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Giang Dang: Development With Local Resources



Xiao: Today I'm very excited to be moderating this phone call. Giang came to America for graduate school, went back to Vietnam and a year later she discovered the amazing path for herself to serve the community. I really admire Giang's effort to go back and do the magic. How are you, Giang, today?

Giang: Me? I am happy. It happened that I am also at a retreat, a meditation retreat in a national park this weekend. So I just feel wonderful.

Xiao: Wow. I'm very happy that you are taking time for yourself. It must be a long day for you. The first question I have would be, what gets you up every day to do what you do?

Giang: Every day I wake up because of the sun that comes into the window -- I live on the riverbank. I look forward to getting out of bed and seeing the world. Then, I ask if I am at the place where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to be, being with the people who I want to be with. So it's just a sense of celebration, a sense of, "Yeah! A new day begins."

Xiao: I love the image you painted for us. The river, the sunlight ... That gives us a lot of hope that every day is a new day. So I'm curious to know how you became who you are today. Were you just born a happy and were there any turning points in your life that have changed you?

Giang: I think my journey started a long time ago. When I was a young girl, I was very curious and interested in the world around me. And I went to college to study foreign language with the hope to travel outside the country. The time I got out of college is exact time when my country was transforming and moving from being very isolated country, joining Asia and joining the world, and the US lifted the embargo against Vietnam. So all of that happened when I was a graduate in college, and basically within the window of one or two years, many things that were not possible for decades became possible. So that made me as a young person full of hope and full of energy. At the same time, things changed in my country very very fast. Within few years, moving from the energetic and optimistic young person into quite cynical adult, in looking around, seeing, "Wow, we are getting rich but it might not be something we want."

I graduated from college in 95, went to US in 2000, and came back home to Vietnam in 2002. I got out of college, full of hope but seven years later, when I was returning from the US, I felt overwhelmed. The change was incomprehensible, and there were so many negative consequences. There were a few milestones that marked my journey of being naturally happy and optimistic, into being very concerned and moving to the other directions of other part of the spectrum. Of being too concerned, too judgmental, wanting to do too much, and feeling like it's impossible. At that time, when I came back from US, I had a time of feeling of being really down and not being able to connect with the people around me. I thought that things would change too fast, but I wanted to improve things.

Xiao: And then what happened?

Giang: I came back home and felt Vietnam, or Hanoi (the city that I was born), had become a different place. I was feeling really bad and wanted to do something really badly, but couldn't find a way to do it. As a result, I couldn't connect, communicate with my friends or family. I started meditation. I meditated with group of friends. Through meditation, I really calmed down, and came in touch with myself. I saw where the sadness came from, and also could see the suffering or the challenges that my friends and my family and the rest of society were facing. They themselves are struggling too. It help me to be more compassionate, more understanding. I was no longer judgmental.

Xiao: Wow. In the ServiceSpace community, many of us adopt that meditation is internal service, while service is external meditation. And you're such a vital example for that. Do you think meditation plays an important part in your activism work?

Giang: Yes.

Xiao: I want to hear more in the daily work and how that plays out.

Giang: When I started Action for the City in 2006, we had an office in the middle of a really, really noisy, crowded and bustling city. So we invited people to come and have lunch in silence as a circle. At the time I was challenged by others who say that it's impossible to bring meditation to the workplace. It's not the norm, and it seems strange, and it's not possible. So I thought, okay, let's bring it as a lunch invitation. So we created a circle, ate in silence, meditated while we're eating, and after eating we also sat in silence. Then we start sharing after we finish. That was more like an invitation, and it worked.

That was in Hanoi, and about five years ago I moved to Hoi An, which is a very small city in the central part of Vietnam, one of the few places where we are still keeping our traditional architecture and some of our traditional lifestyle. It was recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site. In Hoi An, this give me an insight that not only we do meditation for an hour a day for lunchtime; meditation can be our own day. Or every time we bicycle to the old house of work we work in the garden -- each of those moments can be a meditative moment and contemplative moment.

