I Like Bad Grades

Each year with the release of the State of Tobacco Control local report card we all feel it – that terrible sinking feeling like we’ve gotten bad grades in school. California got D’s & F’s. My city got a D. And communities where I’ve spent time working with the Center got F’s.

It always takes a minute to remind ourselves that it’s not us; we & our coalitions are not the ones being judged. It’s our elected officials being graded. They’re the ones who need to take action to protect their residents. And they’re the ones we elected to do just that.

So as citizens we need to ask our elected officials to take steps to protect us. And as tobacco control staff we need to make sure that they have the tools to do that. Bad grades, although they feel harsh at first, are what we can use to demand action from our elected officials. Bad grades let them know they’re not doing enough and they’re not doing as much as their neighboring cities. Bad grades give us a way to start the conversation. Bad grades give them concrete steps to achieve success.

Personally I (as well as the Center and ALAC) completely sympathize with how hard it is to pass strong policies in the real world, especially in communities with tough political environments. And we will do whatever we can to help coalitions with that reality and to pass policies. But the grades aren’t meant just to be a reflection of this year’s reality. They’re not a one year effort, but part of a multi-year strategy to improve tobacco control across California. They’re about setting the bar high for all of us to strive for. No one expects every city to change their grade in one year like Richmond.

But because the bar is so high it may feel like the hard work & policies the elected officials have passed in the last year are not reflected in the grades and you may be worried that council members will get discouraged. I hear you. So it’s important for all of us to remember to praise cities for any good grades they might have gotten in one category (even if the overall grade doesn’t move) to the media, in letters to the editor, in comments to council hearings, and in letters to boards of supervisors.

The bar is now set. So let your elected officials know how they can reach it. Take advantage of your low grades. Meet with them individually and explain the grades to them. Offer to help them improve their grades. Give them TALC’s strong model policies. Have your youth present at a council meeting demanding grades get improved. Help your coalition members strategize about campaigns to pass new policies. Encourage community members to write letters demanding elected officials take steps to improve local grades. And praise the elected officials through coalition activities year-round for any actions they do take.

Bad grades are an opportunity and an organizing tool. And so, the question is: who’s going to be next year’s Richmond?

— Vanessa Marvin

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