The Genius of Greg Asbed (Just Don't Call Him A Genius)

The MacArthur Fellow has worked wonders for local farm workers but shuns the attention to his considerable talents.

BY February 8, 2018


The first time Jon Esformes, a Florida grower with tomato fields in Immokalee, sat down with Greg Asbed, a leader of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, he was firm about his aim.

“Look, I’m here to have a cup of coffee and decide if I like you and trust you,” Esformes said to Asbed, who was there promoting the CIW’s Fair Food Program.

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted,” Asbed replied.

It was the perfect response, Esformes recalls, because it set the tone for a laid-back conversation after weeks of back and forth between lawyers, as Sunripe Certified Brands looked to join the FFP, working with pickers and buyers to create a safe and fair workplace for all involved.

Esformes was pleasantly surprised to find that Asbed was a good listener, genuine and engaged. He was quick with a laugh and a smile, and even-keeled and truly present for the conversation. Esformes quickly realized: Here was a guy who believed wholeheartedly in his group’s mission to ensure basic human rights in the workplace for farmworkers. The two had more in common than not, Esformes realized, and from there joining the cause was inevitable. He was sold.

“All of my conversations with Greg have been that easy,” Esformes says.

Esformes was not surprised then to learn that Asbed was named one of 24 MacArthur Fellows (colloquially known as Genius Grant winners) for 2017 and the recipient of $625,000 for his cause. Of course, he didn’t hear it from Asbed himself.

“The thing about Greg that is really extraordinary is that in the face of opposition he remains loyal to his principles, and in the face of success he remains loyal to his principles,” Esformes says. “Both are dangerous places, right? You can fall into despair with the opposition, which he doesn’t allow himself to do; and you can get puffed up when people are patting you on the back and telling you how great you are and lose sight of your principles.”

Ever humble, Asbed is more keen to talk about the FFP than himself.

If Asbed won’t toot his own horn, the facts will.

There’s the standard biography, which lists his undergraduate degree from Brown University and his master’s from Johns Hopkins. He’s fluent in Creole and Spanish. One of his partners at the CIW, Lucas Benitez, said his dialect has rubbed off on Asbed over the years so much that native-Spanish speakers peg Asbed as Mexican.

Asbed, the grandson of Armenian immigrants who survived the genocide, grew up with a deep appreciation of human rights. That innate sense took form in Haiti, where he spent three years after college in a grassroots effort to bring democracy to the country.

Then there’s the fact that Asbed and his wife, Laura Germino, are quite the human rights power couple. She specializes in human trafficking and slavery, and they share a passion for the work, which they’ve dedicated their lives to since before CIW (she’s the third founder), when they were working for Florida Legal Services. In his free time, Asbed swears he also has time to coach junior pro basketball and Little League baseball. For fun, he harvests watermelons. Oh, and he is a Dallas Cowboys diehard. For the longest time, his neighbors didn’t know what to make of him between polite hellos from across the yard to the Sunday afternoon shouting matches with his television.

“Now, in my defense, that was during the Cowboys heyday years of ’92 to ’95, so the stakes were high and there was a lot to yell about,” Asbed says. “But yeah, that was me.”

Their son, Isaiah, also a Cowboys fan, is technically an eighth-grader but already taking classes at LaBelle High School through a specialized program. In the first grade, he was reading at a 12th-grade level. And last year, he visited his dad’s alma mater for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth’s annual event recognizing junior high kids whose SAT and ACT scores rival those of seniors in high school. And he’s taken up an interest in neuroscience. Fitting, considering Asbed’s undergraduate degree, the one from Brown, was a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience.

“I figured they asked for the wrong Asbed when they called,” Asbed says, referring to the MacArthur folks.

So yes, on paper, Asbed is smart. But what’s truly impressive is how all the nitty gritty details bolster the biography. The way, for instance, he and Benitez and Germino engineered a model for improving working conditions in the fields called “worker-driven social responsibility,” or WSR. It’s the bottom-up approach to ensuring a safe and fair work environment by educating the workers themselves (and it’s where they plan to put their grant money to use, furthering the model through consulting and traveling here and abroad to meet new partners).

The model works within what Asbed and the others call the FFP. Born out of their Taco Bell campaign of the early 2000s, which urged the fast food giant to consider abused workers picking their produce, the program requires a nominal fee from big buyers who rely on cheap produce, such as tomatoes, to fill their burritos and tacos. That fee—just a penny per pound of produce—goes to the growers who award it to their workers as a bonus.

It’s all kept in line by another one of the CIW’s creations called the Fair Foods Standards Council. Based in Sarasota, it acts as the judicial branch of the equation, overseeing all parties from the field workers to the growers to the buyers, making sure everyone plays by the rules. The workers set their own standards, and the council makes sure they’re met.

Germino says her husband has the ability to look at a problem scientifically to figure out how to fix it. But he has also mastered the art of relating to people from the fields to the CEO’s office. And in a business that is as much about changing hearts as it is changing minds, that’s key.

“I would call him a Renaissance man,” she says.

As Esformes puts it, Asbed “meets people where they’re at.” Maybe that’s by relating to them as fellow descendants of refugees. Esformes’ family came from Salonica, Greece, Jews amid the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Or maybe it’s in his willingness to get his hands dirty with those fighting for their own rights. He picks watermelons, after all, often for 16-hour shifts in the heat, hurling the fruits into a moving truck without damaging them.

And once, when the CIW’s 15-seater GMC van broke down 2 miles from the nearest exit, Asbed volunteered to run the gas can to the station and back—this after a jog around the D.C. National Mall that same morning—so the group could make their meeting that day in Philadelphia with Aramark. The food service, uniforms and facilities provider is now an FFP partner.

As a youth coach, Asbed is known for his pre-game speeches.

He’s stern when necessary, but never gets mean,” his son says. “He congratulates people when praise is due, which makes them want to try even harder. He knows how to bring out the best in everybody.”

Something about the method or the man is working. So far, they’ve gotten major players such as Walmart, Whole Foods, Chipotle, Taco Bell, The Fresh Market, Trader Joe’s and Subway on-board. The best part about agreeing to work with FFP is that the group wants growers and buyers to succeed so that workers have jobs.

“Ours is a real human relationship,” Esformes says of him and Asbed. “On paper it looks real high-level, but at the basic level we’re all humans looking to take care of our families.”

Asbed doesn’t know who nominated him for the MacArthur Fellowship. If everyone plays by the rules, he’ll never know. The point is to keep everything hush-hush so that by the time you call a winner on the phone, they’re mid-Hurricane Irma prep, screwing on shutters, sufficiently shocked and confused to learn that they’ve won.

Asbed is still shocked, and of course humbled, to be among a group of jaw-dropping fellows. The 2017 class includes 24 individuals of all backgrounds. There’s a journalist, a painter, a poet, a fiction writer, a computer scientist and an immunologist, to name a few. Then there’s this human rights strategist.

“It’s a ‘Genius’ award, but the thing about Greg is he will deny that,” Benitez says. “But he is an amazingly intelligent person. We have learned so much from him and so much together over the years.

“But at the end of the day, he continues to be our dear ‘pelon.’”

Translation for you non-geniuses: “Baldy.”

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