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CIW’s Greg Asbed named 2017 MacArthur Fellow!

Prestigious award calls Worker-driven Social Responsibility “visionary strategy… with potential to transform workplace environments across the global supply chain.”

The CIW’s Fair Food Program, and the broader Worker-driven Social Responsibility paradigm of which the FFP was the pioneering model, received perhaps their most significant recognition to date when the MacArthur Foundation announced this year’s list of recipients of the acclaimed MacArthur Fellowship. 

In making the announcement last week, Cecilia Conrad, Director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, described the broad range of pursuits of this year’s recipients:

“From transforming conditions for low-wage workers to identifying internet security vulnerabilities, from celebrating the African American string band tradition to designing resilient urban habitats, these new MacArthur Fellows bring their exceptional creativity to diverse people, places and social challenges. Their work gives us reason for optimism and inspires us all.”

Among that number of groundbreaking artists, scientists, writers, and social change leaders was the CIW’s Greg Asbed (pictured above at the CIW’s office in Immokalee).  The MacArthur Foundation called Worker-driven Social Responsibility “a new model… for improving conditions for low-wage workers within the twenty-first-century labor market,” and described WSR as:

… a bottom-up approach that ensures human rights are respected in the workplace; [a model in which] workers play a central role in establishing work condition standards and codes of conduct and have transparent channels for monitoring and enforcing those standards.

After citing the groundbreaking transformation of the Florida tomato industry under the CIW’s Fair Food Program, the expansion of the FFP to new states and new crops, and the adoption of the WSR paradigm by workers in industries beyond agriculture, the MacArthur Foundation’s announcement concluded: “[The CIW’s] visionary strategy for WSR has the potential to transform workplace environments across the global supply chain.”

The award, which comes with a generous grant to support the CIW’s efforts, represents a landmark moment in the CIW’s two decades of work.  In an interview with the Miami Herald, Asbed described the award’s potential impact:

“The grant is going to help us expand the Fair Food Program and it will also help us expand the awareness of the WSR model. We will be able to touch hundreds of thousands of more workers and they can be covered with the protections that come with the program,” Asbed said. “This incredible new paradigm has been proven to protect worker rights better than anything else that has come before. This is going to change people’s lives immeasurably.”

A closer look… 

Given the award’s unique cachet, last week’s announcement generated a relative tsunami of press coverage of the CIW’s work, including an in-depth conversation with the New York Times on the roots of the Fair Food Program, two extended interviews with NPR stations in Orlando and Ft. Myers, an excellent piece in the local Gulfshore Life Magazine, a quick hit in Time Magazine, and extensive coverage in the country’s Armenian press, an example of which you can find here (Asbed is a first generation Armenian-American and the grandson of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide).

But perhaps the most comprehensive reporting to emerge from the award came in an extensive interview with New Food Economy, an online “newsroom that uses independent, deep, and unbiased reporting to investigate the forces shaping how and what we eat.”  If you read one piece of the coverage around the MacArthur news, this should be it.  We are including the interview here in its entirety:

Five questions for Greg Asbed, a co-founder of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, on the new standards changing labor abuses in the supply chain.

In 2008, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its prestigious fellowships—the so-called “genius” grant—to urban farmer Will Allen. The award, more commonly given to artists, public intellectuals, and scientific researchers, was big news, and a rare honor in the food world. It also turned out to be prophetic. In the years that followed, issues surrounding regional food systems, food access, and food insecurity—the challenges Allen addressed at his Milwaukee farm and educational center, Growing Power—went mainstream.

This week, when the MacArthur Foundation awarded its 24 fellows for 2017, the list included the first non-academic working on food system issues since Allen. It may be a sign of which food-related topic will go mainstream over the next ten years: labor standards in the supply chain.

[In 2016, The New Food Economy named the launch of the Fair Food Program to its timeline of the 21st century’s major food milestones. View the complete timeline here.]

