Veatch Program grantees win MacArthur ‘Genius’ awards

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Cristina Jimenez with United We Dream was awarded a $625,000 MacArthur grant. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Jimenez)

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset announced Thursday two of its Veatch Program grantees – Cristina Jimenez, founder and director of United We Dream and Greg Asbed, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – were each awarded a “genius grant” from the renowned John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in the amount of $625,000.

Recipients of the awards are selected based on “exceptional creativity” and the promise and potential for important advances in subsequent work.

The Veatch Program provides support for not-for-profit organizations confronting injustice. It is based on the collective vision of the congregation to address social justice concerns and to affirm the principles of Unitarian Universalism.

Cristina Jimenez and United We Dream have been at the forefront of the fight for legal status for a generation of young people who have grown up in this country, many of whom have undocumented parents.

It was instrumental in pressuring the Obama administration in 2012 to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. With Cristina as its leader, and largely led by young Latinos, United We Dream has also served to rally Latinos in the country and increase their political engagement.

“I immediately thought about my family and the sacrifice and their courage to leave everything behind to come to this country seeking a better life,” Jimenez said upon winning the award. “To me, this award recognizes their strength, their resilience and makes me completely thankful to my parents.”

Greg Asbed, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, was awarded a $625,000 MacArthur grant. (Photo courtesy of Greg Asbed

Greg Asbed is a Veatch grantee that has combated injustices in the tomato-growing industry and, through its Fair Food Program, uses the purchasing power of brands to compel growers to improve farm workers’ working conditions. The group’s work has been recognized for putting an end to forced labor and sexual violence against women in the fields.

Both the garment industry and the dairy industry have adopted CIW’s “worker-driven social responsibility” model, where workers play a leading role in establishing work condition standards. Asbed is working with growers in Texas and believes that the model could also address such issues as child labor in Africa.

“This grant is going to help us expand the Fair Food Program and it will also help us expand the awareness of the model,” 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.”

Both Jimenez and Asbed are fierce visionaries, facing down defining political struggles in this moment. And, they are not the first Veatch grantees to win MacArthur “genius grants.” As recently as 2014, Ai Jen Poo, of the National Domestic Workers won a MacArthur.

According to a representative from the MacArthur Fellows Program, “From transforming conditions for low-wage workers to identifying security vulnerabilities, from celebrating 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.”

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