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Greg Asbed ’85 named MacArthur Fellow

Asbed’s ’85 work with farmers rights earns him $625,000 grant to go toward his organization

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Greg Asbed ’85 was recently named one of this year’s 24 MacArthur Fellows. The achievement, often referred to as the “genius grant,” comes with an award of $625,000 spread over five years. The money is awarded based on three main criteria: “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments (and) potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work,” according to the MacArthur Foundation website.

The MacArthur Fellows Program has been active since 1981. Approximately 1,000 people have been recognized as MacArthur Fellows, 19 of whom have been affiliated with the University. Each fellow is  nominated by individuals selected by the foundation. Approximately 2,000 nominees are further reviewed by a selection board before the final few are chosen and notified of their award.

Asbed received the call notifying him of the award the day before Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and he “was busy screwing plywood over our windows when it came in, which made it all the more surreal,” Asbed wrote in an email to The Herald.

Though the money was granted directly to Asbed, he plans on funneling all of the funds into the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the organization he founded over two decades ago. 

The CIW is a “farmworker-based human rights organization” that, through advocacy, corporate campaigns, anti-slavery investigations and community organizing, addresses the human rights crises in the agricultural industry, Asbed wrote. His wife, Laura Germino ’84, directs the organization’s anti-slavery program.

In 2011, the CIW — located in Immokalee, Florida — developed a corporate responsibility campaign called the Fair Food Program. The FFP has partnered with 14 multi-billion dollar companies — including McDonald’s, Walmart and Whole Foods, among others — that require their produce suppliers to implement a human-rights-based code of conduct. In addition, these companies agree to pay an extra penny per pound of produce purchased from suppliers, which go directly into the farmworkers’ paychecks, according to the CIW’s website.

The FFP has “put a stop to longstanding abuses like violence against women, wage theft and even forced labor in the Florida tomato industry,” Asbed wrote. The program has been adopted by other groups along the U.S. east coast and is “expanding into strawberries and other crops, covering 35,000 (people) with its groundbreaking protections,” he added.

“Brown graduates make transformative contributions that build understanding, influence policy and advance important movements that are shaping the world,” wrote Brian Clark, University spokesperson, in an email to The Herald. “The work by … Greg Asbed and Laura Germino …  is among the most extraordinary examples of this — the MacArthur Fellowship is testament to the tremendous impact they have had advocating for the rights to fair working conditions for farm laborers.”

Asbed’s work has been influenced in “a very round-about way” by his time at Brown, he wrote.

Graduating with a degree in Neuroscience, Asbed planned on joining the field after college. His education instilled in him the “willingness to throw a beloved theory, or ideology or methodology away and to focus only on what actually works, (which) is a hallmark of the hard sciences, but not so much of the field of social change,” Asbed said.

His plans changed after he spent three years in Haiti working for the Papaye Peasant Movement, a grass-roots organization that aims to support workers and reduce their dependency on outside aid.

Asbed cited the story of his grandmother, who survived the Armenian Genocide, as another reason for his passion toward human rights.

“Through her struggle to survive that nightmare, she managed not only to pass her DNA down to me but also a deep and abiding appreciation for the importance of universal human rights,” he wrote.

Asbed was nominated as a MacArthur Fellow by Kerry Kennedy ’81 P’17 P’20, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights — an organization that provides assistance to other human rights groups around the world. They worked together after the CIW won the RFK Human Rights Award in 2003.

“We were so deeply impressed by the transformational work that … they were doing to empower farmworkers,” Kennedy said.

RFK Human Rights went on to help the CIW secure partnerships for the FFP. “I’ve marched with them all over the country,” Kennedy added.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ corporate responsibility campaign had companies agree to pay an extra penny per every pound of produce purchased from supplier that would go into the farmers’ paychecks. In fact, it would go into the farmworkers’ paychecks. The Herald regrets the error. 

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