Puzzling Leadership Gap as New York NAACP Joins Soda Industry to Fight Ban

Various size cups and sugar cubes are displayed at a news conference at New York's City Hall, Thursday, May 31, 2012. New Yor
Various size cups and sugar cubes are displayed at a news conference at New York's City Hall, Thursday, May 31, 2012. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in the city's restaurants, delis and movie theaters in the hopes of combating obesity, an expansion of his administration's efforts to encourage healthy behavior by limiting residents' choices. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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?

In addition, the reporting in the story suggests a surprising lack of leadership on the part of an institution as serious as The New York Times. It certainly obscures more than it clarifies in an already messy situation, with the information about the nonprofits' concerns for minority-owned businesses relegated to the second half of the article. While thankfully, there are no "sacred cows" in journalism, in a case where the reputations of two such storied nonprofits hang in the balance, thorough reporting is in order.

Here is a five-point plan for what leadership by the actors in each sector would look like.

1. Nonprofits: NAACP New York and the Hispanic Federation could aggressively search for allies to tackle the regulatory structure creating disparities, instead of joining corporate interests to fight a public health measure that could help their constituents.

2. The nonprofits could also convene a conversation with policymakers and government agencies to address the issue of protecting minority-run businesses without this happening at the expense of their communities' health.

3. Government: The government could address the quirks in regulation that produce inequality and strategically recruit nonprofit help to address this issue within the broader system as parallel strategies to promoting its public health measure.

4. Private Industry: In this case, Coca-Cola's corporate social responsibility is bumping up against its quest to keep an unhealthy product in the market to ensure a profit margin. It offers both a cautionary tale to nonprofits and a lesson for other industry giants that if the aim of grantmaking is to improve a company's community relations, putting nonprofits in a position that conflicts with their missions is bound to backfire. Companies should give grants without these problematic strings attached.

5. Journalism: Keeping in mind the reach of The New York Times and the trust readers place in its framing and explanation of issues, a follow-up story that includes a more thorough review of the case and the perspectives involved is necessary.

This is an instance in which public service actors have failed a key lesson of Leadership 101: Find ways to frame the issues and take actions that bridge the differences obscuring a larger shared vision: a healthier and more equitable world for all.