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Originally Published on Truth-Out.
The last five years have been grim and isolating ones for immigrants and working people, right? Overall, this may be the case, but if you talk with organizers at Fuerza Laboral, an independent workers’ center in Rhode Island founded in 2006, you might get a different impression.
Despite difficult times, the group has taken on some bold and determined organizing. And they have some important victories to show for their efforts.
“Fuerza’s roots are really and truly the essence of what the labor movement is: workers organizing themselves and getting together with their communities to identify some real injustices that are systemic throughout the country,” says Josie Shagwert, the group’s executive director. “They got together to say, ‘How can we put a stop to this? Because the system is failing us.’”
Not long ago, workers’ centers were seen as service providers, staff-driven organizations where individuals could go to have caseworkers help with their problems. That has changed over the past decade, and the Rhode Island group is part of the transformation. “Fuerza Laboral builds worker power,” the organization’s web site explains. “[We] organize to end exploitation in the workplace. We train workers in their rights, develop new community leaders, and take direct action against injustice to achieve real victories.”
This work sounds a lot like what unions do. And, yet, Fuerza Laboral is not formally affiliated with the labor movement. Instead, it is an affiliate of National People’s Action (NPA), and shares with other NPA members an organizing model rooted in communities. Fuerza Laboral’s campaigns show two things: why organizing among workers remains essential, and how the labor movement still has work to do in bridging the gap between its traditional practices and new groups doing cutting-edge organizing, especially among immigrants and low-wage workers.
What Good Are Laws Without the Power to Enforce Them?
When Fuerza Laboral first started organizing, it focused on the abuses of temp agencies in Rhode Island, “employers who were underpaying, not paying, taking illegal deductions,” Shagwert says. Having first coalesced around this industry, the group soon moved to take on other businesses with unjust labor practices – notably a local manufacturer called Colibri. On a cold morning in January 2009, some 280 workers showed up for work at the Colibri jewelry factory, a nonunion shop in East Providence. They found a handwritten sign taped to the factory door reading, “Plant Is Closed. Go Home.”
“Shock turned to anger pretty quickly,” says Shagwert, “with people asking, What kind of treatment is this? People had worked there for 5, 15, 20 years.” One of the workers called a local Spanish-speaking radio station and complained on the air about the closing. The radio host suggested that he get in touch with Fuerza Laboral.
“For the first meeting they had 12 people,” Shagwert says. “By the time they got together for a second meeting there were 60 people in the living room of one of the workers, crowded in to talk about what to do and what an organizing campaign would look like.”
The group discovered that Colibri’s closing violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), which mandates that any business with 100 or more employees must give 60-days notice before closing. (The WARN Act was in the news during the December 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows factory by the Chicago company’s laid-off workers, which Kari Lydersen chronicles in her book “Revolt on Goose Island.”) The law affords an important protection for employees. Unfortunately, there is no federal agency to enforce it. The Colibri workers decided that they would take it upon themselves to make the company obey the law.
“The vast majority of those workers had never organized before,” Shagwert says. Yet, in the course of the campaign, they pulled together a 250-person rally at the Colibri site and also began engaging in direct action. “The workers practiced civil disobedience at the auctions [of company assets],” says Shagwert, “which resulted in 13 people getting arrested.”
During the action, one observer told the local NBC affiliate, “I’d like to see them get justice … This is another AIG deal. The rich get richer, and the workers get the shaft.”
The activists subsequently brought 100 people to the headquarters of the private equity firm in New York that had purchased the company, and workers held a sit-in in the firm’s lobby. “As a result of all those actions,” Shagwert explains, “a prominent labor lawyer in Rhode Island, Marc Gursky, felt inspired by this grassroots surge of energy. He stepped forward and said, ‘I know that to enforce the WARN Act you are going to need a lawyer.’”
For two years, Fuerza Laboral pursued the case in court, and it ultimately reached a settlement. The precise terms of the agreement have not yet been made public. Nevertheless, Shagwert notes, “I will say that the workers felt really happy that after two years they were vindicated.”