In 1993, Greg Asbed co-founded the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), a workers’ rights organization that helped end systemic abuses—including human slavery—in Florida’s tomato fields. Over the years, he helped develop CIW’s standards into a broader framework called the Fair Food Program (FFP), signed on to by some of the biggest retailers and fast food chains in the world. 

More recently, Asbed worked to codify those standards into the Worker-Driven Responsibility Network (WSR), a model that helps weed out human rights violations across the supply chain. It works on what he calls the “two pillars” of worker participation and market-based enforcement. The program collaborates with workers to draft industry-specific standards, mandates a 24-hour complaint mechanism for employees, requires rigorous audits, and has corporate buyers sign binding legal agreements that require them to purchase only from suppliers who are in compliance with human rights.

As the MacArthur Foundation put it in its citation: “WSR is a bottom-up approach that ensures human rights are respected in the workplace; workers play a central role in establishing work condition standards and codes of conduct and have transparent channels for monitoring and enforcing those standards.”

Asbed and I spoke about the program’s approach, its success, and why he thinks food labor issues are finally ready to go mainstream.


In the past two decades, America has begun to change its relationship to food, a massive cultural shift mostly focused on ingredients, health and nutrition, and—to some degree—farming practices. For now, labor considerations still seem not to be as front-of-mind for most people as things like local sourcing and avoiding trans fats. Do you think that’s about to change?

I do think that aspect of what we could call a truly sustainable agricultural system is lagging a bit behind, that it’s been lapped by food safety, or the use of pesticides, or organic versus conventional, or other sustainability concerns. Those things led the parade because people tend to act based on self-interest. But I also think [labor] is catching up.

The fact is that no one really wants to be part of gross exploitation of other human beings. And they will think differently about their purchasing decisions if they are informed about the conditions that the workers who picked their food are facing in the field.

I’ll give you an example. A lot of times when I talk to people, I ask audiences to do a thought experiment. I’ll say: Imagine you’re driving down a country road on a beautiful summer day, and there’s a farm field on either side. You come across this perfect, idyllic farm stand selling fruits and vegetables by the side of the road. You love that kind of stuff—I love that kind of stuff. So you pull in, you get out in that gravel parking lot, and you see this array of the most colorful, freshest fruits and vegetables you can imagine. You fill your bag, and you go to the cash register. And when you get there—you know, that cashier’s friendly, smiling, ringing up your stuff. But suddenly, before you get a chance to pay for it, you hear a scream from the field that’s behind the stand.

When you look over the cashier’s shoulder, you see a woman being sexually assaulted in the field. And then you realize, as you start to look around, that there’s another worker on his knees getting beaten by his supervisor. Now, how would that make you react as the cashier rings you up and says, “That’s $18.75?” Are you just going to go ahead and pay that money? Or would you stop, demand to know what’s going on, and try to help the people getting beaten and assaulted?

When I ask audiences this question, invariably 100 percent of the people in the room raise their hand to say: ‘Yes, I would not buy that food, I don’t want to buy that food, and I’d do what I could to fix it.’ But the fact is, those things happen on American farms—especially on the larger conventional farms—every day in this country, and that’s been the reality for generations. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are daily occurrences in the fields. Violence against workers is by no means unheard of. Wage theft and a whole range of abuses happen. And because it happens outside of our vision—because we’re not standing their looking over the cashier’s shoulder—and therefore it happens outside of our mind. But that’s changing.

Because this is the 21st century, because there is this democratization of information, we’re able to communicate the fact that those conditions all occur all too often—that 80 percent of women in the fields report experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault on the job. But the ability to communicate is not going away. And as the years progress, consumers will be more and more informed. If that thought experiment is any indication, it’s going to be a major factor in how people decide to buy their food in the future.

What’s stopped labor from being a more mainstream food issue than it is?

