“Whether it’s two or two hundred, I’ll participate in every march until we win!”

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Joined by students from the River City Science Academy and Jacksonvillians for Fair Food, CIW tour crew leads a march of 200+ from Wendy’s to Publix down busy Jacksonville streets…

Yesterday in Jacksonville was about hope.

Hope for the future, delivered on the shouts and cheers of 150 of the smartest, sweetest, most enthusiastic high school students (not to mention their teachers!) you could ever hope to meet.

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Hope for justice in Florida’s fields, because when the next generation of consumers feels so strongly about justice and human rights for all — and is so willing to explore and engage in movements to protect those rights — there is simply no way that the injustices of the past century will continue to go unquestioned, or unchallenged, much longer.

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And even hope for Publix.  

Because Publix is a privately held company with what appears to be a very small circle of family members and advisors making decisions regarding this campaign, it has taken a stubborn stand against progress that has forever diminished the company’s reputation among tens of thousands of its customers.  As just one example of that impenetrable echo chamber at work, over 400,000 people have now sent emails through Walk Free’s e-action calling on Publix to join the Fair Food Program, but Walk Free reports that Publix has blocked the server sending those emails, keeping the company’s decision makers safe from the opinions of their customers on the issue of farmworkers’ rights.  

This insulation of its leadership from meaningful debate or dissenting opinion on this campaign has allowed Florida’s grocery giant to coldly shrug off protest after protest, editorial after editorial, and letter after letter from religious, student, and political leaders, and instead turn its back on the most effective program for protecting human rights in the history of Florida agriculture.  Rather than join twelve other food corporations in supporting progress and do its part to help end decades of sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and even modern-day slavery in Florida’s fields, Publix has simply repeated the same tired, patently untrue, empty public relations lines every time a new reporter asks about the hundreds of people protesting outside its stores.

But yesterday, Publix’s shell seemed to crack, even if just a bit.

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Toward the end of yesterday’s protest, a delegation of students and CIW members entered the parking lot to speak with a Publix spokesperson and a regional manager.  Following the discussion, the delegation members shared some of the details of their conversation and their impressions from the exchange with the rest of the protesters (pictured above).  They said that the discussion began with the typical statements and responses, and that it became readily obvious that the Pubilx representatives had no intention of actually hearing their concerns but rather wanted to move the discussion as quickly as possible toward a conclusion, assuring them that their message will be passed on, etc, etc…  

That’s when the students told Publix, “You don’t seem to understand.  There are 150 students here whose families shop here, and we’ll stop shopping here if you don’t join the Fair Food Program,” adding, “This won’t slow down, we’ll only get stronger the longer you hold off.”

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And that seemed to get the Publix spokesperson’s attention.  Publix may think it has its current customers figured out and feel comfortable in the assumption that adult consumers will not likely change their buying habits to support farmworkers.  But they are clearly not so sure about the young people whose parents shop at the store today and who tomorrow will be making their own consumer decisions.  

And so the conversation continued.  And continued.  The students assured the Publix representatives that “we’re not your enemy, we want to build a partnership with you and discuss what changes you need to make in the fields.”  And the CIW representatives asked them to put aside their canned responses to the campaign and have the simple courage to come to Immokalee and spend a day listening to workers, seeing the situation through their eyes.  The Publix spokesperson grew animated and actually strayed off script to engage in a real, if not particularly constructive, exchange.  And the conversation continued…

In the end, it was one of the longest manager delegation discussions in the four-year history of the campaign.  There were no substantive shifts in position, except that, perhaps for the very first time, a real, human dialogue took place.  For a fleeting moment, the Publix representatives were shaken from their slumber and forced to respond, really respond, to the opinions of their customers.  Thanks to 150 River City Science Academy students and their ardent belief in justice, Publix, for the first time, listened.  They didn’t like what they heard, but they listened.

And that is reason for hope.  Because if the consciousness and commitment of these Jacksonville students is any indication, they are not giving up until that first conversation leads all the way to a last conversation and they, as consumers and allies to the workers who pick the food they eat, have won the partnership for a fairer food industry they are seeking.

Check out the video (below) and gorgeous photo gallery from yesterday’s action, and check back soon for news from the tour crew’s arrival at the final stop of the Now Is the Time Tour, Publix’s hometown of Lakeland!