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LISTEN: Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz on the intersection of labor and environmental rights

“It was this dedication to farmworkers that was based on this commitment to organizing.”

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss environmental justice and labor rights in California’s San Joaquin Valley.


Alatriste-Diaz, a senior Agents of Change fellow and Ph.D. candidate in Development Sociology at Cornell University and researcher at UC Merced's Community and Labor Center, talks about his winding path to higher education, and what today’s health activists and advocates can learn from organizers and movements decades ago.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Edwards, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Today's guest is Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz, a PhD candidate in development sociology at Cornell University and a researcher at UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center. Rodrigo talks about his winding path to higher education, environmental justice and labor rights in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and what today's activists and advocates can learn from movements decades ago. Enjoy. All right, I am super happy to be joined by Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz. Rodrigo, how are you doing today?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

I'm doing great, Brian, how are you?

Brian Bienkowski

I'm doing wonderful. Thanks so much for joining me, and where are you today?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Today, I'm in Visalia, California. And that's in the San Joaquin Valley, about 45 minutes south of Fresno and an hour and a half north of Bakersfield. It's rainy weather, but we can use the, the water in California.

Brian Bienkowski

Oh that is too funny. It is blowing and snowing, I've probably gotten a foot, foot and a half of snow in the last seven days here in northern Michigan. So we have plenty of moisture. I keep seeing these stories that the Upper Midwest is the place to live during climate change. But I'll tell you what, you better get ready for some cold winters if you want to live where I live. So we are going to talk more about the San Joaquin Valley later on. But I wanted to start at the beginning. So you grew up a Mexican American immigrant in West Los Angeles. Tell me a little bit about your upbringing and anything along the way that made you want to become a researcher.

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Yes, so I was born in Mexico City. And I think I came to the US at the age of six. I think English came pretty easy, having started grade school in the US. And I think being an immigrant was a part of what was, something that influenced my upbringing and decision to become a researcher and the type of research that I was engaged in. So as a kid, I moved a lot. And I lived in Norwalk, California, which is south of, the southern part of LA, Tucson, Riverside, and then back to LA. And I think, you know, that kind of exposed me to different neighborhoods, different types of social context. I think it made it easy to also choose to go to school away from LA. So I love LA but, you know, as a 19-20 year old transferring from a community college, I also wanted to see something different. And, and so that type of upbringing, I think really, you know, kind of made it accessible and okay to move to Santa Cruz as an undergrad and then to New York. And I think it also, in terms of exposures to different communities, I primarily grew up in West LA and West LA is a pretty diverse place in, in Los Angeles. I wouldn't say it's as diverse as places like Queens. Usually the US Census puts out the most diverse bloc in the United States, and it typically tends to be in Queens. And so in, and so, West Los Angeles kind of provided that growing up. And it allowed me to interact and learn about different cultural backgrounds. And I think one of the defining moments for becoming a sociologist was taking a community-based research class at UCLA. And we were reading this book about immigrant Los Angeles. And it described this neighborhood on Sawtelle that was an area that, where Japanese immigrants, primarily owned nurseries. And so I remember in high school walking down the street, and, you know, seeing the Buddhist temple and seeing, I think there's one nursery left, if it hasn't survived a lot of the transformations in West LA, but being able to understand spatial arrangements, and the racial and ethnic spatial arrangements, was something important for me to kind of understand the social world. And so in a way, sociology provided a lens for me to, to be able to do that.

Brian Bienkowski

So I want to talk more about your work, but on your way there, so your PhD trajectory had some, had some twists and turns. You didn't have, you didn't go straight through college and go straight to the PhD, like some folks do, perhaps erroneously because I think getting out in the world is probably a good thing for most folks. But tell me about your path a little bit. And perhaps how some of your outside of academia experience helped you decide what you wanted to pursue professionally.