It’s really just a question of awareness. But the awareness around labor conditions is growing. When we started the Campaign for Fair Food, we analyzed that the poverty of farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, wasn’t driven so much by local actors—the growers and crew leaders. It was driven, more than anything else, by the multibillion dollar retail food companies that could leverage their volume purchasing power to demand ever lower prices at the farm gate. It was this that drove down wages for farm workers, and conditions for farm workers.

Once we made that analysis, we had to go out and explain that to people. We went to campus after campus and church after church to build that awareness. And as a result, we were able to build a campaign that had 14 of the biggest retail food corporations—the biggest buyers of tomatoes in the world—[committing] to only purchase tomatoes through growers who work in compliance with a human-rights based code of conduct.

With those corporate agreements, we’ve been able to dramatically change people’s lives. We’ve put a stop to sexual harassment and sexual assault, for example, in the fields where the fair food program works. And there’s a formula. It requires, first, educating consumers. Then, mobilizing those consumers to pressure corporations, in order to win the binding legal agreement from companies—ones that demand that their suppliers meet human rights standards. Finally, it requires monitoring those standards with worker participation to actually eliminate long-standing human rights abuses in the field. It works, and we can replicate it. But it takes a lot of effort because it’s not the first story at the top of news, and you you have to fight to make it so.

Greg Asbed, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, with Coalition of Immokalee Workers co-founder Lucas BenitezThe John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Greg Asbed, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, with Coalition of Immokalee Workers co-founders Lucas Benitez and Laura Germino

It sounds like you’re saying conscientious consumerism—vote with your fork—is not enough to drive meaningful change on this front. It requires buy-in from major food retailers themselves. What are the challenges of getting companies on board?

We now have a proven program that protects human rights in corporate supply chains better than anything else that’s come before. That’s just not me saying it. Anyone who works in the field will say that: from the White House, which gave us the Presidential Medal for unique success in fighting forced labor, to the United Nations, which has recognized us for unique success in fighting human rights violations. So now that it’s not just an idea but a reality that’s been proven, you’d think companies like Wendy’s would simply say: ‘Let’s do this. Let’s be part of this.’ But they don’t.

If you took any one of those humans in that corporation and put them out in that position in the theoretical farmstand I mentioned, they would not buy the food. I guarantee you that. But even though corporations are just humans working together, something happens when they come together in that form: The collective tolerance for abuse shoots through the roof.

What we have to do, unfortunately, is overcome that collective willingness to turn a blind eye. We have to do that not only by the power of just not buying their food, but by actively getting out there and saying: ‘Your brand doesn’t get behind human rights, and we’re going to make sure that the world knows it.’ That is what has worked.

We would prefer—infinitely prefer—to be involved in building our program, expanding its protections, and doing the work of monitoring and enforcing rights rather than being in the streets and protesting. All that time for us feels like lost time. Sunk time. But unfortunately it’s still necessary, and we’re going to still do it because we’ve seen the results—which are tremendous.

“It was sort of like that old saying about Vegas: What happened in the supply chain stayed in the supply chain.”

Are there examples you can think of where the industry made the kind of broad-scale changes you’re hoping for?

Here’s a category where there are very, very few issues and compliance is almost wall-to-wall: food safety. Food safety in agriculture has been a problem for a long time, but it got to a point where there were just too many food safety issues—E. coli outbreaks, for instance, where families were losing children. The costs became too high for the retailer to be involved with those sorts of problems in the supply chain. So what happened? Standards were established, and they were retailer-driven. Retailers were able to tell their suppliers: ‘If you don’t get food-safety certified, if you don’t comply with these standards, we’re not going to buy from you, because it’s just too much of a risk for our brand.’ And food safety standards were implemented across the board.  

In the industry, they call it “the power of the purchasing order”—the power of the P.O., is the shorthand that buyers use. The major buyers know that their purchasing orders carry a lot of weight, and when they really want things to change—whether it’s what type of tomatoes or implementing food safety or, now, implementing human rights standards—they use the power of the P.O. to demand and direct that change.

“Corporate Social Responsibility—the model that has existed for 30 years—has failed.”

