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People are monsters. Selfish, brutal and merciless. And people are heroes. Generous, courageous and just. And that, I’ve come to believe, is as true for every individual as for the species itself. Of course, anyone who follows the news or spends some time with a few kids under 6 (can you guess that my three grandsons are visiting?) has already figured this out. But after reading Phillippe Diederich’s “Fairness in the Fields” in this issue, I’ve been puzzling more than ever over the mysterious dichotomies of the human heart.

Phil’s story is about Sarasota’s Fair Foods Standards Council (FFSC), which occupies a corner office in our building. I didn’t know that—or much else about the four-year-old nonprofit—until recently. And I should have, because the FFSC is the triumphant result of one of the most lopsided battles in American agricultural history: the struggle of a small group of Florida tomato pickers, known as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, against some of the most powerful corporations on earth. For generations, all across Florida—including in fields close to our elegant coastal city—these workers toiled in conditions that recall pre-Civil War plantations, right down to swaggering overseers who cheated and brutalized them with impunity. For two decades, they fought not only for a modest wage increase, funded by a penny more a pound for tomatoes, but for such basic decencies as clean drinking water and protection from abuse. After their struggle seized the conscience of the nation, some food chains and Florida growers agreed to the penny per pound increase and a humane code of conduct in the fields; and the FFSC was created as an independent auditor to make sure the rules were followed.

The more I read, the more I marveled at how little these workers wanted. A shady place to take a 15-minute break from hours of labor under the blazing Florida sun. Really? It took 20 years to make that happen? An end to terror, violence and even rape by rogue crew leaders. How could respectable companies not want that? And why did buyers refuse to pay just one more penny a pound, especially when consumers all across the country said they were willing to absorb the cost?

Some companies did embrace the changes the workers wanted, but it took tremendous public pressure for most to agree. And though many of the country’s food giants now pay the penny per pound and buy only from growers who follow the new code of conduct, some don’t—including Publix, whose media spokesperson stated in 2010, “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.”

FFSC’s auditors—a handful of young, idealistic men and women—go into fields all across Florida and meticulously check on everything from pay records to worker complaints. At first they met with some resistance and even ridicule, says executive director Laura Safer Espinoza. But when Espinoza, a former judge and lifelong social activist—she is working for free, because when she saw the FFSC’s budget she decided they couldn’t afford the salary they’d offered her—informed the growers they were risking the right to sell tomatoes to the participating buyers, compliance swiftly followed. In just four years, the FFSC has overseen clear and measurable changes that have improved the lives of tens of thousands of workers—and many growers today applaud the new systems, which have even boosted revenues for some.

There are plenty of heroes and villains in this story, and plenty of lessons, too. Simple fairness and social justice are anything but simple; people can find every sort of reason not to change the status quo, especially when money is involved; many of us are not our brothers’ keepers; and absolute power does indeed corrupt. But dark as the human soul can be, the story also shows that sometimes we can and do fight towards the light. Those workers, and all who have supported them, prove that we have the power to repair and remake our world. And that passionate conviction drives not only the Immokalee workers and the FFSC, but all the dedicated organizations and people you’ll read about in this Guide to Giving.

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This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Sarasota Magazine. Click here to subscribe. >>