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Yeah, so I wasn't the best student in high school. So the community college system provides a second chance to students and I think it's an important pipeline for underrepresented students. And it certainly was for me, and I had a great time. I went to Santa Monica Community College, and they've done a really good job of creating programs that direct students to UCLA and local or California-based four year universities. And it provided the space to just kind of figure out what I wanted to do and to learn. So I took every sociology class possible, I took a series of art classes, watercolor, figure drawing, and the amazing thing was that back then, the units, the cost per unit was $11. So I was able to work part-time and pay for my entire schooling the first two years, which is probably very difficult to do today. And in that context, so I also, I did cartooning for the school newspaper. So it was, you know, I was having a blast, it was a variety of things. And in that mix, I was also involved with student organizations. And I think, you know, that was kind of a critical point in becoming civically engaged. One of the challenges of, of being at SMC and being undocumented was that, at the time, undocumented students would get categorized as international students. And so even though you met the California State residency requirement, which is that you live in California for the past two years, there was, there wasn't enough information about—so this was before the DREAM Act, and you know, this was in the early 2000s. And so that brought my attention in working with student organizations and organizing as a student to bring attention to this miscategorization. And this work also continued at UC Santa Cruz and included to work with the administration to, you know, essentially like route to, to show what you know that how this issue was affecting students, right. From the administrative standpoint. It was like, ‘Oh, we didn't even know there was undocumented students that a community college or four year university,’ and I think that was really critical in terms of my commitment to immigrant rights work, and also research and then eventually, in, I think it was 2006 or five, the state of California passed in assembly that made in-state tuition available for undocumented students. So I think, you know, Santa Cruz community organizations, it was a very vibrant immigrant rights community of organizations in LA, and so when I finished undergrad, you know, I felt like I had this paradigm through learning sociology to be able to understand social problems and to engage with communities. So I worked with day laborers and unaccompanied minors. And in 2006, was the Mayday March in Los Angeles. And so this was, you know, some of the largest marches in the history of the United States. And I think that really shaped my curiosity, in civic engagement, in mass mobilization, and how people power could influence policy and social change. After that, I started some consulting work. And I was doing surveys and focus groups, and I wanted to be engaged more in the research process, I wanted to be writing the reports or doing design, research design. And, and around that time is when I started to apply to grad school and I had that experience has a researcher and work experience with, with organizations and, and across a variety of issues of immigrant rights.

Brian Bienkowski

I'm so glad you brought up community college. I don't know if we've discussed it on this podcast before and what role it’s played in maybe some fellows or for other folks in higher education. My, my brother-in-law here in Michigan works at a community college down in Traverse City, and I've gotten a chance to visit and a lot of their, their, their school is focused on trades, on learning trades. Electrical, working out, we have the great lakes here, so working out on the open water, in robotics on the sea floor and stuff, doing really cool, practical stuff that when they graduate, they are ready to be employed. And I just think community colleges serve such a vital function. Just to echo what you said, I just, I'm really glad that, um, that you told your story there and we could, we can talk about it a little bit, because I'm, I'm a big fan, I'm a big proponent of community colleges, they serve a really vital role.

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Yeah. And, you know, I remember the, the faculty to student ratio was like one to 24, which is probably, you know, what you would get at a liberal arts college and in the east, you know, prestigious liberal arts college in the east coast. So I think, you know, it is a critical pipeline. And, you know, for a lot of folks, it's a second chance. And it also makes me think of, you know, some of the work that I'm working at, some of the projects that I'm working on now with the UC Merced Community Center, which is the, this high road, high road training project. And so the idea, and this is primarily in Kern County, which is in a county that, that relies heavily on the oil and gas industry, and so as the oil and gas industry goes through boom and bust cycles, there's greater interest in promoting a just transition. Part of that, it's going to require training oil and gas workers. And so the community college again, you know, will will play that important role, and I'm sure we can expect that in other areas and other industries that will be affected by climate change. And so I think, you know, there certainly needs to be more, you know, more, more attention in how community and the role of community colleges in these issues.

