Becca Miller on running for office, organizing, and food justice
"We're talking about saving lives"
Becca Miller is a program manager at a food systems policy and advocacy nonprofit. Her work focuses on the intersections of food security and local food production, urban agriculture, and electoral organizing. She is also an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), where she was elected as a member of the nationwide Ecosocialist Working Group steering committee from 2019-2021. Becca ran for Somerville City Council in 2021, where she continues to organize with her neighbors for a community that works for all.
Last year you ran for Somerville City Council in what to me was an inspiring campaign, but unfortunately did not end up winning in the general election. What was that experience like?
I decided to run for office for a lot of different reasons. One of them being that one of my comrades who's done a lot of electoral work thought that it was a winnable seat at the time because there was an incumbent who isn't really responsive to tenants. She's now mayor; that's disappointing. But the experience I think helped me grow in a way that I wasn't expecting as an organizer and also was extremely challenging at the same time.
The experience overall was challenging but also brought home the fact that talking to our neighbors is good and helpful to our politics and helps us sharpen our arguments. It was also pretty inspiring because my campaign brought people into organizing for the first time, which felt wild. We're actively trying to keep those folks engaged in organizing, which I can talk more about later. Also I met people that I didn't know super well that were also candidates, some of whom are now elected city councilors, and developed really good relationships with them that I think will be really helpful and pretty inspiring in the years moving forward.
It was inspiring, challenging, and frustrating all at once, and I think I wouldn't change anything. Some of us lost, but we only came up like 700 votes short across the city—me and the two other folks that lost—of having a majority socialist council. That's in a city of 80,000 people. I think it’s a really strong base of folks that are still supportive of all of our policies and will work to implement them in the coming years.
You ran as a slate, right?
We all each decided to run independent of one another. The folks that ran at-large had discussed running as a slate, had worked to build what that meant to them a lot longer than the rest of us did. Then we were all endorsed by our local chapter of DSA and our local chapter of Our Revolution, so we were seen as a slate. I don't think that we really operated in what people understand to be a slate necessarily. We were in close communication, but we weren't necessarily using the same message across the city because there are nuances in different areas of the cities.
So yeah, we were a semi-slate, but I think we ended up being in a lot closer communication once the election was near and worked to be there for each other.
You mentioned that with your campaign you were able to bring people into organizing. Can you say more about that?
As a first-time candidate, I felt like I learned a lot. I hadn't been someone who had been deeply involved in electoral organizing before. I do legislative organizing for my job, but as a candidate it was a very, very sharp learning curve for me. So I hired someone as my campaign manager who had been involved in organizing before. She was on the Senator Markey campaign, she has been involved in local organizing in our mutual aid organization. A core value that we tried to institute in the campaign was that we want to bring folks in, we want to activate not just DSA members. I think it happened organically, to an extent, and I think that she was really good at giving folks increasing opportunities for engagement. Obviously an electoral campaign has a limited time frame, but I think we could have done more to build ladders for them to learn and engage with.
We're also—by we, I mean a group of organizers that were involved in various campaigns in 2021—trying to build up the neighborhood-level group of Somerville DSA again and we've been strategizing around issue campaigns to work around. Those will be around housing and free public transit, and we're still working on how that will all come together. But it's something that we're trying to build and fly at the same time. We’re also trying to work to make sure that the folks that we elected, and that we have already elected, in Somerville have deeper relationships with Boston DSA than they have because we just haven't had capacity and haven't done a “socialists in office” thing like New York City DSA has done.
So I invited some of the folks that have been deeply involved with my campaign to strategize around those issue-based campaigns. Some of them have come and then the ones that didn't come to the meetings were like, “I can't come to this because I'm away this weekend, but I really want to stay involved and thanks for continuing to work on this.” That's been cool to hear.
Shifting gears a little bit, you work in food justice. How did you get interested in that?
After my first year of college, I applied for a bunch of internships that I didn't get, and then I applied to work on a farm in my hometown. My field manager left halfway through the summer, so I was basically running the CSA side of the farm with three other interns because the farmer—as is typical of American agriculture—was 65 or so around the time and was physically unable to do a lot of the work. I almost transferred out of my university to go to an agricultural college after that. But I stayed, and me and a couple of my friends advocated to the university administration to create a food studies minor within the geography department, which Clark [University] is known for. So that ended up happening.
At Clark you can do a fifth year for free if you get good grades and get a master's degree. So I did that and then graduated, and then I ended up working at this farmer's market organization after a year or so of just doing random jobs. At the time this program, HIP, that gives folks with SNAP extra money to spend on fruits and veggies at farmers’ markets was just starting up, and I was hired to do outreach about that and onboard new farmers and spread the word to farmers' markets and consumers.
I did that for a year until the grant that we had from the state to fund my position was pulled back by the state to just fund dollars for program incentives because the program was going through it so quickly. When that job ended, I got this job which I now have to advocate to the state to fund this program because otherwise it would have just shut down.
I'm more broadly interested in food justice because I think it's a nexus to talk about a lot of different things, whether it's climate, labor, obviously food security and culture, and education. It covers a lot of different areas and you can take it in a lot of different ways, depending on the work you do, and I think that's really powerful. As part of that, our agricultural system could use an overhaul because it's just so strange right now.