Xiao: That's very inspiring to hear, and I just feel like I want to be there with you, doing that work. I remember watching the TedX talk you did in 2011 in Stockholm. You said you started your project by going to the poorest area in town, and you started organizing, or being one of the women who started organic garden to completely transform the place. It reminded me of what Lao Tse said, the Chinese philosopher: "The supreme good is like water, always goes where the lowest point where people disdain." So you always pick the areas with the poorest people, the most disadvantaged areas to serve. And now you move to Hoi An, another traditional city. It just reminds me of that. I want to know, have you ever hit a very low point facing great changes, and how did you come back?

Giang: The low point was that after working in Hanoi for about five years, I got burnt out too. I felt like we are working against a big stone wall. Our organizing efforts in poor part of the city and disadvantaged areas are often challenged by the harsh local authorities, especially with some business interest. For example, for the abandoned land which we turned into a park, somebody else wanted to use that as a parking area for their cars. So our efforts to turn it into a park is met with huge resistance. We had some small victories, but at the same time I found for every small park we'd fix and we were able to protect, there were ten others that were taken, mostly by business interests. That's just the dominant perspective. So I felt like I needed create some distant from what's going on and just reflect on why is this? Is this the right way to do the work?

The key thing is, it's not good to burn out. I feel if I'm not happy, that's not a good sign. I decided to leave Hanoi and go to Hoi An just to regain the insight. I gained insight to have a perspective into what's going on, and very importantly, for self care. I need to care for myself.

Xiao: I can imagine how challenging that would be. On the Global Well Being website, that you're part of, I just read, "The success of our actions as change makers does not depend on what we do or how we do it, but on the inner place from which we operate." Inner place - that just struck me so strongly. I think that you really focus on your inner place to continue your activism work. So my other question is, you have created a lot of grassroots change in your community, mostly without money - just go in and do it. Can you give us some examples of how this has worked out? You just do it and money follows? How did you work with money?

Giang: The example that I shared in Stockholm few years ago was about working with really poor community of migrants in Hanoi. What happens in that community is that there's a huge, huge area of unused land, because the land used to be flooded part of the year. But in recent years, it is no longer flooded and yet the land is unused. It became a place where people keep garbage and trash. A really undesirable place. So there's the irony that in a really crowded city, these people have this big piece of land that is unused -- right in their neighborhood! So when we came and expressed the interest in getting togethere with community, local authorities asked as, "Money. This is going to be expensive project. It will cost a lot of money to clean up this place before you think of doing anything." And they quoted something like hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean the place.

It is quite a huge place, about thirty hectare. I'm not sure how big in US metrics, but a huge area. So we don't have money. Certainly we don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars. And to the authorities, that's the end. "Oh, you don't have the money? Then you have no business in this community." But to us it's the beginning. Because I am not taking no for an answer. When people say no, it gives me even extra motivation of, "Why? Why not?" The project should not and will not be stopped because of lack of money. I remember immediately the feeling I got when I heard the word money.

So in our office we talked to each other and we decided that we don't want to give up on the project, and the first simple step that we can do is befriend the people in the community. So for six months and more, we divided into different teams and went to the community, spent time talking to people, making friends and learning about the community. No longer talking about project or anything official, but just became friends. We met some of the community leaders who are not part of the local government, but who are respected by local people, and from them, we learned that they are actually interested in cleaning up and making the land useful again.

Together we agreed that the women's group will be the first group to take action. It started out by the most simple thing -- composting. We started composting with groups of few women, and once they had good composting from organic waste from the kitchens, then they started thinking about where to use that composting. And naturally, the abandoned land is a good place to start. So we start cleaning up a small piece of that land.

But what happened after that I think is a miracle. It's something that I never expected, or could never even dream of. Once a group of women started a small garden, others start coming out and follow. So first group, then came a second group, then a third group ... I didn't know it before, but actually the migrant women who are in the city really loved coming there. That's what they do back in the village, and life in the city was so harsh, so gardening was a form of therapy for them. They took a lot of pride in doing that, so it was something that organic happened. It was not planned.

The huge area of abandoned land turned into a community garden, and that project cost zero. It didn't really cost anything. Beyond that, people started wanting to make a small road to access the garden, and they made a small playground for kids in the neighborhood. So those kind of things started happening one after another. And looking back, I think it was the moment we thought, "No we're not going to give up, we're going to work in this community."

