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Community: Overview

Abstract and Keywords

One of the hallmarks of social work is its recognition that people grow and mature in a social context. Communities are one of the many social systems that touch people's lives and shape their individual and group identity. A conceptual overview of community is presented. Social systems, ecological systems, and power/conflict are presented as alternative frameworks for understanding how the social interaction between individuals, groups, and social institutions are patterned within the community. Virtual community is reviewed as a recent phenomenon that may have implications for community in modern society.

Keywords: Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, community of interest, social systems, ecological systems, community power, community conflict, virtual community, computer mediated community

Community has been a central focus of social work practice since its inception. Communities are one of the many social systems that touch people's lives and shape their individual and group identities. One of the hallmarks of social work is its understanding that people grow and mature in a social context. Infants first encounter their immediate family, then extended family and friends, and then the local community. As people grow and mature, they learn about and form perceptions of social structures and develop individual and group identities through associations that connect them to life-long community experiences (Newman, 2005). The characteristics of the community itself can have important implications for one's life chances.

Communities come in an infinite number of sizes, shapes, social arrangements, population compositions, and locations. Communities are composed of social relationships that form the basis of communal life, and the shared perceptions, and common interests of its members are the glue that bonds the community into a coherent unit. Moreover, these social relationships and shared perceptions transcend time, structure, and location. Some communities are relational in nature and are based on shared beliefs, values, or interests. Such communities are not tied to a single location or physical structure.

Community is the context and setting for social work at all levels of intervention. For social workers engaged in direct practice at the micro level, it is critical that they understand the macro-environment where their clients live and work, the resources available to them, and how community dynamics impact individual behavior. For macro-level social workers whose practice is focused on social policy, community organization, programs planning, and administration, community is central to their work. Community is also the target or vehicle for change where interventions are designed to address broader social problems that affect a large group of people (Fellin, 2001b).

History of Community as Human Association

The construct of community is often associated with the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies in the late 1800s (Harris, 2001). He elaborated two “normal” types of human association, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft is based on natural, personal, informal, face-to-face social relationships, where individuals are accepted for who they are, not what they have done. Relationships are based on emotion and sentiment, and people are recognized and accepted for their innate qualities. Where this type of relationship exists, people know one another as individuals; social controls are informal and based on shared mores and beliefs; and group relationships are more important than individual goals and desires. Tonnies saw this as the type of human relationship reflected in families, small groups, and traditional communities.

By contrast, Gesellschaft relationships are characterized by rational self-interest; are more contrived in nature; and place greater emphasis on specialized, segmented social interactions. The interests of the individual supersede the interests of the group. People engage one another as objects to be used to achieve personal ends. Interactions between individuals are directed toward a utilitarian goal and are often based on some form of contractual agreement. Social cohesion is derived from a more elaborate division of labor, and social control is more formalized, based on laws and rules with formal sanctions enforced when laws are violated.

Tonnies observed that the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th century was bringing about major transformations in the nature of human relationships. While some have placed value on these alternative forms of human interaction, suggesting that Gemeinschaft represents a more positive type of human relationship, Tonnies viewed them as different forms of human association and anticipated that both would be a permanent part of social life in modern societies. Viewing them as ends of a continuum of human interaction allows us to understand that community is grounded in both informal personal relationships and in the formal institutional structures that are part of contemporary life.

Definitions of Community

When social workers think about community as the context and setting for professional practice, they typically think about two things simultaneously: (a) community as shared physical space or geographic community; and, (b) community based on shared interest or identity or functional community. Brueggemann (2006) contends that community needs to be embodied to have existence. By that he means that community must be identified with a physical space that symbolizes the community for its members, and for those who are not part of the community. This might be a territory with clearly defined boundaries, such as a town or municipality—sometimes referred to as a locality-based community The boundaries of these communities are often established through some political entity, such as a municipal government, zoning commission, or school board. But a community might also be embodied in a physical structure, such as a church, recreation club, golf course, or union hall where the building itself represents the embodiment of the community.

Membership in some communities is not dependent on shared physical space. Such communities are sometimes referred to as communities of interest. They are generally based on a set of shared interests or common characteristics that unite the members and provide the basis for one's personal identity. Things like race, ethnicity, religion, culture, social class, professional affiliation, and sexual orientation often form the basis for a community of interest. Because such communities are based on identity and interest, members carry the community with them; it is not tied to physical location.