“Unity” and Unions
Fuerza Laboral’s efforts show why, even with only 7 percent of workers in the private sector of the American economy covered by traditional unions, there is no substitute for organizing among working people. Even with pro-employee laws on the books, there is little hope of justice without a grassroots demand. Prior to the labor laws enshrined in the New Deal, mutual aid among workers was the very essence of union life. With collective bargaining in decline, the revival of this type of action may be important for labor’s future as well.
Asked what Fuerza Laboral takes from the organizing model of National People’s Action, the national coalition of which it is a member, Shagwert says, “Networking and constantly building leadership. It’s a real belief that everyone who belongs to your organization, or wants to belong, has the potential to take leadership.”
In addition to developing leadership through their campaigns, Fuerza Laboral has also actively pursued a program of political education. “The essence of Fuerza Laboral is having the passion to develop leaders who will confront social injustice,” says Heiny Maldonado, a community organizer at the group. “We have a year-round calendar of trainings for our members and leaders.”
Shagwert adds: “Since 2006, we have put at least 3,000 workers through a really aggressive popular education model within which our members and leaders get trained to teach basic workers rights. We also hold democracy schools: a multi-week school that teaches about organizing, the history of the labor movement, and the history of immigration. Many of our leaders have come through those courses. They take a course, get fired up, and then we look for ways to plug them into the regular organizing we do. That feels like a huge victory.”
If there’s going to be a progressive revival in this country, having a broadly inclusive approach to worker education and developing community leadership will be just as important to traditional unions as they are to workers’ centers. Currently, the labor movement is engaged in efforts to reach out beyond its established membership in shops covered by collectively bargained contracts. From the AFL-CIO’s Working Americaprogram to Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU)Fight for a Fair Economy, labor organizations are seeking to expand their reach into working-class communities at large, recognizing that if they are perceived as a narrow special interest that benefits only a few workers, the movement will be destined to permanent decline.
Operations such as Fuerza Laboral represent another strain of organizing among workers that is taking place outside of traditional labor structures. A decade ago, the relationships between emerging workers’ centers in different parts of the country and traditional labor unions tended to be mistrustful – if not outright hostile, as Janice Fine discussed in her book “Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream.” Few ties existed in most cities. Since then, both sides have made inroads into this challenge and have strengthened their relationships with one another. In the past five years, the AFL-CIO has formed partnerships with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and with Interfaith Worker Justice.
Yet, gaps in organizational cultures and strategies still remain. The relationships between traditional unions and workers’ centers are continually being redefined, and the interaction of the groups represents a vital ongoing conversation.
As for Fuerza Laboral, Shagwert says: “Our board president has started calling us Unity Union. Which is what we are doing: Representing people in terms of grievances, doing a lot of the things a union would do for its members. But we’re not a union. We don’t identify with workers based on where they are working, we identify with them based on the abuses they are experiencing.”
While she cites alliances with unions such as SEIU and labor groups like Jobs with Justice as crucial to Fuerza’s work, she views her organization differently: “It’s the way I compare working on human rights to working on the rights of one small minority,” she says. “It doesn’t feel right to throw our hat in the ring and fight for one particular group of people. We are fighting for all of us because we are fighting for the most vulnerable.”
She adds, “I want to find a way to say this that isn’t critical of unions. Without unions what would our country be? But I see Fuerza as able to be a little more flexible than a union can be because we don’t represent one particular group of workers.”
Fuerza Laboral at once embodies an impulse toward mutual aid that has deep roots in the history of workers’ struggles and represents a new breed of organization that is expanding in areas where traditional union structures have not been able to reach. For a labor movement that desperately needs to make clear its relevance for all Americans, the task of deepening partnerships with such community allies could not be more urgent.
“Staying true to progressive traditions means always asking the question, ‘Who is really getting the most screwed in our society?’ and always having a commitment to going there.”
That’s how Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change (CCC), explained his vision for honoring the distinguished past of his prominent, decades-old progressive organization while also
pushing it into new territory.
Based in Washington, DC, CCC describes itself as an organization that, “strengthens, connects and mobilizes grassroots groups to enhance their leadership, voice and power.” As a national group that works with community organizations throughout the country, CCC is helping to conceive what the next generation of “intermediary organizations” will look like – how we can create national groups that unite disparate local efforts, expand the capacities of member organizations and channel the work going on at the regional level into a coherent national agenda.