Brian Bienkowski

And as you mentioned, just the space to think about what you might want to do. I went to a large state, Michigan State University here, right out of college, or right out of high school went there, picked a major went through, it wasn't a major that I would ever pick, it was marketing. And anybody who knows me, marketing is maybe the last, business school in general, is the last thing that I would, that I would choose. But some of us just aren't ready to choose our careers at 18 years old. So I think that space to, to explore is really important too. Which I have to ask you: Do you still cartoon at all? And were you drawing, or were you writing the, writing the text?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

No. So I would get you know, the, the story, a description of the story. And you know, the request was, you know, how can we visualize this. And there was that, you know, I, I have a, I have one of the drawings and I remember there was debate about utility reform in California. And I remember, you know, drawing the governor playing kind of like whack, Whack-A-Mole with like holes and this drawing of California with holes and electrical lines, you know, trying to, this idea of like putting out fires through policy. So no, I don't get to draw as often. But I think that the closest thing to drawing that I do now is, I do some art GIS work. And so it does provide like that ability, you know, that. So you, you bring in data, you try to illustrate relationships, and there is kind of like this artistic element of like, the software does a lot of it in terms of like contrast and stuff. But also, you have flexibility in how you want to visualize it. So I think that's, that's the most creative artistic part of the type of work that I do today that I, you know, I could consider art.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Yeah, totally. So you mentioned earlier this moment, this light bulb moment when you thought sociology was, was maybe something that you wanted to pursue. So maybe it's that, but I was wondering if you have a defining moment or event that shaped your identity?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

No, I think, you know, it was being involved in immigrant rights work, the community-based research, and then just the experience to do research in the workplace.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, and that leads me nicely into what you're doing now. So you're working at the Labor and Community Center at UC Merced focused on environmental justice and labor movements in the San Joaquin Valley. So first, fill us in a little bit about the San Joaquin Valley, because I'm guessing the romaine lettuce in my fridge might say it's from that region, if I'm right, I believe it's a huge ag region. So tell us a little bit about why it's important. Why, why you're in this place studying these things, what makes it unique, and then tell us a bit about what your research is focused on?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Sure. Yeah, I remember being in New York and, so salad and lettuce, the Dole salad bags that you see at the supermarket tends to be produced in the Salinas Valley. So that's a valley in the Central Coast. So the San Joaquin Valley is eight counties. And there's, you know, a variety of, of produce, but it gets exported to across the US and internationally. In Tulare County. It's about a $7 billion dollar industry. And so it's an important industry for the valley. And the valley is also changing pretty rapidly. Fresno and Bakersfield are two of the fastest growing cities in California, they're in the top 10. And there's a general pattern of in-state migration from coastal areas inland, primarily families and middle to professionals and middle income families. And so, you know, it's kind of like this process of getting priced out of the bay and LA. And a lot of ways, that, that provides a lot of opportunity in terms of diversifying industries, especially amongst folks that are now working remotely. And then investment by the city and the state. One of the challenges is to ensure that as, with this growth and development, that there's an equity lens that also takes into consideration some of the historical communities that have existed in the valley. And, and so some of the challenges, you know, there's a couple of social indicators about, on poverty and education. There's also a lot of pollution burden that's primarily driven by industry and also emissions. So we're an important corridor between the north, Northern California and Southern California. So we have a lot of emissions from diesel trucks. Being a rural county and being a primarily rural area in California, there's also a need to increase public transportation. And so folks here commute, you know, in, in cars in long distances, because it's so rural. So there's, there's definitely a need for that. And, and in this, you know, in this context, there's, there's growing interest in creating and sustaining industries that have lower carbon footprint. And so, you know, one of the the projects that I mentioned, that's looking at creating high road jobs, bringing high road employers with folks that will require retraining. And a industry that has a, or with some consideration to climate change and an industry that has a low carbon footprint is certainly something that the San Joaquin Valley needs and is, and is working towards.