Communities of interest sometime overlap with locality-based communities, as when a residential area contains a high proportion of people whose personal identity is tied to one or more specific interest groups. And most people belong to more than one community, with varying degrees of identification, interest, and engagement. These multiple community affiliations can be thought of as one's personal community network, representing the various locality-based and interest-based communities that connect the individual to others, and to the broader society (Pahl & Spencer, 2004). Identifying and assessing these personal community networks can provide a more complete picture of the range of formal and informal helping systems in the community. They can also provide social workers with a more holistic understanding of social problems facing their clients and develop more realistic intervention plans that connect the various levels of human interaction, micro to macro (Rubin & Rubin, 2008).

Understanding Community

When community is the point of intervention, it seems logical that social workers need to understand community and have useful conceptual frameworks to analyze it. Community-based practice requires community theory just as individual models of intervention require theories of personality and human behavior. To intervene competently and ethically, social workers need to understand the unit they are trying to change. Community practice requires that interventions be based on the characteristics of the community and the nature and scope of the specific problem that is the focus of intervention (Figueira-McDonough, 2001).

Given the complex and multifaceted nature of communities, no single conceptual framework provides an adequate theoretical foundation for understanding community. Kirst-Ashman (2008) suggests that community theories can be thought of as a series of lenses that focus on different aspects of community, each highlighting different dimensions of the community, its dynamic nature, and the ways it impacts the lives of its members. For our purpose here, we will focus on three different conceptual frameworks to help social workers understand community: (a) as a social system, (b) as an ecological system, and (c) as a center for power and conflict.

Community as a Social System

General systems theory is deeply rooted in social work practice and offers a useful framework to analyze and understand community. General systems theory posits that a system is composed of multiple interacting components that relate to one another in an orderly, functional manner. Moreover, systems are embedded within larger systems, thus providing a framework for understanding the connection between different levels of the system. For example, an individual might be viewed as one element within a family or kinship group, the kinship group exists within a community, the community within a state, nation, or society. Thus, a systems perspective provides a useful framework for understanding the structure of community and the processes that tie the structural elements together.

From this perspective, a community is composed of a series of interrelated parts or subsystems with each one performing specialized functions for the community. The subsystems exist for a specific purpose and the interdependence of these components produces the structure of the community. The functions they perform have relevance to the members of the community. Some of these functions are performed by formal organizations in the community, such as schools, hospitals, churches, and corporations. Others are performed through informal groups such as families, friends, neighbors, peers, and other social networks.

In the classic book, The Community in America, Roland Warren draws on these basic social system ideas to define community as “that combination of social units and systems that perform the major social functions having locality relevance” (Warren, 1978, p. 9). He outlines five major social functions that have locality relevance: production–distribution–consumption, socialization, social control, social participation, and mutual support.

Production–distribution–consumption refers to the economic function of the community. For people to live in a community, they must be able to acquire the goods and services needed for daily living. At the most basic level, this means access to food, shelter, and clothing. But it also means access to a host of other goods and services, such as transportation, health care, utilities, and other public services. Not only must these goods and services be available, but also people must have the resources needed to acquire them. Accordingly, employment opportunities, wages, and commodity pricing are also relevant to understanding this community function.

Socialization is the process by which members of the community learn the formal and informal social rules, values, norms, and behavior patterns of the community. It also involves the transmission of the accumulated knowledge and skills that are relevant to the community. Through this process, members of the community become socialized to the ways of the community. Formal subsystem, such as schools and religious organizations, are central to this process, as is the media. However, informal subsystems, such as families, friends, and peer groups, also influence socialization.

Communities usually have rules, norms, and standards of behavior, with mechanisms to ensure that people act in ways that are consistent with those expectations. Social control is about enforcement of community norms. It refers to the formal and informal processes that are used to pressure individuals into conformity with community norms. When someone is unable or unwilling to comply with community expectations, sanctions are imposed, and if the noncompliance continues, the individual may be removed from the community. Typically, this function is performed by formal governmental entities such as police, courts, and other code enforcement and regulatory agencies. However, many subsystems in the community contribute to the social control function, including families, schools, churches, and social service agencies. Sometimes there are organized neighborhood watches and block associations.