I spoke with Bhargava this week to examine some of the concrete challenges he faces in this work.
Since 2002, Bhargava has energized this organization by recruiting a young and diverse staff, leading campaigns around issues like immigration reform, and pushing his community partners throughout the country to think hard about how local energy can drive policy change at the national level. Most recently, Bhargava has become a key figure in helping to launch the American Dream Movement – a progressive answer to the Tea Party that is being backed not only by CCC but also by MoveOn.org, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Change to Win, the Campaign for America’s Future and Van Jones’ new organization, Rebuild the Dream.
In the Footsteps of Civil Rights and RFK
I wanted to see how Bhargava saw the American Dream Movement being relevant to the local groups that partner with CCC. However, before addressing that question, we talked about history.
While Bhargava is pushing CCC into new ground, the organization continues to draw on a long tradition of activism. Originally founded in 1968 in tribute to Robert F. Kennedy, CCC can claim status as, “one of the longest-standing champions for low-income people and communities of color.”
Bhargava said to me, “I think of CCC as a product of the movements of the 1960′s, and it’s really hard to imagine CCC without the war on poverty, without the civil rights movement. That energy is what inspired the people who helped put CCC together. And I think there’s actually a broader lesson, in that social movements’ energy is a lot of what helps to create institutions. That’s very much who CCC is.”
Growing out of this tradition, CCC retains some values deeply rooted in traditional community organizing. The groups that are partners with CCC take on issues immediately relevant to the communities in which they work. They build campaigns that cut across race and class. And they create lasting local infrastructure over which community members have real ownership.
On a national level, CCC’s choice of issues goes back to, “Who is getting the most screwed?” In other words, it is rooted in the question of who in society is being severely marginalized and scapegoated. “While our work on the immigration issue is only about 15 years old, it’s very much in the spirit of the founding of CCC,” Bhargava said, “because it’s working with people without democratic rights who are extremely under siege in our country. That issue reminds us that a good measure for [the health of] our society is ‘how the most troubled fare.’”
I was interested to talk more with Bhargava about the issues that make up CCC’s national agenda, but he made the case that a key for CCC is recognizing that change does not come from Washington, DC. Instead, the organization thinks about its national role both as a reflection and extension of the exciting gains being made at the local and regional level.
“A lot of our partners have had pretty amazing victories,” Bhargava said. As one example, he pointed to Promise Arizona, which CCC helped start. “It is an amazing immigrant rights organization that was formed in the fires of the immigrant bill that passed the state legislature last year.” In March, Promise Arizona’s efforts helped to defeat a slate of five bills that would have added to the state’s anti-immigrant stature. Two of the bills would have made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to drive and to attend state universities. The most horrendous piece of legislation aimed to strip citizenship from children of undocumented immigrants, something that would likely have prompted a Supreme Court battle.
“The defeat of these bills was a fairly remarkable accomplishment in a really hostile environment,” Bhargava said. “It’s a testament to the movement-building that the organization did with young people. And it’s a testament to the organization’s outreach to moderates.”
“Another example would be Ohio,” Bhargava continued, “where we’ve tried to bring movement-building training to the work of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative. They now have engaged hundreds and hundreds of people, everyday people, in the training to understand the attacks on workers, particularly related to the state budget. Although they have not yet to declare a policy victory, those people played a major role in gathering the signatures needed to rescind SB-5, which was the anti-collective-bargaining bill in that state.”
The National Role
I appreciated Bhargava’s focus on ground-up social movement politics, but I was still curious to see how he saw local efforts combining into something larger – something with the power to affect the national agenda.
He contended, “The extent to which we have positive, concrete examples of policies that work, that are won and implemented on the ground, is what makes it possible to argue that these should be replicated and expanded at the federal level.”
In his view, not only does local organizing provide examples to replicate, it also builds needed political power: “To the extent that there are political coalitions built around some of those progressive ideas locally, that makes it harder for members of Congress and federal decision makers to resist doing something positive.”
Yet, Bhargava acknowledged that local energy alone was not enough. “On the one hand, it takes local grassroots organizing in order to make national change possible,” he said. “But, on the other hand, it’s also true that national movement energy invigorates and inspires local people because they feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.”