Xiao: That's like a miracle. Because I know many people in organizations, they feel if we don't have enough financial resources to start any social change projects, they quit. You just set a perfect example for them, which is start from small steps and to make friends within the community, and trust the magic. Once we start doing things, so much else starts to flow organically too. It does feel like a miracle to have an economy where we don't put a price tag on what we serve or share, just trusting the system to ripple, to have faith in what goes around comes around by paying it forward. Thank you. Prior to Action for the City, you used to work for a multinational nonprofit organization. What made you walk away from that world?

Giang: I did work for a number of years for several international NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in Vietnam and for some time outside of Vietnam. What I saw from that experience was that big projects became so rigid, and it was systemic -- like a government. So people talk about NGOs winning the wars of the marginalized, and bringing in a different way of doing things, but I felt that it actually was quite bureaucratic. It kills creativity and flexibility, and become much more about finishing deadlines, outputs, and outcomes. It just doesn't work with the kind of dreams or hopes that I had for engaging or working with a community. I just don't think that working with community is ending up spending seventy or ninety percent of my time sitting in front of a computer and just tracking reports, and doing things that are so distant from what's happening on the ground.

So that was the first thing -- that this is not my place. The bureaucracy, the paperwork, the rigid structure. And I also felt very critical of the tendency of funding to create dependency for the community. The project might get introduced through the community, but because I was the manager -- someone high-up, not everyday in the village -- I had to decide how the money was spent. And the more distant I was from the ground, the more dissatisfied I felt. Even to this day, I still think that any managers or anyone in the senior staff in any development organization, most of their time should be with people, and only a certain percentage in the office.

Xiao: Action for the City is doing lots and lots of projects -- you do youth training programs to get them familiar with that organic agriculture, you work with schools to educate students to live more in a greener way, you work for public space, food safety, just to name a few. You're so creative. How you integrate so much creativity in your work?

Giang: One thing is that as a team we often have a team meeting to look at all the issues. But also, not only the issues, but whatever else that is very close to our hearts. Something that we feel that's so important to us personally. Of course there's many things. Many, many issues that need work on. You name it, in a big city like this. But we found that food, urban organic gardens, is something that bring people together. And the public space, the playground, they're something to bring us together. It's in the slogan of our organization: "It's all about bringing people together." It's not just addressing the issue, but how we address it. Best way is to do it with others. To share our concerns, share our innovations, and to invite them to be part of our team and a part of our work. Together, we can make a garden, together we can build a low cost playground in the community center; those are the things that really bring people together, and everybody feels part of it and that they can contribute something.

That's really important for us at Action for the City, to both look for things that are important to us personally, and then things that we can then invite others outside of our organization to join us. We basically feel like we send out invitations to people, "Hey, here are something that you can join in," and the more people join, the more projects happen.

Xiao: Community, community, community. Of course, when we really work with each other, there are conflicts within the community. Have you ever faced that inner conflict in the community, and how did you deal with it?

Giang: We did face some situations where there was actually competition among different organizations instead of collaboration. For one, we kind of foresaw it. We know that that's was bound to happen, given the tide of competition for funding, and the way some of the funding is set up. The system is set up to create competition among groups. So first, we were aware of the situation. Number two is that with that awareness we had very clear policy that we're not accepting that philosophy. We're not accepting the notion of competing with other organizations for resources. Either we change the rules of the game, or we are part of it. If we cannot change the rule of the game, we're just not going to apply for that kind of funding as an organization. That became our policy. Thirdly, we communicate our thoughts to other organizations. It's almost like a Buddhist concept of non-ego -- you apply not just to an individual but to the entire organization. Your organization shouldn't have an ego. It's all about the ecosystem in which you work together. It's not about whether your organization gets its funding or not.

So those are some of the messages we've been communicating with others, and the result is that we became really good friends with some like minded organizations. At the same time, we obviously chose not to work with some others, because they don't share the same values. But those who share the same values then became really good organizational friends. We became creative in funding -- so if one organizations doesn't have project funding, we share. Similarly, different organizations share the work with each other as well.

Xiao: That's such a valuable message for us today. Does your family support you to be who you are, and support your mission in life? Do they understand you?