Social participation occurs when people are actively engaged in the life of the community. This happens through a variety of formal and informal subsystems. Participating in a recreational sports league, serving on a Board of Directors, voting in an election, volunteering at a homeless shelter, attending a city council meeting, joining the PTA at your child's school, and attending a community festival are examples of social participation. Opportunities for social participation can help create a dynamic and engaged citizenry. It also allows members of the community to establish and maintain personal community networks, share ideas and opinions, and build social capital.

Mutual support occurs when members of the community are faced with difficult circumstances that exceed their capacity to respond. When people become incapacitated by illness, are faced with the loss of a loved one, or with the loss of property due to a natural disaster, or a human-made disaster such as a war, components of the community often mobilize to provide mutual support. Traditionally, mutual support was provided by an informal helping network composed of family, friends, or neighbors. But the complexity of today's urban environment, coupled with the population mobility found in modern society, means that this function is increasingly being performed by specialized formal subsystems. In fact, this is where social work most often identifies its role in the community.

Social problems in the community often occur when one or more of these social functions are not being adequately performed. Such failures may be for the entire community or, more likely, for some subgroup within the community. The ability to procure goods and services, opportunities for meaningful social participation, and access to mutual support may vary considerably as one surveys the social and demographic landscape of the community.

Social participation and mutual support are especially important for the development of social capital in the community. Social capital refers to the connections among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that facilitate civic engagement, social solidarity, and cooperation for mutual benefit (Putnam, 2000). Social capital is a fundamental source of strength for a community, both for the members of the community individually and for the community as a whole (Chaskin, Goerge, Skylews, & Guiltinan, 2006; Poortinga, 2006). In communities with strong social capital, it is easier to resolve collective problems and all social functions are performed at a higher level. On the other hand, in communities with weak social capital people often feel trapped, powerless, and exploited (Homan, 2008).

Social workers need to be able to critically assess how these subsystems meet, or fail to meet, the needs of their clients. A community assessment focused on these major functions can help identify community needs, as well as community strengths. It can help us recognize when formal institutional structures that are designed to serve the community are not working effectively. It can help us understand the interrelationship between the formal and informal systems of the community. And it can help us identify appropriate points of intervention to bring about change in community subsystems.

While the social systems perspective can help social workers understand the communities where they live and work, increasingly that assessment must be done with a careful eye on the changing national and global context. Weil (2005) identifies a number of major shifts occurring at the national and international levels, such as globalization, privatization, and the dismantling of the social safety net, that have had profound impacts on how communities perform these functions. The movement of manufacturing capacity offshore has made the United States a nation of consumers rather than producers. Some communities have been hit hard with loss of jobs and industries. Pervasive travel and global population migration has made us vulnerable to the rapid spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Avian Flu, placing sudden and intense demands on health care and other mutual support systems. Rapid expansion in cyber-communications, including computer Blogs, instantaneous global news coverage, mobile phone systems, and virtual communities, has markedly altered the process of socialization, challenging old community beliefs and values, and creating access to new ideas and information in ways that were not possible a few years ago. In addition, Fisher and Karger (1997) note that one of the most significant challenges facing social work today is that in modern societies private space increasingly replaces public space. People no longer frequent public spaces, such as parks, libraries, mass transit, preferring instead to inhabit their own private world. This trend makes it increasingly difficult to build community and promote a sense of social solidarity (Fisher, 2005).

Community as an Ecological System

Germain and Gitterman (1980) have helped popularize the ecological perspective in social work. Drawing on concepts from biology, they emphasize the importance of transactions between humans and their environment to understand and explain the dynamic nature of communities (Germain, 1985). Transactions refer to regular exchange relationships that occur between the various parts of the community where each part gives and receives in symbiotic relationships with other parts of the system. This interdependence produces a state of equilibrium between the needs of the population and the capacity of the environment to meet those needs. From this perspective, a healthy community is one where all of the various parts fit together into a cohesive system, and that system has adapted to the constraints of its environment (Fellin, 2001a).

