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A New York Times article this week, “In N.A.A.C.P., Industry Gets Ally Against Soda Ban,” seems to indicate a leadership failure across sectors.
According to the article, the New York chapter of the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation, two institutions committed to representing the interests of African Americans and Latinos, joined the soda industry in fighting a New York City government ban on big sodas. This is despite the fact that African Americans and Latinos are collectively approaching a 70 percent obesity rate in the city, a figure even worse in many low-income areas.
The nonprofits’ stated concern is that the regulation would harm minority-owned businesses due to a “quirk in New York’s regulatory structure” that exempts 7-Elevens from the soda restrictions applied to other businesses. So minority-run businesses and corner bodegas would be forced to stop selling the big sugary beverages, losing customers to nearby 7-Elevens.
However, the article points to pressure from Coca-Cola that may have accompanied its grants to the NAACP as well as the former president of the Hispanic Federation taking a job with the soda company as the true prompts for the nonprofits’ support of the ban.
So we have a case of government health officials and nonprofits — both with explicit missions to protect the public interest — lining up to fight each other, at the same time that corporate social responsibility programs may have run amok and are now being used as leverage in a pro-soda agenda.
This seems to be a case of leadership failure on all sides. This is particularly the case if we think of leadership as something that does not belong to a single individual, or “leader,” but to a community with shared values, where people work together to frame the way they see and explain their problems, bridge differences to find common solutions, and dedicate their energy and abilities to addressing them. So while actors in both the government and nonprofits claim to be working for the public interest and should be defending it at all costs, they are ignoring that common ground. Why aren’t the leaders of these public service organizations engaging in a conversation around what constitutes their shared vision?