Giang: It's very interesting that you ask that. My Dad is my very good friend, and I always share lot of my thinking with him. When I told him about my journey back to start Action for the City, when I told him that have this really strong calling, his answer was: "Okay, go work for the World Bank for a few years, become financially secure, then go and do what you want to do." It's so funny. In a way, my dad can see both sides. He wanted to support me, wanted to support me in following my true calling, but on the other hand, he had a rational and practical side too. "Oh you'll go and work for someone who pays you a lot, then you will have some stability and some good saving. Then you can do what you want." So I remember that. I love my dad, but looking back it was really funny. Of course I didn't listen to him.

For me, I heard a calling. I had to follow. If I hear a calling, I feel this is good, this is important, this is the right thing to do, I just drop everything to do it. It's one of my qualities. I would not for one more day accept the kind of work that I found no longer valid.

Xiao: Do you still visit them often? Do you live with them? Like visit them often, close?

Giang: Actually my dad is visiting my family right now, while I am at this national park for a retreat. So he's spending time with my husband and my kids. So we see each other. My Dad used to work for the government, but he's now retired. We have different views, but he's very open to listen and be willing to explore my views and my outlook.

Xiao: He's changing, so that's great. I know you have been reading Daily Good, one of ServiceSpace's daily good news service, for four years. How has it affected you?

Giang: As a result of reading it, I'm much happier I think. The media in general is so negative. It's negative. It just something to catch our attention, but Daily Good offers the opposite. It bring us something good, something that's a higher possibility of humankind. Some of the good initiatives, the best practices out there, and every day you receive a gift from Daily Good. I just love it. I have these programs with young people where I shared DailyGood with them -- many of whom don't speak English, so translate to Vietnamese. It just multiplies my joy. The first joy is reading it myself, knowing some people are doing really wonderful, awesome work out there. And the second is being able to tell that news to others, and sharing with others. So I have lots of positive and good feeling, about reading and sharing it.

Xiao: Are you familiar with ServiceSpace? How did you know this community?

Giang: I met Nipun Mehta at a Global Well Being Lab, the initiative that you mentioned earlier. That's where I met him. I'm like, "This is the man who comes out with DailyGood." I was just like, "Oh! It's him." I couldn't believe that is him. I knew a bit about ServiceSpace, but Daily Good is my daily friend. So I was like, "Oh, who thinks of these things? Who created this?" And then, first time in Berlin, someone told me, "It's Nipun. Meet him." And I was just amazed; totally amazed. It was such a wonderful thing. It's still like ... It's another wonder of the world. The man who did it and I can see him. I can meet him in person.

Xiao: He has been a great inspiration for so many of us, just like you. What kind of advice would you give to future activists?

Giang: First would be to start with a small step, and don't give up. Second piece of advice is, in order to care for others, for the world, we really need to have self care -- to care for ourselves, and really look deeply into ourselves. This is a long, long journey -- even the journey to fight pollution, maybe the journey to fight urban poverty ... It can be a difficult journey, but we need to feel joy and happiness in our hearts, and we act our compassion. And that's how we go out and change. We act from the place of compassion to everyone, even the business leaders sometime who do things that we think hurt the public interest. The inner place from which we go out and act should be the place of compassion.

Xiao: If you want to give them one sentence, what would you say?

Giang: One sentence?

Xiao: (Laughs) I'm just giving you a hard question.

Giang: Start with a small step and don't give up. One sentence.

Xiao: Do you believe in magic?

Giang: Magic? I think so. I think magic is something that doesn't follow the ordinary or conventional path of happening. Sometimes that happens. When they really want something, it happens.

Xiao: I have been very inspired by today's conversation with you. For me, I feel like I'm readier to go back to China one day just to start with small steps, instead of feeling overwhelmed, and trying to talk to people locally. Try to connect with them, that's the biggest lesson, because I feel I'm so closed down even with my own family, when they disagree with me or I don't think I can convince them, I close down. I don't want to talk to them, and then the conversation is ended. I think from now on, for my personal journey, I'm going to change how to continue to open up, to face disagreements, and continue to have compassion for them, to understand my family and the people in China. I really appreciate what you have shared today.