That’s where the American Dream Movement comes in. “We’re in a moment that really calls for social movements,” he said. “And social movements have to be a combination of a big, inspiring national vision, but grounded in local struggles and local fights. So, I see the American Dream Movement as an effort to articulate that national vision and to involve people in the articulation of it.”
Important to this effort will be local fights that capture the national imagination. “There will have to be flash points, like the Ohio referendum, which really come to stand for the whole,” Bhargava said. He likened this to the civil rights movement of the 1960′s: “It’s like the way Mississippi came to stand for the whole. I just watched the Freedom Riders documentary, so that’s very much in my mind these days. That’s an example of how local fights really come to stand for a larger struggle that we can advance.”
Building Permanent Local Capacity
One thing that became clear to me in our conversation was that CCC was thinking about building local capacity in a way that most national groups aren’t. The groups it supports on the ground are not temporary formations, field operations pulled together for one issue drive or electoral campaign. Rather, they are deep-rooted community organizations that are building a long-term, invested base. Moreover, its national program is based upon the need to create stable local and regional infrastructure for progressive politics.
“A core value of ours is that low-income people and people of color need a vehicle to make their voice heard on the full range of what they care about,” Bhargava said. “So, we don’t build infrastructure for particular elections, or for just one issue. We really try to build multi-issue organizations that are authentically and democratically controlled. It’s a long-haul view of a situation that is not going to be turned around by one election or a legislative victory. It’s going to have to be sustained and authentic over the long term.”
He continued: “All our partners have a real base, core membership, where growing that membership is a very central priority. They focus heavily on developing leaders who can shape the agenda of the organization. And they are all trying to create connections with other elements of the progressive movement – whether that’s organized labor, or policy centers, or other key constituency groups in their state.”
The Necessity of Wild Ideas
This approach to building deep coalitions is something that breaks with more traditional community organizing models, which stress short-term, strategic alliances. Bhargava’s insistence on a national vision also sets him apart from previous generations of organizers working on community issues.
“What’s changed for us was the belief that there has to be a national framework of some kind, like a national vision, not just national legislation, in order for local organizing to add up. I think it was taken for granted in the wake of the 60′s that such a national environment existed, but now we have to recreate it,” he said.
How then, I wondered, do you know when we’ve done this? How do we know when we’re there?
“It’s when we are winning policies, at the state and local level,” Bhargava answered, “When we are having breakthrough policy victories that help to shift the ground of what’s possible nationally.”
Second, “It’s the scale of engagement. The numbers of people participating will be vastly greater than we have today.”
“Third is when we have the media and the establishment of the country really noticing that there is something happening.”
After sketching this map for success, he concluded with a hope for the future – a wish that we’ll see more local flash points that will come to embody the struggle common to people across America.
“I hope that people in the states will come up with some really bold, wild ideas about taxes or job creation – and that some of those efforts will succeed and really catch fire,” Bhargava said. “That’s when all of us can rally to them as fights that stand for the whole of what’s at stake for the country.”
“We don’t want just a seat at the table. We want to run the table,” Hugh Espey, the executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said to me. “We want to run the table in order to win policies that put people before profits, people before polluters and communities before corporations.”
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), founded in the mid-1970′s, has grown over the past decades into one of the most thoughtful, aggressive, and innovative community-based organizations
in the nation, taking on issues of predatory lending, immigrant rights, clean elections, and the abuses of corporate agriculture.
If Espey’s vision is ambitious, it is backed by an impressive record of achievement and a bold organizing agenda – by grassroots campaigns that cross boundaries of race, bridge urban and rural constituencies and break down traditional barriers between issues. And his organization is pioneering this work not in a liberal metropolis, but at a statewide level in the heart of the country.
Increasingly, CCI is fashioning campaigns that draw on the strengths of traditional community organizing – the model most notably developed by Saul Alinsky – but that go beyond the confines of this model by building deep coalitions, employing sophisticated research, and combining direct action with policy reform and political engagement. Moreover, as a member of National People’s Action (NPA), a national “network of metropolitan, regional and statewide organizations that build grassroots power to advance racial and economic justice,” CCI is connecting what it is doing to a project with national scope.
All of these things made it an organization that I wanted to explore in more detail.