Where the social systems perspective helps us understand the social organization of the community, the ecological systems perspective focuses our attention on the spatial organization of the community and the social and economic consequences of the distribution of people and services. It emphasizes the interplay between population characteristics (size, density, diversity), the physical environment (land-use patterns, distribution of services), the social environment (social stratification, social class) and technology (production of goods and services, transportation, communications). It recognizes that physical features in the community often have importance social implications. For example, a highway, railroad tracks, river, even a specific street running through a community can have important implications for the social organization of the community and opportunities for individuals and groups to engage in meaningful transaction with their environment. While these physical features may demark important territorial boundaries in the community, they can also represent significant social and psychological boundaries that have important meaning for the self perception of subgroups in the community and the community as a whole.

The ecological systems perspective can help social workers understand how community structures emerge from dynamic processes, such as competition and dominance, centralization, concentration, succession, and segregation. The concept of competition is central to the ecological perspective. Competition is the act of one group striving against others for the purpose of achieving control of the limited resources of the community. One important area of competition in most communities is access to and control of natural resources. For example, competition for land is common in many communities as some groups strive to control prime real estate for residential and commercial development while others want to maintain public spaces such as parks and hiking trails. Still others may lament the loss of agricultural land as community growth encroaches on the hinterland. Competition for social resources, such as markets for goods and services, votes, employment opportunities, and access to education or health care systems, are often tied to location in the physical landscape of the community.

Through competition, one group or set of social institutions often becomes dominant over others in the community. The ability to win control over important resources in the environment allows one group to achieve a higher social status relative to others in the community (Fellin, 2001a). Dominant members of the community often reside in the most desirable locations in the community. But more importantly, dominance often means greater access to other resources such as the best jobs, schools, hospitals, police, and fire protection.

Because of its focus on competition and dominance, the ecological systems perspective helps us understand the community's hierarchical structure. The inequitable distribution of scarce resources in the community is often tied to social class. A person's position within this hierarchy has important implications for his or her quality of life. As Fellin (2001b, p. 121) points out, “people benefit or suffer as a result of their social position within communities, through differential life chances, employment opportunities, access to social and material resources, and social relationships.”

This perspective also helps us understand how goods and services are distributed across the community. The distribution of goods and services can be examined along a continuum of centralization. When the major social and economic institutions of the community are clustered in one area, the community is said to be centralized. In most urban areas critical services like banking, transportation, and health and human services were traditionally centralized in the downtown area, giving the central city dominance over other areas. More recently, advances in information technology, as well as population movements out of the central city to the suburbs, have made it possible for vital community services to be decentralized.

The ecological perspective also helps us understand community processes related to population movement. Population movement may occur when a dominant group gains control of a new area and the current residents are forced out. For example, gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods may increase housing values to the point that current residents cannot afford to stay. Sometimes population movement occurs as part of a natural process called succession. In cities that serve as ports of entry for immigrants, the new arrivals often move into the least desirable areas. As they gain resources and move to more desirable locations, other new arrivals take their place. Sometimes groups who share common characteristics such as race, social class, or religion become concentrated in one part of the community and find it difficult to move to a new location. This process, known as segregation, tends to isolate and detach individuals and subgroups from the larger community.

The ecological perspective also draws our attention to community demographics. Population characteristics, such as social class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, are often aggregated across the community to produce a demographic map or profile of the community. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) offers social workers a powerful tool for organizing and presenting data that shows the spatial distribution of important community characteristics (Hoefer, Hoefer, & Tobias, 1994). Data from the U.S. Census, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, and other federal, state, and local government agencies can provide a useful snapshot showing the distribution of population by demographic characteristics, goods and services, as well as social problems like poverty, crime, and substandard housing in the community. Moreover, the analysis of such data over time can provide useful insights into the demographic development of the community and the dynamic changes occurring within the community. It can provide a powerful visual image that reflects the processes of competition, concentration, segregation, and succession.

The ecological systems perspective can help social workers understand the relationship between the physical and social environment of the community. By examining macro-level processes like competition, concentration, succession, and segregation, we can begin to understand how the social structure of the community evolves over time and often places some members of the community at a disadvantage in terms of access to the resources needed for daily living.