Giang: Another message I'd like to add, besides start small and don't give up, is also for activists to take care of themselves. That way we can have a long journey, to help the world. And always believe in possibility. I just feel that things are possible. Yes, we can. If we want to do something, we can do it. Say, for example, people might want to tell me, "It's impossible to change the traffic jams in Vietnam," because it's so chaotic. And you have eight million people in a place where there's hardly any public transport, and traffic jam is just part of it. People telling me that, they always say, "It's impossible to have parks, because the land is so expensive and the city's not well planned for, and business interest is so high ... You're not going to be able to do a park." When I hear those messages, I do not let them discourage me. I used to. In the older years, I used to let those message discourage me, but I no longer allow that to happen.

I think once we have enough strength within us, then our focus shifts. My focus shifts from on why it's not going to work into how it's going to work. Having said that, it's true that it might take years to solve traffic jam, but it's not impossible. It's true that it's a journey. It's true that it will take a lot of effort, but I do not let the impossibility attitude affect what we can do. Again, it comes back to the message of small steps -- cooperatives, bicycles, shared vehicles. Let's do what's possible.

Caller: I was just looking at the website for Action for the City, and looking at some of the beautiful projects that the communities are doing together. And I saw the Green School. It's pretty new, it looks like, but you're working with really young kids in grades one and two to participate in lessons that focus on garbage, plans, energy ... I'd just love to know a little bit more about what that's been like. How are young people responding to this program, and engaging with it? What is it like to work with kids that are in first and second grade around these topics?

Giang: It's a joy to work with them. It's just a joy. Basically, the school system is boring. Especially in my country, the school system is very boring. So it's a great opportunity to come to the school and just to work with kids, and to do something that's not focusing on academic achievement, not focusing on "be better than others," competition to be better, to get a better school. The Green Living program is a place where we invite kids to come together and look at their surrounding, and look at their lives, look at their school and their home, and what they can do - in small ways, in big ways - to help the environment, and to make the earth a better place. So basically, it's just joy to come in school and to be able to talk to kids.

And the program is all not about teaching them what they can do, but is about a discovery together. It's highly flexible. It's not like you have to do A, B, C to get electricity or safe water. It's about, "Hey, we wanted safe water. We want safe electricity, and what can we do?" And each one would come up with his or her own little solutions and do some writing at home and come back with lists of actions to do, and then share that list of actions -- which gives others that idea. Very small, spontaneous process rather than something very structured. We just make art as activists working with kids. We're happy ourselves, and this makes it really enjoyable for the kids. The part about, "Okay, we start recycling, sorting out your trash." Those things if communicate in a way that's not fun can be seen, "Oh, these environmentalist people, ooh! More of this, more of that." But it can be communicate in a way that creates joy and it seems fun to people to join.

Caller: Very inspiring to me to listen to how you and your work are really living the values that we in the ServiceSpace community aspire to. I'm curious about how your work is viewed by government authorities where you are in Vietnam, either local or regional or national. How do people in those positions view what you're doing, and has that ever presented a challenge? And if so, how do you deal with that?

Giang: Thank you for your question. The answer is, the national government does not pay attention to us. We are too small for them. And that's also our strategy. It's not about us as an organization, but it's about the message we want to give. And that message is shared by different like-minded organizations. So number one is that we don't have a big public profile. Having said that, we are known in some areas to some people, but not at the national level. In a city, different cities where we work, there are different reactions from local government. In the positive way, like in the case of Hoi An, we have support from local government. Local government in Hoi An see us as their allies. They see that we can do things that they can't do. We can be in their community, we bring the voice and we understand the needs of the community. We can create dialog in the community in a way that government officials can't. So in that town, we are welcome.

On the other hand, in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, we are really not welcome at all. We try to have the movement to save the parks from being turned into a commercial center, or a parking garage. And we were seen as a threat to them. In that case, our response was to diversify the stakeholders in our park campaign. So the government doesn't let us in since we're activist, but they will listen to other respected scientists. So we were able to bring those voices that doesn't seem threatening to the government, while we move into the backstage, supporting these different network and different individuals to bring out the voice and further the cause.

Like that, we have different situation happening in different places, and in each case we find a different solution.

Caller: Thank you so much for this conversation, this very inspiring conversation. What was occurring to me as I've been listening, is how important it is that we support each other as we're going through the various challenges in terms of being compassionate or making the world a better place, that we really need to be buddies for each other in terms of continuing to do this work. Is that something that you're finding with the groups that you're working with? That there's a lot of mutual support? And how does that manifest?

