly stated option of biking over driving. On the night of the performance the group redesigned the pledge so that it was more inclusive – and even my instructor felt inspired to stand.

I thought about this further and realized that my expectation for the DMBA learning experience is to help me develop sustainability messaging. What I am finding in my research is that we need to invite discourse, not statements. People will find their own answers if we provide reliable information in an engaging format and allow room for them to make their own decisions.

I am deeply committed to sustainable agriculture and how people of all economic levels can attain fresh, healthy food as well as earn a healthy living working in agriculture. Even a simple tomato can become a struggle as the average shopper works to manage food costs, taste, environmental and social impact. The benefits of choosing to buy from a local, sustainable farmer are vast: social, environmental, and economic. How do I open a conversation about this with those who are unfamiliar with the concept without their eyes glazing over at the word, “sustainable?”

Beyond the environment, the tomato struggle includes those who pick our food. Buying from many local farmers markets presents opportunities for supporting fair wages for farm labor. To learn more about this, check out Small Planet Institute’s website about tomato farm workers in Florida. Then check out the Community Alliance of Family Farmers to find out how you can source your food more locally.

As readers of Triple Pundit, you probably know most of this stuff. I am probably preaching to the choir. You are most likely interested in sustainability issues. It may not be a tomato-based dilemma for you, but how have you found success in messaging the importance of climate change or social justice within your own personal community? What is your Tomato Struggle?

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

4 responses

  1. Great message about inviting discourse vs. making statements. In the age of soundbites we rarely hear anything beyond a series of vague statements that arguably don’t inspire people to action or encourage further exploration into the subject beyond inciting a barrage of equally vague counter statements. Discourse on the other hand is key to creating buy-in from the parties envolved. Which is key to creating any real change.

  2. I agree with buying locally and think this is a great point. But I have to say, it is often more expensive to purchase or harder to find unless I wait for the weekend to go to a farmers market.

  3. Dear Olivia,

    Greetings! I read your recent post mentioning Small Planet Institute’s website about tomato farm workers in Florida. I am writing on behalf of the Small Planet Institute, founded by Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé. Frances has seen your post and is thrilled to be mentioned. She has asked me to reach out to you to extend our gratitude that you are engaging with these ideas. As you are studying many of the issues that concern Frances, would you like to be added to the Small Planet Institute mailing list? That way, you can keep up with Frances’ and Anna’s newest writings and events, as well as receive our e-newsletter. Our website features tons of great resources on sustainability, local foods, and what you can do to better the environment.

    Best Wishes,

    Tess Carenbauer, Small Planet Institute
    25 Mt. Auburn St. #203
    Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

  4. I’ve been working in the area of sustainability and currently studying my post graduate in sustainability. I find my class mates like you – hungry for action and change. The organisation I work for make lots of statements and electronic communications which they think is effective engagement with internal stakeholders but if you ask people on the ground, the response is completely different.
    I’ve been trying to tell them they we need to build a platform for them to discuss they concerns and any other matter surrounding their well-being. But unfortunately they still don’t get it.

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