Taking on the Loan Sharks
When I spoke with Espey and Lisa Whelan, CCI’s special projects director, they were eager to tell me about their campaign against payday lenders.
Payday lending, Espey argued, “is legalized loan sharking, in that it traps people in a cycle of debt. It tends to prey on low-income people, people who are experiencing some sort of economic or financial crisis. Payday loans are short-term loans with exorbitant interest rates. If you annualized those interest rates over the course of the year, it would be about 400 percent.”
Over the course of several years, CCI found that community members had been trapped in debt because of these payday loans. After working with a variety of members to help them get out of this debt, they decided that they had to move beyond a bandaid approach of trying to locate more affordable credit for a small number of individuals. They decided to turn this realization into an organizing campaign that would bring people together and confront the lenders directly. CCI created “borrower action teams” that would bring a group of concerned citizens into the offices of the payday bankers.
As Whelan says, “We would take over the office. We would say, ‘Get the manager on the phone. Get the main company’s headquarters on the phone. We want to talk to a person who can make decisions.’ And we won a good number of those.” In a variety of cases, the direct actions resulted in the lending offices agreeing to refinance some of their more egregious loans.
A Much Bigger Fix
However, recognizing that they needed to incorporate a more systematic understanding of the issue, CCI also expanded beyond the traditional community organizing playbook, adopting research and analysis of the payday-lending industry. “We wanted to win on individual cases, but we also wanted a much bigger fix,” Espey says. “We looked at who’s financing these payday loan shops around the state. And we found out that it’s three or four or five main corporations that are making millions and millions of dollars off of these.”
“And then we asked, ‘Who’s financing those?’ and we come to find out that it’s big banks, like Wells Fargo and Bank of America. It’s the same big banks that crashed our economy and that got a taxpayer bailout. The big banks, because they can borrow from the Fed, get money at a half a point. Then they turn around and lend it out to payday loan corporations around the country, who end up charging us 400 percent.”
This wider view of the issue affected CCI’s organizing. First of all, organizers connected to work going on in other states. “Payday lending has also been a piece of the fair-lending work that NPA groups have been doing,” Espey notes, “so we hooked up with groups in Kansas and in Illinois whose members were facing the same issue and oftentimes were confronting the same banks.”
Furthermore, uniting with allies in the labor movement, CCI has joined in “Make Wall Street Pay” protests against Wells Fargo, linking their local payday campaign with national efforts.
CCI also started advocating for policy reforms at the state level. “We’ve been up at the Statehouse over the past two years with a coalition of folks working on this issue,” Espey explains. “And we’re pushing for state policy that would cap interest rates on payday loans at 36 percent rather than 400 percent, and that would also require payday lenders to notify borrowers of the availability of loan modifications.”
Connecting Diverse Communities
Over time, the payday-lending campaign has become a notable example of how CCI has been able to build alliances across diverse constituencies. People of color, immigrant workers and the white working class are those most likely to be directly affected by exploitative payday lending. But because many other people could relate to issues of credit and debt, they also felt a deep connection to the campaign.
Some middle class families got involved. Says Whelan, “As we were telling these stories about how people were being taken advantage of, some of the people who were most excited about the campaign were people who don’t have a payday lending shop in their community, who might not have even met someone before who needed a payday loan, but they could see just from a few simple descriptions of what was happening how wrong that is.”
Moreover, in Iowa, farming communities are especially sensitive to issues of debt and exploitative credit. “Farming is a very credit-intensive endeavor,” says Espey. So, for farmers, “some of those stories of the payday lending sounded very similar to how they’d been treated by their bankers.” Thus, the campaign could link urban and rural experiences.
All of this contributed to a vision more robust than that expressed in a typical community organizing campaign. “We want people to have a bigger and bigger vision of what ‘my neighborhood’ is,” says Espey. “It’s no longer ‘my street,’ but it’s my community, it’s my town, it’s my state, it’s my country.”
Fighting the Corporate Agriculture Lobby
Some of these same components – a desire to connect issues, build diverse alliances and expand beyond the tools traditionally used in community organizing – also characterize CCI’s other campaigns, including its fight against the abuses of large-scale corporate agriculture.
