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Zach Baker: From Tufts Classroom to City Council

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tufts alumnus Zach Baker, A05, a longtime health policy advocate and recently elected city councilor, traces his desire to address pressing community issues back to the halls of Tisch College.


On Monday, January 5, 2015, Zach Baker was sworn in as the youngest member of the Corvallis, Oregon, city council. And while this will be his first experience as a public servant, it is only the latest step in a life dedicated to policy, advocacy, and service that has been profoundly shaped by his experience at Tufts University and, especially, at Tisch College.

“My Tufts experience was great,” says the 31-year-old Baker, A05. “A large part of that was my involvement with what at that time was the Omidyar Scholars,” now Tisch Scholars, the College’s signature leadership development program that builds civic skills and prepares students to tackle pressing problems in their communities and around the world.

A Passion for Public Health

Through the program, he participated in initiatives like The Giving Camp, an annual camp run by Tufts students which serves people with disabilities. His most meaningful projects, however, were with Shape Up Somerville, where he worked to promote healthier kids’ menu options at local restaurants; and with the Somerville School District, where he collaborated on the development of a school wellness policy.

Those health-focused Scholar projects were a natural extension of a deep personal concern. “The reason I got interested in childhood obesity issues was my own background,” says Baker. “I grew up in a family that was very overweight: my parents were both 400-plus pounds, and my uncle was almost 700 pounds.”

His experiences at Tufts, both in the classroom and working with the University’s host communities, slowly transformed that personal interest into an academic passion.

“I took an Introduction to Community Health Class where I learned what public health was, as a field, and also realized that obesity was not just an issue in my family, but was actually a nationwide epidemic as well as a global issue,” says Baker. “Then, as I started to look at the causes of childhood obesity, I started to feel like much of agricultural policy was a problem.” As a way to marry these intertwining concerns, he majored in Political Science and Community Health.

Effecting Meaningful Change

Baker’s summer internship opportunities through Tisch College both broadened his horizons and began to give him a sense of the ways he could work to effect meaningful policy change. “The first summer I bicycled across the country, and the second summer I went to Ghana and Ukraine to do some volunteer work. My third summer I went to California to work on childhood obesity with an organization that was leading the way on advocacy around that issue,” he says. “Those experiences really made huge differences in my life in terms of my world perspective and how I wanted to be an advocate in the future.”

That was the path Baker followed once he graduated from Tufts and went to work in Washington, D.C, first as a Policy Associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition/Organic Farming Research Found, and later as a Program Analyst at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His experiences in the nation’s capital reinforced what Tufts had begun to teach him: that he could make a difference.

“When I was with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, there was a particular organic agriculture program that a representative was trying to cut finding to,” he says. “We heard about it very late in the game, and the hearing was going to happen the next day. We called everyone in our network overnight, and by the time the hearing started the representative had gotten a number of calls. He got on the floor of the committee room and told the chair of the committee that he was withdrawing the amendment.”

He recalls another experience, a couple of years later, at the Department of Agriculture. “My first week on the job, my boss comes in and says: ‘the president wants to address a particular issue: can you help us design a program that would use $100 million to address healthy food access?’ I ended up writing up and doing the research for a program that moved forward in the president’s budget,” says Baker. “Those kinds of things can happen when you’re in D.C. and you’re in the right position.”

Becoming a Public Servant

After a couple of years lobbying decision-makers in Washington, Baker began to consider the idea of becoming a decision-maker, himself. In 2011 he moved out to Corvallis, where his family had relocated years before, and got his law degree at the University of Oregon before running for—and winning—a seat on the city council.

“I felt like getting involved in local government as an elected official would allow me to make an impact very quickly,” says Baker, who sits on the council’s Urban Services committee. “It’s also allowed me to get to know my community, and that’s been really fun. We talk a lot about the policy side of things, but really it’s about building community if we are really going to address all the issues that we’re facing.”

For Baker, one of the most important issues is climate change. He is deeply committed to community-led efforts to mitigate global warming, in the hopes that successful citywide initiatives may take hold at the statewide and even federal levels. He also sees it as an issue emblematic of why voices like his, the only young-person in an all-volunteer city council filled mostly with retirees, are so crucial.

“As a young person, particularly when we’re talking about climate change, it’s my future and our future. I felt like running for office was a way to be part of the conversation and ensure that that future will be good,” says Baker. “Young people that I talk to rarely think about running for office, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t consider it; I think it’s really important for the younger generation’s voices to be involved in politics.”

That conviction about the importance of public service is doubtless another product of his Tufts education and his experiences at Tisch College, which taught Baker not just the skills to make a difference on the issues he cares about, but the values that continue to animate his desire to serve.

“Tufts is all about active citizenship and using whatever you learn to do good in the world. I appreciated it while I was there and I appreciate it even more being out of school, talking to other people and having recently been to law school,” he says. “There’s just something special about Tufts’ encouragement of students to actually do good.”