You’ve received this major honor, but the work is far from finished. What are the challenges ahead?

The challenge is awareness. It’s building awareness about the conditions that exist. It’s completely unacceptable that, for instance, 80 percent of women report being subjected to sexual harassment or sexual assault in the fields. And yet, I guarantee you,that 99.9 percent of consumers still don’t know that. Our job is to make sure that people learn that fact, and that they’re then able to learn that fact in a way that helps translate their awareness into concrete change on the ground.

Corporate Social Responsibility—CSR, the model that has existed for 30 years—has failed. If it were a science experiment, they would have shut it down a long time ago. It has not had any kind of real result for humans; the main result it’s had has been to be a firewall for public relations crises when problems erupt in corporate supply chains. But the power of the CSR model to keep corporations from feeling the heat is eroding as well. They feel it when a factory collapses in Bangladesh, or there’s a slavery operation discovered in seafood, or more recently, the discovery that North Korean workers in China are being treated in horrific conditions producing goods that show up under major brands here in the United States.

The old model has failed to protect workers rights. It’s failed even to protect the public relations interests of corporations. But this model works, and the results have been beyond our wildest expectations. That means it’s time to do away with the snake-oil charlatan approach that CSR has proven to be, and replace it with something that actually works.

In the 20th century, it was sort of like that old saying about Vegas: what happened in the supply chain stayed in the supply chain. Nobody connected it to the brands where the food ended up being sold. But that’s not the case anymore. Now, there’s a direct connection between major consumer brands and things like slavery and violence against women. The most important asset corporations have is their brand, and if protecting that asset requires them to use their buying power to demand compliance with human rights in their supply chain, then that’s what they’ll do.

Farmworker women to Wendy’s CEO: “Sexual violence has been our daily bread for decades”…

CIW Women’s Group pens powerful letters to Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor & Board Chair Nelson Peltz to educate company leaders on farmworker women’s struggle against sexual harassment and assault in the fields, request meeting to discuss sexual violence against women in Wendy’s supply chain face-to-face;Penegor and Peltz’s response to date?  Two weeks of silence, and counting…Also: CIW puts final touches on impressive “Harvest without Violence” mobile exhibit as workers in Immokalee and Ohio allies prepare for next Monday’s big action at Wendy’s headquarters!Two weeks ago, the CIW Women’s Group sent a letter to Wendy’s CEO, Mr. Todd Penegor, and another to Wendy’s […]

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PHOTO REPORT: The Fair Food movement takes Austin stage by storm during Together Live Tour!

Standing ovation greets CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo on the Bass Concert Hall Stage in the Lone Star State…Today, we bring you a quick photo update from the Together Live Tour, the whirlwind event headlined by Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach, Luvvie Ajayi, and other inspiring speakers — including the CIW’s own Lupe Gonzalo — that is inspiring and mobilizing thousands of women from coast to coast.Last week, as farmworkers in Vermont were signing a groundbreaking agreement with Ben & Jerry’s to bring human rights to Vermont’s dairy industry, the Together team arrived in Austin, Texas.  The star-filled line up packed all three levels of […]

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Ben & Jerry’s CEO: “It’s an agreement that puts the worker in charge of workers’ rights.”

Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice: “It is a great victory and an honor for us dairy workers to expand [the Worker-driven Social Responsibility] model to the dairy industry of Vermont.”CEO Jostein Solheim: “We really believe this is going to travel. This is going to travel across the nation.”Yesterday’s big announcement of the Milk with Dignity agreement between Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s — an agreement three years in the making — caught the attention of major media outlets, from the New York Times to the AP to Vermont Public Radio.  It also made its way onto the radar screen of […]

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“It’s a new day in dairy”: Migrant Justice, Ben & Jerry’s sign agreement to launch Milk with Dignity Program in Vermont dairy industry!