As CCI explains, the organization has taken a long-term interest in the issue of “whether livestock will be raised on sustainable family farms or produced in large, capital-intensive confinement facilities (factory farms) that concentrate the animals and their wastes in vast quantities and concentrate economic control in the hands of absentee investors.” Through this issue, CCI has engaged rural and small-town communities concerned about jobs and quality of life in those areas. But it has also mobilized environmentalists who recognize that factory farming is a key clean-water issue in the state.
“Ultimately, what we want is people in the middle of Des Moines standing alongside family farmers and rural people,” Espey says, “just like we want rural people standing together with people who live in big towns to fight back against payday lenders and predatory lenders.”
CCI members have taken direct action at the local level to confront landowners engaged in factory farming, and its leaders insist that organizing at this level will always be a central aspect of their work. “Direct action is part of the strategy to win,” Whelan notes. “Talking is great. Facts are great. But people have to move progressive change.”
At the same time, after repeatedly witnessing the power of the corporate agriculture lobby in state government, CCI has been motivated to get more aggressive about politics and policy. CCI is a nonprofit organization, so it doesn’t engage in electoral campaigns or lobbying, but organizers are interested in creating a 501(c)4 that can.
“We’re looking at the question of how to build up political power,” Espey says. “In our work at the State Capitol, again and again and again, we’re running up against powerful and well-financed groups and the people they put into office. The ‘ah-ha’ moment for us was about a year and a half ago. Coming out of a strategy meeting, we said, ‘We’re tired of getting our asses kicked up at the Statehouse.’”
“We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing, but we’re going to add another tool to our toolbox,” he adds.
In describing their approach to politics, Espey emphasized an approach that is different than simply getting a lesser-evil candidate elected and then sending new elected officials into office with hopes that they will do the right thing.
He explains, “Some of the 501(c)4 organizations we’ve seen set up in the past had no legs. They were viewed as organs of a political party. We’re not going to do that. What we’re doing is bringing the direct action organizing mentality into the (c)4 realm. We’re pushing our vision and our theory of change in a broader way – not being inside any political party, but being able to be part of governing ourselves.”
Connecting to a National Vision
A final interesting aspect of CCI’s work is its connection to a national network, NPA. Whelan says of CCI’s membership in NPA: “They have helped us think through our own growth as an organization, as well as being part of a network. They help us think about staffing issues; they help us think about how we are plugging into different issue campaigns, how do we make it work for us, how can we participate and help build national movements and progressive change. Those things are invaluable to us.”
George Goehl, NPA’s executive director, says, “I’ve worked with Iowa CCI for a long time, and I really can’t think of another organization in the country that has been around so long and never plateaued. More than anything, I think that the leadership has created a culture where, no matter how good they’re doing, they’re always willing to ask hard questions around, ‘How do we continue to transform what we’re doing and move forward?’”
Part of the process of always moving forward has been thinking about how to build deeper partnerships with the labor movement and other allies. For NPA, bringing groups together is about finding allies with similar values and political analysis. But it’s also about long-term strategy: “We definitely look for people who are interested in longstanding alignment versus simply coming together around one key, tactical moment or a strategic opportunity,” Goehl says.
CCI has taken these same criteria into building partnerships in its work in Iowa. While traditional community organizing groups have emphasized short-term, tactical alliances, Espey expressed a different vision: “Our role is to keep building transformational relationships with people. This means we get to know each other as people – I know what makes you tick; you know what makes me tick. I know when your birthday is; you know when my birthday is. I celebrate when you celebrate; I hurt when you hurt.”
“All this as opposed to transactional relationships, which is more like, ‘Can you show up next Tuesday at this event? Can we do these few things together over the next few months? And that’s it.’”
“Transformational is more of a marathon. Transactional is more of a sprint.”
For those interested in the marathon of creating progressive social change, CCI’s example has much to offer. The organization has been tireless in combining direct action and dogged community organizing with newer tools like deep partnerships, thoughtful research and invigorated political engagement. The gains it is making in Iowa suggest that its experience is a valuable one for study.
Moreover, talking with the organizers gives you a sense of the contagious optimism and excitement within the organization: “We’re the folks who don’t like to go to bed too early at night,” Espey says, “because we’re worried we might miss something.”
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