Community as a Center for Power and Conflict

Although the social systems and ecological systems perspectives provide useful insights into the community as a context and setting for social work practice, both have been criticized for their failure to acknowledge community conflict and the role of power in determining opportunities and constraints for community members (Hardcastle, Wenocur, & Powers, 1997; Hardina, 2002). The social systems perspective assumes that the community is composed of a set of subsystems that perform specialized functions that meet the needs of the entire community. The actions of those subsystems are presumed to be coordinated and integrated in ways that benefit the community as a whole. However, one does not need to look very far in most communities to find that what is good for the whole community is not necessarily good for all parts of the community. Disagreements between different interest groups are common in most communities. The interests of one part of the community are sometimes incompatible with the interests of others and conflicts emerge as these groups struggle to advance their own interests. This kind of interest group conflict sometimes results in a phenomenon known as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), where residents in one part of the community mobilize in opposition to plans to place something in their neighborhood, perhaps a homeless shelter, garbage incinerator, or power plant, that will benefit the larger community but which they consider undesirable.

With its focus on community processes like competition and dominance, concentration, segregation, and succession, the ecological systems perspective acknowledges power differences and the inequitable distribution of community resources. But it also assumes that those who are less successful at competition must find ways to adapt to the community structures that have been created by those with more power. It says little about how different interest groups in the community vie for power or how those with less power can acquire power and bring about changes in the community to better meet their needs.

The perspective of community as a center for power and conflict places power and politics front and center in our understanding of community. It assumes that conflict and change are central attributes of most American communities and that community decision making is as much about confrontation and negotiation as it is about rational planning, collaboration, and coordination (Hardcastle, Wenocur, & Powers, 1997). Communities are composed of competing groups who are constantly engaged in conflict over power and the control of scarce resources. Some groups, often based on social class or race, have less access to power and must constantly challenge those with power to acquire access to community resource such as employment opportunities, health care, housing, police and fire protection, and education. This ongoing conflict can produce significant pressure for change in the distribution of power and resources in the community (Kirst-Ashman, 2008).

Community conflicts are often classified into two broad categories: those based on social class and those based on interest groups. The idea of class conflict has its origins in the work of the 19th-century German economist and philosopher Karl Marx. Marx argued that society is divided into two groups, those who have access to wealth and power and who control the means for the production of goods and services, and those who have little or no power and are exploited by a small privileged group. This system of capitalism inevitably results in exploitation and poverty and produces class conflict as people struggle against oppression and strive for a more equitable distribution of power and community resources (Clegg, 1989).

Control of economic resources by a small privileged group extends beyond the means of production into the realm of politics. Economic power is transformed into political power as the capitalist elite use their vast economic resources to dominate the political arena and gain control of government institutions, which, in turn, are used to further strengthen their position of power and to subordinate the lower classes. From this perspective, social workers can become unwitting participants in the domination of the lower classes by the elite. Because social welfare is primarily a government function, and the elite control government institutions including social welfare, social workers can find themselves reinforcing the status quo and working to change the attitudes and behaviors of the working poor to support the demands of the capitalist economic system (Burghardt & Fabricant, 1987).

Interest group conflict focuses on conflicts that emerge out of competing values and interests among social groups. Unlike class conflict, which views power as being concentrated in the hands of a small elite class, the interest group perspective views power as being decentralized and tied to issues rather than class. From this perspective, power is distributed among different organized groups with control shifting based on the issue and the ability of the groups to form coalitions with others who support their position (Dahl 1961, 1967). When there is great diversity on a community, as is the case in many contemporary American communities, this type of issue politics is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the decision-making process than control over all segments of society by a small power elite (Martinez-Brawley, 1995).

Viewing community as a center for power and conflict can help social workers assess the community power structure, how decisions are made in the community, and their role as community change agents. It can help them understand that much of the oppression experienced by marginalized groups in the community has its origins in class, race, ability, age, gender, and sexual orientation. And it can help social workers understand how those in power can maintain their position of privilege by framing community social problems in ways that discourage ordinary people from standing up to challenge the status quo. (Rubin & Rubin, 2008).