New York Times: “Ben & Jerry’s signs a landmark agreement today to beef up the rights of often exploited dairy workers in VT”…Migrant Justice’s Enrique Balcazar on agreement: “This is what we are calling a new day in dairy!”In breaking news out of Vermont’s iconic dairy industry, ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s and the dairy workers’ organization Migrant Justice signed today — after more than two long years of negotiation — an historic agreement to implement Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity Program in Ben & Jerry’s dairy supply chain.We quote here directly from Migrant Justice’s website for more on this groundbreaking […]

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Thousands join CIW for launch of #FairFoodSisters Campaign in San José, Phoenix during Together Live Tour!

California and Arizona give CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo standing ovation following moving on-stage interview with U.S. Women’s Soccer gold-medalist Abby Wambach…Last week, CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo took to the stage at two of the country’s historic theaters alongside an impressive lineup of New York Times bestselling authors, Olympic athletes, and other human rights heroes in San José, CA and Phoenix, AZ during the second annual Together Live Tour!  The star-studded group appeared at the City National Civic in the capital of Silicon Valley first, and then the beautiful Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix two nights later.With the theme of “love stories” at the […]

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ACTION ALERT: “Wendy’s, You’re Failing Farmworker Women” National Week of Action, Oct. 21-28!

Students step up to the plate, fight side-by-side with farmworker women to end sexual violence in Wendy’s supply chain!Right up until the final days of last spring semester, Wendy’s unconscionable decision to shift its tomato purchases to Mexico rather than participate in the Fair Food Program had students across the country up in arms.  Between the historic rolling Fast for Farmworker Justice and the colorful marches on campuses and in the streets during the Return to Human Rights Tour, students and young people built a forceful wave of protest in support of the Wendy’s Boycott — and they were just getting started.This morning, following the major announcement earlier […]

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ANNOUNCING: Farmworker women launch “Harvest without Violence” campaign to end sexual violence in Wendy’s supply chain!

This fall, CIW Women’s Group hits the road with major Wendy’s Boycott mobilizations in Columbus (Oct. 14-23), NYC (Nov. 10-20), launching new mobile museum on sexual violence in agriculture…CIW Women’s Group:  “If we don’t speak up, we give up, and we will never give up.  We are building a path of respect and dignity for ourselves, for our daughters, for all workers.”If you had a choice between purchasing a tomato from:a) a farm where you know farmworker women face a daily barrage of vulgar comments, rampant sexual violence, and unchecked retaliation for speaking out about abuse, orb) a farm where you know women are treated with respect, and abusers face […]

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BREAKING: CIW to join Abby Wambach, Glennon Doyle on national Together Live Tour!

NEXT WEEK:  CIW takes the Fair Food message on the road to eight major U.S. cities, launches Fair Food Sisters campaign… Back in early July, when New York Times bestselling author Glennon Doyle and U.S. Women’s Soccer superstar Abby Wambach came to visit the CIW in Immokalee, the beginnings of a powerful new partnership — and friendship — were forged.  Indeed, in the months since then, Abby and Glennon have brought their strategic insight, unshakeable determination, and hard-earned celebrity to the Fair Food movement and the fight to bring respect and dignity to the country’s fields.Today, we are thrilled to announce the first of what will surely […]

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Forgotten farmworker towns receiving help following Irma thanks to CIW’s expanded relief efforts…

While much of the media coverage of Hurricane Irma’s fury has focused on Florida’s large coastal cities, Florida’s poorer, mostly agricultural, inland communities were among the hardest hit, and the slowest to recover, following last Sunday’s massive storm.  Last week we brought you news of Irma’s impact in Immokalee.  Today, we are happy to report that — thanks to the tremendous generosity of people across the state and across the country — we have been able to stabilize the Immokalee community’s immediate needs through a remarkable collaboration among the CIW and several other local and national organizations.  CIW members and volunteers worked […]

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DONATE: Hurricane Irma Relief Fund for Immokalee and Southwest Florida Farmworker Communities