Brian Bienkowski

So you're looking back at some of the historical roots of political and civic engagement in the valley there. So tell us what are the early days of political and social activism in the valley look like? And what were some of the barriers in the region when it comes to health equity and social justice?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Yeah, so some of this research started, I was doing field research and I started to interview some of the environmental justice leaders in the San Joaquin Valley. And one of the common denominators was participation in the farm worker movement. So the farm worker movement started in the 60s. There's the, at least in terms of like the origins of the United Farm Workers Union, but there's a couple of, there's a longer history that, of attempts to unionize, of organizing labor camps that historians have, have kind of, have paid greater attention to in the past 10-15 years. And then related to that, you know, there's also this interest in exploring the farm worker movement as intersectional and interracial and multiracial. So part of my work is also, you know, kind of using this environmental justice lens to understand some of the work that was done by the UFW in the 60s and 70s. So in terms of like, what that looked like, there was, the union used to have this newspaper that's called El Malcriado. And so I was able to trace some of the work that they did through archival work. And so in, you know, the nine, during 1968, the farmer union was already talking about water quality issues in Delano. And then ultimately, in, through the great boycott, and the Grape Strike, the union was able to implement union contracts that limited the use of pesticides and also required for workers, or for employers to provide a space for workers to have health committees. And so these committees served as a place for workers to advocate for, you know, different working conditions as it affected health and that included pesticides and access to water and other things. And so in a lot of ways, the union was a precursor to the way we think about environmental justice. At the same time, the type of work that was done wasn't considered environmental justice work. So part of how the union was so successful was in how they were able to bring in so many sectors of society. So for example, the boycott, so this was the boycott of grapes, extended, they had boycott offices across the US. So I remember hearing stories about you know, folks who grew up in the Central Valley, in you know, in fairly decent weather, moving to Canada and doing boycott, boycott organizing in Canada and New York and Philadelphia. And so, you know, before the creation of the internet, to get your message across, what better way to do that than through person to person interaction and farm workers that, you know, could talk about their lived experience. The other kind of interest or the other, you know, this idea of like bringing in as many people like, as possible included students. And so, there's, there's a lot of examples of UC Berkeley students who went to a UFW rally and put a hold on their undergrad career, joined the Union for six or eight years, and later returned to finish their, their undergrad degree, right. And so the Catholic Church and clergy played an important role. It was also a consumer boycott. So it was almost like you couldn't get away from, you know, not eating grapes and boycotting grapes. Whether it was through your pastor or whether there was a picket line at the grocery store that you were attending, like, you would know that there was a strike going on, and that you shouldn't eat grapes. And so that's, and so that, that was kind of, that was the earlier part of the, of the movement and how it incorporated environmental justice and health into their work. I guess the other comment that I would make is that it was also a very transformative area, era, right. And so I think people's commitment was shaped by that historical context. But there was also a lot of strategy that the union used. So for example, folks who, I think it was like, after the 1970s, the headquarters of the UFW shifted from Delano, to La Paz, and this was an area where organizers would work and live. And so the union provided, you know, a place to live and work. And so it was almost like this, you know, it was like a Google campus, if you could say, of organizers. And so that meant that you had, that people carried on extraordinary amounts of work, through their commitment, but that there was this infrastructure that was there that lended itself to that. There was also a strong influence from the industrial area of foundation model and of organizing, and, and that influenced strategy and messaging in the sense that this perspective looks at community associations as a multi-issue, and that as issues that are important to community come along, that communities have sustained engagement to address them, right. And so it's not, it doesn't follow some of the organizational models that we think of today in terms of, you know, an environmental justice organization or a union or an immigrant rights organization. There was this interest and focus in kind of doing it all. And in that context, one of the interviews that I conducted with Cynthia Bell in Bakersfield, she told me the story about starting a radio station. So getting a directive from the, one of the leaders, Cesar Chavez, requesting that the union wanted to have and create a radio station. Having no background in radio station, the union purchased a local radio antenna, and she learned how to, you know, run the switch boards, figure out law in terms of like, what frequencies could be used. And, and so that that was kind of an example of kind of like the extraordinary commitment that folks had and how it was fostered by the union. And, and just what, you know, what was, what folks were capable of back then.

