A Hopeful Night for Roosevelt’s Vision of Freedom

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The Four Freedoms Medal winners at the awards ceremony in New York appear in the bottom row. From left to right: Sister Simone Campbell, Ameena Matthews, Wendell Berry, Paul Krugman and (last three on right) Nely Rodriguez, Greg Asbed and Gerardo Reyes Chavez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. (Photo Credit: Prisca Edwards Photography)

Last night in New York City, The Roosevelt Institute awarded its 2013 Four Freedoms Medals, with the greatest honor awarded to poet, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry for his message of personal responsibility to one’s community and environment.  Many of this year’s recipients – including Berry – have appeared on Moyers & Company.

The Four Freedoms – freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear – were first described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his now famous 1941 State of the Union address, when America’s entrance into World War II was less than a year away. Much of Europe had fallen to the advancing German army and Britain faced invasion. Many Americans felt we should continue to stay out of the fight, but Roosevelt believed that by helping the British people, the United States stood in defense of universal freedoms possessed by all. In the speech he said, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.”

Today, the Four Freedom Medals are given to laureates whose lives and work exemplify Roosevelt’s vision. “The Four Freedoms Address succinctly expresses what democracy is all about,” Anna E. Roosevelt, chair of the Roosevelt Institute’s board of directors, said. “My grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, believed this, worked for it and lived it. It is, to this day, a rousing call to action and an enduring message of hope for people all over the world.”

The Four Freedoms Medals have been awarded annually since 1963. Previous laureates include President Clinton, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and Bill Moyers.

The other 2013 winners are: economist Paul Krugman, violence “interrupter” Ameena Matthews, NETWORK director Sister Simone Campbell and the Coalition of  Immokalee Workers.

The Moyers & Company team attended the event and spoke with the laureates about their hopes and fears — and how the Four Freedoms have been embodied in their work.

Wendell Berry – Freedom Medal

Wendell Berry Credit: Peter Nelson

The poet, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry was honored for the message at the core of all his writing: that humans must live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. Berry said he is hopeful because American consumers are driving demand for local farming, but major challenges remain: “A lot of good things are happening in terms of farmers markets, community-supported farms and efforts at developing local economies, of which we have a very respectable effort going on in Louisville, Kentucky. But land use in general is getting worse. Vulnerable lands are being put to uses under which they are bound to erode and degrade. If my dream would come true, every inch of this world would be treated as sacred and cared for with great attention and skill. But standing in the way of that dream is the absence of people capable of doing that. We’ve reduced the farm population to almost zero. I think it is a rule that land in use by humans has to be carefully watched over and carefully and lovingly used. That is not happening.”
(Related: Wendell Berry’s interview with Bill Moyers)

Paul Krugman – Freedom of Speech and Expression

Paul Krugman Credit: Dale Robbins

Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was awarded the Freedom of Speech and Expression Medal for challenging economic orthodoxy and advancing a more equitable vision of society. Krugman believes that as a society we have moved toward having more open discussions in the media, but that we can do much better: “One of the things I try to do is speak out about the things that we are supposed to accept, whether in economics or the war in Iraq. There’s still an awful lot of this sense that the wise men have decided what we should worry about and what we should do. But those wise men have been wrong over and over. Still, it’s been hard to get alternative, challenging views into the mainstream discussion and we need more of that. Obviously, you’re not going to get locked up for saying the deficit is our biggest problem but getting coverage on a news story is still hard if you’re breaking from the orthodox view.”
(Related: Paul Krugman’s interview with Bill Moyers.)

Sister Simone Campbell – Freedom of Worship

Sister Simone Campbell Credit: Dale Robbins

Sister Simone Campbell, director of the progressive Catholic organization NETWORK, was awarded the Freedom of Worship Medal for championing social justice in the health care reform debate. After spending a day in Washington, DC, at a Capitol Hill interfaith pilgrimage to support moderate Republicans to “find courage to act on behalf of the common good” — Sister Simone said she was reminded once again that America does have the freedom to worship: “I hope that everyone can know that in this amazing nation of ours, while we have all these political fights, there is the freedom to express our position, to stand for values and to lift them up… That is such an honor and such a gift. What’s hard for me is that some people in our own country don’t believe we have freedom to worship. And I want them to see who we are as a nation. We do have freedom of worship. The ‘Nuns on the Bus’ tour shows just that.”
(Related: Sister Simone’s interview with Bill Moyers.)

Coalition of Immokalee Workers – Freedom of Want

Gerado Reyes-Chavez

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) received the Freedom from Want Medal for their efforts to improve labor conditions for Florida’s agricultural workers. The CIW is behind a new model for labor relations in the agricultural industry, which includes giving farm workers a voice in shaping their work environment. “We hope that one day every farm worker in this nation is treated with respect and paid in a fair way for the heavy work that they do every day,” said Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, an organizer with the CIW. “We hope that the buyers of tomatoes continue to work with us to improve conditions even more. For the first time, we have been able to have a voice at the table through our ‘fair food program,’ which consists of a wage increase for workers and a human-rights-based code of conduct, applicable throughout the Florida tomato industry. We have agreements with 11 corporations who buy tomatoes in Florida, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway. Now we have a voice at the table and can talk about eliminating the roots of the problems that we face, not only in economic terms but also in [terms of] the balance of power.”
(Related: Do You Know Where Your Tomatoes Come From?)

Ameena Matthews – Freedom from Fear

Ameena Matthews

Violence interrupter Ameena Matthews was awarded the Freedom from Fear Medal for her work to prevent violence on the streets of Chicago. Matthews mediates conflicts in order to prevent their escalation, focusing her efforts on impoverished and underprivileged youth. “To move forward, we have to better educate our young people of color,” she said. “They need to know that violence is not a social norm, that violence is unacceptable on all levels. These young people don’t know what it means to carry a gun; they don’t even know how much jail time they will get for that. Violence is just a symptom, it is the end result of what has happened for so many years and it’s just starting to act out now. It is a learned behavior, it’s not something you’re born with. It costs much much less to educate someone than to put them in an institution.”

Karin Kamp is a multimedia journalist and producer. She has produced content for BillMoyers.com, NOW on PBS and WNYC public radio and worked as a reporter for Swiss Radio International. She also helped launch The Story Exchange, a site dedicated to women’s entrepreneurship.

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