Hardina (2002) argues that the purpose of community organization is for social workers to help members of oppressed groups to gain power that will increase their access to decision-making authority, and ultimately give them greater access to jobs, education, money, and other community resources. Saul Alinsky, perhaps the best known community organizer in America, understood the community as a center of power and conflict. He understood that disenfranchised people would never gain access to the power needed to control their own lives unless they could overcome apathy and build organizations that could challenge the existing power structure. He worked to mobilize people through churches, neighborhood associations, and labor unions to give them a voice and to teach them the skills needed to define common interest, build solidarity, and challenge the status quo. He understood that it was only through such “People's Organizations” that people could “create a world of decency, dignity, peace, and happiness; a world worthy of man and worthy of the name of civilization” (Alinsky, 1969, pp. 202–203).

The ability to understand community power and to view conflict and confrontation as a normal part of community life can help social workers formulate strategies to challenge the existing power structure of the community and build the capacity of disenfranchised and oppressed populations to redefine community problems and challenge the status quo.

Virtual Community

Recent advances in electronic communication technology have given rise to a new kind of community called a virtual community (Rheingold, 2000). Sometimes called a computer mediated community (CMC), a virtual community is a social group that communicates primarily via a computer rather than face-to-face. These communities are called virtual because they function without actual physical contact in cyberspace (Kollock & Smith, 1999).

Because CMCs are such a recent phenomenon, it is unclear whether they represent an extension of classic forms of community or if they are a fundamentally new type of human association (Memmi, 2006). In some ways, a virtual community is consistent with Tonnies's observation that modern society is moving toward Gesellschaft forms of human association. Shapiro and Varian (1999) have noted that since the 1980s, there has been a substantial move toward more flexible forms of group membership where individual participation in social groups is constantly being re-evaluated and renegotiated. People today often belong to many communities of interest at the same time, with varying degrees of identification and engagement. This trend is also evident in recent management practices where the current focus is on temporary work-teams, subcontracting and outsourcing, flexibility and autonomy in work arrangements (Herr, 2004).

Virtual communities are often large and require a minimum of shared reference among their members. Membership is mostly goal-oriented, frequently temporary, and is maintained by minimal cohesion. In their current popular form, they are quite different from traditional, tightly connected communities; however, the technology is still emerging.

Virtual communication technology has the potential to bring together those people who could not easily meet otherwise because of distance, accessibility, or stigma. It also has the potential to unite the voices of those who are often unheard or ignored and create new opportunities for wider citizen participation in public policy debates and community decision-making processes. For this potential to be realized, access to information and communication technology must be available to all sectors of society. Some have raised concerns about a digital divide, pointing out the gap between those who have access to this technology and those who do not. This reflects a new form of social exclusion and inequality that is every bit as powerful as exclusion based on race and social class during the last century (Lohmann & McNutt, 2005; Steyaert, 2002). What is clear is that this technology will have profound implications for social work practice, both in terms of the kinds of problems we confront in our communities and in the strategies we use to respond to those problems (Hicks & McNutt, 2002; Menon & Brown, 2001; Quiero-Tajalli, McNutt, & Campbell, 2003; Scheoch, 1999).

Community and Social Work Practice

Knowledge of community structures and processes has been central to social work since its inception. Historically, community has been the context and setting of social workers' practice. It is not surprising that social work, as a profession, emerged at the beginning of the 20th century during a period of great societal transformation ushered in by the rise of industrial capitalism in the United States and Europe. Early social work pioneers, working through settlement houses and charity organization societies, responded to the rapid social changes brought about by industrialization, the changing nature of cities, population movements from rural to urban areas, and waves of new immigrants coming to the United States from Europe. As Martinez-Brawley points out (1995, p. 545), “In many ways, social work as a profession became the institutional response to caring within the context of the industrial world, its purpose being to address the breakdown of natural communities.”

The challenges facing social workers today in a post-industrial world are no less daunting than those faced by our predecessors at the turn of the last century. Social workers today must grapple with much more rapid and far reaching social changes than in the past. The shift to a massive global economy, increased privatization, the alignment of corporate and national interests, shifting national alliances, and marked changes in information and communication technology represent significant and difficult challenges for social workers today (Midgley, 2007; Rihter, 2005; Weil, 2005). This contemporary global context means that social workers must look beyond their local, state, or even national environment to understand the nature and scope of social problems facing their clients and to carry forward social work's long-standing commitment to social and economic justice.


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