Brian Bienkowski

I know there are a lot of positives that come from social media and, and the use of kind of online organizing and activism and far be it for me to criticize any methods employed today. However, it does seem when you talk about that, that there was this kind of, there was this beauty, this spark, when people had to get together, had to organize together, had to be in the same room together. And I'm wondering, what could—a lot of these issues, especially for farmworkers, persist today. I know pesticide exposure is one that comes to mind that I know we've covered a lot. So what could, or should modern food, environmental climate justice movements learn from some of this early organizing in the valley? And conversely, where did some of these movements fall short? What can we, what can we take from what you've seen in those early days of organizing?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Yeah, I think the framing was really important. So you know, thinking about movements as intersectional. So some of the framing that the union used was about bringing dignity to workers. You know, that's kind of you, you can't find someone that will say, like, no, you don't deserve dignity. And so they were very strategic in that. And again, in like, bringing in the, bringing in clergy and different, different stakeholders, you know, I think today, we would call them like stakeholders. The, the yeah, I think I would go back to mention the, to mentioning the boycott as a way to bring in different sectors in in different groups in society. And then, in terms of, you know, things that that needed to change, there was, you know, the, history is always in retrospect is always kind of easier to analyze and criticize, but there was, there certainly was an issue in terms of diversifying in leadership in terms of women. The, there was an important role that the Filipino farmworkers played early on, and that could have been sustained. And then there's also, you know, this issue of sustaining a union model that would be in place today. And that's, that's a pretty big academic debate and why the farm worker movement wasn't able to transition into a full-fledged union. And unions declined today in general, but also the difficulty in organizing foreign workers.

Brian Bienkowski

I'm fascinated by this intersectional approach, thinking about some of the modern climate environmental movements today, and how intrinsically tied it is to labor unions. You mentioned earlier oil and gas workers who may need new training, I'm thinking of people who work in fracking fields who are perhaps exposed to toxic compounds that, that they shouldn't be, and how there seems to be a little bit of siloing of these movements right now, at least in my, in my mind. And maybe that's, maybe that's changed a little bit. But um, I think that is a really valuable lesson that, but as you said, you can't argue that people deserve dignity, or people deserve to be able to breathe good air. So even if you aren't terribly worried about the climate, maybe you should be worried about the fact that the oil field is infiltrating your lungs or something. So I think that intersectional approach is a really good point, and can probably be used in a lot of different activist movements. So I know another key aspect of your research is upending this notion that poor and rural communities have a lower capacity for political and civic engagement. What other sources of hope or inspiration have you drawn from your research?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Yeah, so I think part of the, the message that I want to kind of, you know, to get out to folks outside of the valley, right, and all of this comes from former organizers and the work that they did was also, you know, the, the meaning making process of of their involvement. And so again, like going back to this idea that issues in communities come and go and so that commitment also has to stay constant and elevated. One of the sources that former organizers drew from was this identity of an organizer. So there's a lot of work written about Fred Ross and the type of model that, that was used. And so, you know, is this dedication to farm workers that was based on this commitment to organizing, in addition, organized, the way that organized, organizers were described was as, as this ability, innate ability to be an organizer? So, you know, under that idea, if you were an organizer, why, you know, why would you not continue organizing? So it was the use of, of, of these ideas for, of describing organizers as a calling that also pushed organizers forward in their work and in their commitment. And I think that, you know, that was completely strategic and complimentary to the model of organizing across issues and time. So I think that would be you know, and there was also very real challenges. And, you know, we see this in, when political scientists study civic engagement across the life course, that there's a high moment of, of civic engagement when we're young, and then there's family formation, and so it declines. And in some places, it shifts also. So, you know, rather than being involved in a political cause that's important to us, we might be involved in our children's schools. So it could be the PTA or the city council. And so as these as, as civic engagement changes that we have an ability to, to stay sustained. Oh and I think the, the last kind of jump in civic engagement is when we retire, right? So, so thinking about sustained civic engagement, and as it interacts with the life course, and, you know, for some folks, especially low income folks, some of the challenges, and in being incorporated into environmental justice work is a limitation in your time, right? That right after work, you have commitments with family, with children. And that sometimes there's a very steep technical curve to be involved in things like citizen science. So, which doesn't mean that it can't occur, but that there's, that there's different forms of consideration whether it's language access, that when you do presentations, community engagement, that you have bilingual speakers, that you have folks that are culturally attuned to how people think differently about the environment, how people have, have practice environmental conservation, in different ways that are informed by their lived experience, or you know, what country they're from, and the context in that, in that country. So those are, you know, so those are the, some of the challenges in terms of sustaining civic engagement and also incorporating communities of color into environmental justice work.