Donate today to new local fund for relief and recovery efforts in Southwest Florida’s farmworker communities in the wake of Hurricane Irma…When Hurricane Irma ripped through Florida, farmworker families throughout the state moved into survival mode.  Those who could hurriedly packed suitcases with their most precious belongings and headed north, most with no particular destination, in search of a safe place out of the storm’s path.  Most, however, had no choice but to stay home, seeking the safest place to ride out the hurricane, be it their bathroom, a nearby church, or one of the many shelters opened by each Florida county.  Over one long night this […]

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Hurricane Irma downs trees, homes, and power lines in Immokalee, LaBelle, and surrounding farmworker communities, but spares lives and leaves spirits strong…

Massive hurricane shifts course after making landfall in SW Florida, heads straight for Immokalee and other farmworker communities in interior of state…The most powerful hurricane in the history of the Atlantic made its way onto the mainland of Florida this past Sunday afternoon and evening, with winds up to 130 mph and soaking, pounding rains.  Though Hurricane Irma had been downgraded to a Category 2 storm by the time it reached Immokalee, the already impoverished farmworker community — and several others north of Immokalee, including Florida’s citrus capital, LaBelle — saw some of the worst of the storm, as the […]

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Breaking news from the WSR front: Students’ anti-sweatshop campaign victory ensures real human rights protections for apparel factory workers!

USAS activists at Georgetown U. and other campuses compel Nike to sign contract opening factories to independent watchdog;Georgetown President DeGioia: Agreement with Nike “represents… important new framework for collaboration to protect workers’ rights around the world”;Landmark victory provides Worker Rights Consortium access to factories supplying Nike to ensure compliance with GU’s binding code of conduct, marks another great step forward for Worker-driven Social Responsibility in ongoing battle to replace failed corporate-led model…Here are the details of this breaking news out of Georgetown University, straight from the pages of The Hoya, GU’s student newspaper:AUGUST 30, 2017BY IAN SCOVILLEHOYA STAFF WRITERUniversity, Nike Reach Agreement Ensuring Factory AccessJEANINE […]

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Dean of Pardee RAND Graduate School, Susan Marquis: “The Fair Food Program is distinctly effective at bringing about fundamental change”…

 Marquis: “After extensively researching the Fair Food Program I’ve concluded it is uniquely comprehensive and, therefore, distinctly effective at bringing about fundamental change.”Hot on the heels of a remarkable new article published in the Sept/Oct issue of the Harvard Business Review (which cited the Fair Food Program as one of “the most important social impact success stories of the past century”) comes a new article this week from the Dean of Pardee RAND Graduate School, Susan Marquis, calling the FFP “uniquely comprehensive, and therefore, distinctly effective at bringing about fundamental change.”The article, entitled “Campaign for Fair Food makes a real difference,” was […]

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Harvard Business Review counts Fair Food Program among “most important social-impact success stories of the past century” in new article on “Audacious Philanthropy”…

HBR: “We studied 15 social movements that defied the odds and achieved life-changing results to uncover lessons for today’s ambitious donors.”In a remarkable article on strategic philanthropy in its Sept./Oct. 2017 issue, the Harvard Business Review identified the CIW’s Fair Food Program as one “of the most important social-impact stories of the past century” and a prime example of the kind of successful social change that is possible with the support of what they term “Audacious Philanthropy,” an approach to philanthropy that demands “disruptive, catalytic, systemic change.”  The article — which places the Fair Food Program in the company of 14 other extraordinary […]

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The arc of the moral universe isn’t supposed to bend like this…

Two presidents, two responses to acts of domestic terrorism by white supremacists…It is worth remembering this: … when considering this: This is not who we are.  We are the nation of Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement; of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the movement for women’s suffrage; of over 1 million men and women who gave their lives in the fight against fascism and genocide in World War II; of James Baldwin, Dr. King, and Fannie Lou Hamer, Adam Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner of the civil rights movement.  That is the nation we are and will remain long after we have […]

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