Yeah, that's for sure. What's the biggest thing you feel people don't understand about food and ag in this country, or you wish more people knew?
I think there's a broad misconception of what the government actually does in terms of food and ag. People point to subsidies pretty often as one key thing, one quick fix to fix the food system. They're not wrong, but it's also a lot more than that. To me, the biggest thing is that a lot of people think that the food system should be centered around farmers, and it should to an extent, but it also should be centered around what I would call a national food policy to create food security, culturally relevant food, and opportunities for people having good jobs in food and ag. But we don't have that. It's more centered around keeping landowners happy, which is why the Farm Bureau is so powerful because they serve landowners, and you have groups—the organization I work for at the state level, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Family Farm Coalition, etc.—trying to be progressive counterweights against the Farm Bureau. But ultimately everyone eats, so I think the Left or people more broadly could view it as a terrain of struggle that has a lot of different impacts, because right now it's only contested by a smaller segment of the population. Not letting it have more light on it is a failure to me.
Subsidies is one thing, and also how to protect the land—like paying for ecosystem services—another. I have issues with that, and I would rather see land reform where we actually take land out of production for producing commodities and actively work to subdivide it and make it more agroecological. That obviously creates inefficiencies that I think we're going to have to contend with anyways, as like just farming in the Central Valley of California and Arizona in the winter months becomes more untenable, unfortunately, with global warming.
You've talked about the fact that we need universal SNAP. Can you say more about that?
The federal situation is what it is; I'm unsure if this could be a campaign of the Left right now. I would need to talk about it more with other people because that's how I feel I learn and grow as an organizer. But I do think universal SNAP should be a demand of the Left in one way or another at some point. I say that because means testing is extremely expensive to implement, it's extremely expensive to maintain, it's also just racist as fuck and extremely dispiriting and creates what's called a “SNAP gap” of folks who would likely be eligible for SNAP but they don't want to deal with applying because it's such a bear to do so and the amounts that they would get with their income levels—it's like $16 a month for some of the seniors. Or they're $0 SNAP households: they technically qualify but don't receive any money because they're at the limit of what SNAP allows.
Getting to know folks who receive SNAP through my work in advocacy and hearing all of that for years, it’s been enraging and frustrating. I just think the system should be burned down, honestly, the means testing. You see it in housing, too. That's why we need public housing and social housing and to get rid of the Faircloth Amendment.
So universal SNAP, I think it's necessary because it would get rid of means testing. It would also really change the supply side. Assuming that you have universal SNAP and you have it at an adequate level for folks to have a good diet, whatever that means to them. I use that in a wide definition to mean cultural relevancy and whatever people consider healthy to them because it's not my job to judge you if you want to get a cake for your kid's birthday using SNAP. It would change the supply side because then you have people being able to have choice and I think that could radically change how our food system is set up.
I need to think through how it would change the supply side more, go deeper into it. But I think if you increase the levels that folks receive and then couple it with a huge tax on the wealthy and other social democratic policies, that could radically change the state of our country.
More generally, what do you think about the Green New Deal or broader environmental organizing terrain right now? Do you have any thoughts on what we should be doing?
Yeah, what is to be done? I actually really appreciated your interview with Thea because it was a lot of what I had been feeling. I really feel the need to have some deeper strategy calls around what we all see is happening locally and nationally, see what we agree with or don't, and figure out a way to move forward. The prospects for legislative success seem to be narrowing. That doesn't mean that I think it's completely hopeless, but it would take a massive amount of organization and rebuilding of the labor movement to get on board with our demands, and us helping to rebuild them for their own workplace struggles. That I think might take longer than before the midterms, if we're talking about legislative campaigns. But longer term, I think the framework of the Green New Deal is something that's really necessary, and if we lived in a sane world would already be done and we'd have jobs in it.
It's just really hard to tell what's going to happen because the conditions seem to be changing so rapidly. I really struggle with knowing what to do next because it seems like there's almost like low energy, if that makes sense, amongst the Left more broadly. And also a lot of infighting, which I personally find really dispiriting and frustrating.
I think the most immediate thing is to—and this is a self-crit—log off Twitter and talk to our comrades about what we're seeing and how we can work together and figure out what we need to prioritize in this moment because it's not something that I feel like I can answer alone. When we hang up, I'm probably going to go help my friend collect signatures to get her on the ballot because she's a state rep and she's running for reelection, but I don’t know what is the most strategic thing for me to be doing and for us to be doing right now. That is something I think we need to have broader conversations on and build up that skill of strategy and thinking through how to identify the political terrain that we’re operating in as a movement. It's something that I see a lot of folks that I organize with struggle with, myself included. It's a really hard skill to build up.
It's a confusing time.
Right, and as ecosocialists we know we need to continue building because everything that we can do to pass legislation or create organization amongst the Left helps lessen the degree of global warming. Ultimately we're talking about saving lives, both human and non, and places that people live. I think that is motivating for folks who realize that is our political reality, but that's really hard to maintain in a healthy way that doesn't just burn people out or depress them.
It was 60 degrees out today where I live, and I am the type of person that needs to get outside and go for a walk and feel the sun on my face, then I feel less terrible. I know intellectually this is not great, but it feels pretty good right now. That has helped me recently when I'm trying to still pay attention and not be super angry.
This interview has been condensed and edited for content and clarity.