Brian Bienkowski

So what is the current state of the San Joaquin Valley today? Does labor environmental organizing still play a role in the region?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Yeah, I think, so the other component that I forgot to mention is that, you know, this focus on community and labor. So at the community level, there's a lot of, and this is kind of, it's always interesting, because there's, there's a model that works, you know, that might work, you know, people who study labor will call that, will find differences in the labor union model versus Chicago or other areas. And so, there's always you know, these models of social change that can be adapted in, in different contexts. And so right now, for example, there's a lot of work around the, the planning, planning process in the Central Valley. So to ensure that the general plan takes into consideration environmental justice concerns, and some places like Fresno, that means that there is zoning that's more, that's denser, that there's investment in communities that are burdened by environment, the environment, and there's a couple of different measurements that are used for that. And related to that, you know, transportation and the creation of parks in, in historically underserved communities. So that's kind of like the, the community model right, of like, let's focus on where we, you know, the social, the environmental justice phrase of where we live, work and play. In terms of labor, I think there's less, there's a smaller union density in the valley than in places like LA and San Francisco, but there's still a large, in the public sector, employment is still large. And so there's still a lot of existing unions. There's also the health industry that's growing in the valley. And so that's an important opportunity to ensure that, that there are good jobs, and that there's a union representation. I think, you know, we also have a, we're a red county in terms of, or there's, there's ideologically there's a strong Republican influence in the valley. And so I think, when a lot of the, the messaging around, just the, just something like, just transition really has to be elaborated and framed in a way where it takes into consideration, for example, the cultural, cultural heritage of oil workers. So that there's a greater acceptance that, you know, that this isn't government shutting down oil, and, you know, some of the resources that will be made available to displaced workers. And, you know, what, what that looks like? So, I think, you know, that's, that's a challenge that's related to framing and also more information. So we're, you know, part of this hybrid training project is to disseminate information and to do data gathering about how, how folks think about the just transition, what their perceptions are, what what industries, communities, labor unions, and industry leaders want to see grow. So there, you know, there is a lot of overlap in terms of, of, of strategies, like the high road training project. And you know, and I think that's, that's a way to, or that project, is a way to think about initiatives in the valley that bring in different stakeholders with a particular consideration for the environment and climate change.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Well, Rodrigo. I've learned so much today about a part of the world that I've never visited, but obviously touches my life and so many people's lives around the country. So thank you so much. And I have one more question. And that is, what is the last book that you read for fun?

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

So I haven't finished the book because it's pretty significant. It's about 510 pages, and it's titled, “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California. And it's by Mark Arax. And he's a, he's an author that has written about the Central Valley and is super accessible. He's also a great presenter, I went to, I went to a conference where he did a reading of his previous book. And, you know, another, another area that we didn't talk about is kind of the water crisis in California. And so, that's the book that I read, and, or that I'm currently reading for fun. And if folks haven't read anything by Mark Arax, I would recommend them highly.

Brian Bienkowski

I have to laugh sometimes at what some of you fellows consider “fun” reading. Just a little light, drought, drought read.

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

He's completely accessible. Like, you know, he wrote this book about, oh, I'm trying to remember. It's this family in the valley that's, you know, one of the agriculture juggernauts here in the valley. And I can't remember the name of the, this historical figure, but, you know, it was like reading a telenovela, or a, or a drama. And so he has like a very accessible way to write that makes it really intriguing. So it's like reading a story that I try not to keep it as technical and boring. My partner does a good job of reminding me about that, so.

Brian Bienkowski

That is, you’re right. I mean, that is a real skill, people that can write books about science and the environment or politics, whatever, and draw out the stories, the human elements, the narrative. So yeah, I’ll definitely check that out. And Rodrigo, thank you so much for your time today.

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz

Thank you, Brian. It's been a pleasure. Have a great one.

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