Who We Are

Larry Tramutola (kneeling front & center)

Larry Tramutola is part of the Fred Ross Organizing Tree, whose branches include Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, Marshall Ganz, Eliseo Medina and many others.

“I began organizing fresh out of college. I was full of idealism but lacking any practical experience or the discipline necessary to be effective. I was eager to make a difference in the world, but I had no idea where to start. It wasn’t until I met Fred Ross and volunteered to help the United Farm Workers union (UFW), led by Cesar Chavez, that I really learned the skills and developed the discipline necessary to make change. The lessons I learned in the UFW from Fred Ross and other organizers provided the foundation for my career as an organizer.

When I joined the UFW, it was struggling for survival in its attempt to improve the lives of America’s poorly paid agricultural workers. My contribution to the cause in the first few months was standing out in front of grocery stores asking people not to purchase grapes or lettuce. It wasn’t organizing, but I learned a lot. For hours on end, we would talk to shoppers, hoping we could convince some of them to support the farm workers. It was hard work, but I learned how to approach people, how to express passion in a few moments, and how to be positive when you are tired. I learned the importance of incremental progress and discipline. While others went to graduate school or law school, I learned about people on the sidewalks in front of supermarkets and in the homes of people I was trying to persuade to become involved.”

Larry is an expert on tax elections, grass roots organizing, and political strategy. His work has led to the passage of billions of dollars in additional local funding for public schools, colleges, parks, libraries and hospitals; recent landmark victories against Big Soda and Big Tobacco with the passage of the first in the nation successful taxes on sugar sweetened beverages and the first in the country prohibition of sales of flavored tobacco products; and the election of hundreds of candidates from school boards to national elected offices. Larry is the author of three books on organizing and is the founder of The Organizing and Leadership Academy, a rigorous “hands-on” training program for individuals interested and motivated to pursue a career in organizing. TOLA is built around the organizing lessons of Fred Ross, applied to current and real life problems.

Aurora Castellanos (standing)

“When I was nine, my mom and I came to the United States in search of better opportunities. We settled in East Oakland and like other undocumented immigrants we faced many challenges such as learning a new language, adjusting to a new country and new educational system. Although we immigrated after 9/11 when there was an anti-immigrant sentiment, I quickly learned the problems we faced were not unique. Today I see the same anti-immigration sentiment that we felt when we immigrated. Even though I was able to attain U.S. citizenship, many of my family and community members continue to struggle. I have learned that in this country, you can make a difference if you organize.

As empowering as it is to organize a march or see the power of people in the streets, I was looking for ways to gain more tools to create longer lasting change. I came to TOLA in search of training that could help me become a more effective change agent in my community. Through my TOLA training, I learned how to apply people power to pass a soda tax in Oakland. The tax generates millions in funding for health promotion programs that have the potential to improve the health of my community for years to come.

Since graduating from TOLA I have had the opportunity to organize in four other communities in California. I worked at an East Oakland High School developing an Internship Program and creating community partnerships to provide real life opportunities for underserved youth. In San Francisco, I was involved in the successful campaign to restrict the sale of candy flavored tobacco, a product that disproportionately targets youth of color. I recruited and helped train 24 youth in the City of Stockton who are working to improve opportunities for youth and to improve health outcomes for at risk youth. During the 2018 election, I worked in the 22nd Congressional District, to increase voter turnout in low income and minority neighborhoods of color. Today I am Co-Director of TOLA, the organization that inspired me to learn organizing. My hope is to inspire a new generation of activists and provide them with the skills to tackle the issues affecting their communities.”

Lolis Ramirez (standing in plaid shirt)

“A series of unexpected circumstances and opportunities led me to discover the world of organizing.

When I was four, I crossed the Rio Grande River that separates the U.S. from Mexico. I grew up in the U.S. and it wasn’t until I was sixteen before I realized I was “undocumented” when I applied for a job. I was ashamed, angered, and upset, but rather than hide in the shadows, it fueled a fire in me to fight and do better.

As one of five children, my parents, a housekeeper and a gardener, saved and supported me through college. With a major in health nutrition, my plan was to work in low-income communities teaching families about healthy choices. Two organizations changed my life and my career plans. The first, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, provided me an internship where I was first exposed to the power of organizing. The second was being selected as a Fellow with The Organizing and Leadership Academy (TOLA), where I learned the nuts and bolts of organizing. These two organizations taught me that I could have more impact on improving people’s health by organizing communities and people to fight for themselves, rather than by “educating” people one by one.

In the past 7 years, I have become a legal U.S. resident and I led the first successful soda tax campaigns in Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland. These measures will raise over $20 M per year for health education programs and improvements to community health. In 2018, along with other TOLA alumni, I led the first comprehensive restriction of flavored tobacco, inspiring other communities to adopt similar legislation and protecting youth, especially youth of color from Big Tobacco’s harmful marketing tactics and products. I’ve also led campaigns to improve cities, hospitals, schools and increase public safety all while ensuring community members, especially youth, played a vital role in those successful campaigns.

I’ve learned that through organizing, people can take on powerful foes like Big Tobacco and Big Soda and win. I’ve learned that legal statutes should not be an obstacle for improving communities, and I’ve learned that youth can make a difference.

Today, I am Co-Director of TOLA, working to recruit and train a new generation of leaders who can take on tough issues.”