Giang: I absolutely agree with you about being buddies to each other, and mutual support. As I mentioned before, for example, how different organization shifted from competition to cooperation and helping each other. One other thing that really works for us is building organization who are close friends. Like human beings, organizations can also be close friend to each other. We develop understanding. We have our team member work together on different projects. We share with each other, we support each other, we share know-how and new inputs and at the same time share resources. It's like a personal friendship. But it takes time for organizational friendship as well. Yes, we definitely have that side of the ecosystem where we act from. We have really good friends, organizational friends, or friendship with different organization. That allows us to sometimes step back and let others be in the leading role, depending on the situation. Have good buddies in organizations out there not only helps us to feel connected or strong, but actually provide a lot of practical support -- like sharing staff, doing some work together. It's a kind of long-term partnership, where we're saying "We are really together in this." Fortunately, we have number of organizations like that.

Bela: How are women are perceived in the Vietnamese culture, and the role of women in community, and how your approach to development is affected by this?

Giang: Thank you for your question. In Vietnam, in most community where we work with, women have the invisible power. But in a public sphere, they are not represented. In the public sphere, it's the man who attends meetings, who makes decisions. But it's the woman who really run things. It's almost like saying, "Okay. We don't need to be counted for our effort and power, as long as you leave us alone to run family and run communities." So that's how I see women. They have that power and they don't care that that power is being recognized publicly. However, there is still a lot of gender issues, in particular, violence against women associated with alcoholism and discrimination against girls. So those do exist.

Talking about how we work with community on such issues ... first of all, we do not make it a big deal. Unlike other other organizations, we do not start coming to the community and say hey, this need to be changed. The woman need to go to the meeting, and the man cannot do this or that. What we did is actually, first, invite a woman to the meeting but not make a big deal out of it. For example in the organic garden project, it's the men who also wanted to be part of it, and so we accepted it. Not accept, but in a gentle way -- without confrontation -- included them while also focusing on encouraging women to come.

And the interesting thing is, once the space is created for women, the women stick around and stay interested -- while the men (not all, but some of them) are not interested in gardening, not interested in creating a playground for kids. So over time, some of the men naturally drop out. On the other hand, woman who first came (not as the leader but just a participant), she and her friends became more and more interested, contributed great ideas, and naturally people listened to them. And they became the leaders of the initiative. In several cases we found that creating the space, the condition in which the women can demonstrate the ability, the capacity to demostrate what they can do, the man has to give up because it becomes obvious that they should be out the way. Let the woman do it.

So we do not try to emphasize the conflict, instead create the space and the activity in which women can demonstrate their wonderful talent.

Bela: Have you seen that shift some of the dynamics in communities over time? Maybe in subtle ways, or maybe in more significant ways?

Giang: Over time, yes. It's not immediately. But over time yes. I can see one of the clear impact is in the confidence of the young women. The young women, seeing this example of this older women getting respect from the community, it changes them. It doesn't have always to be that the woman keeps silent and let the man run the show. They can see that women are totally capable and gain respect for what they are doing. These young women gain a lot of confidence ...

Bela: Hello? Hello? Did we lose the call connection, Giang? I think we have. While we wait, Xiao, hearing about Giang's story, what are some of your thoughts and reflections?

Xiao: For me to hear Giang talking about it with such confidence and high spirit is really, really inspiring. She mentioned about her deep trust in community and life in itself -- that strikes me really strongly.

Giang: This is me coming back. Sorry, I lost my internet connection.

Bela: Thank you for rejoining us. I'd just like to express my gratitude to you for being with us so late at night over there, and sharing with us your journey and your work. It's truly inspiring. When you dropped off for a little while, one of our callers was just expressing what happened in Paris, and just the violence that's constantly happening around the world, and if only there were more people like you that were working to build relationships, and starting with friendship first. And letting that lead to projects organically, and how that's so powerful. And so, I just applaud you for doing the work that you're doing, and continuing to do it despite the challenges.

Xiao: Thank you, Giang. I think you've planted so many wonderful seeds in so many hearts now. Like you said, it's so simple -- just go out and make friends in a community and then to see what small things we can do. Just that simple. And we can gradually change by working together. That really gives me a lot of hope and trust in this universe, and thank you for that.

Giang: Thank you, all, so much.

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