April 28, 2009

Decentralization and Human Development

I have been a zealous (some would say over-zealous!) proponent of networks and the application of network theory to the work of social change. I have been pushing and working for a radical rethink of our very approach to social transformation. I believe we have to move away from a model that is organization-centric into a mission-based model that maximizes the potential of decentralization. My vision calls for an approach that creates the conditions for the emergence of ideas, opportunities and formations that we could not have been imagined through our visioning and strategic planning efforts.

I am still a believer, and I’m probably still a zealot, I still see the ways in which an unbelievable wealth of passion, conviction, dedication and self motivation is wasted away, trapped by organizational structures that constrain this energy rather than liberate it. However, I have also been delving into a multiplicity of frameworks and studies addressing human development and it is increasingly evident that we are all at different stages of development. Being an adult does not always mean one has advanced through every stage of development and so not everyone can work with the same layers of complexity.

Now, I am clearly aware that I’m delving into dangerous territory, and I have no intention of getting into “who decides who is how developed,” but I will be bold enough to agree with the proposition that human beings evolve through a set of developmental stages, that these stages allow us to deal with greater and greater levels of complexity, and that we are not all at the same developmental stage. This is an important insight for someone working to shift organizational structures. It is possible that the more idealized decentralized models we are looking at might actually be making an idealized assumption about the developmental levels of the human beings involved.

However, rather than pulling back from this push forward along the paradigm shift, I think that what is important is that we understand that such developmental dynamics are always at play. Accounting for this layer of complexity does not mean that we move away from facilitating decentralized, self-organizing systems, it means than in fomenting this next phase of social movement we also seek to create the conditions for developmental progress among the human beings involved. Our job is not to assume that some people just can’t shift, but to understand how certain organizational parameters can support our evolution while liberating our will to create change.

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April 28, 2009

The Power of Positive

I have been boning up on systems theory and thinking because of an upcoming presentation that I will be delivering and because I am so interested in applying its wisdom to our own organization.. Oh to find the trim tab!!!!!

So, I am seeing everything through the systems lens when I stumble across this article on positive emotions and there it is in black and white with systems sprinkles to go. See below!

As background: Two distinct psychological states are positive emotions which are triggered by our interpretation of our current circumstances and pleasure which is what we get when we give the body what it needs right now!! Positive emotions tell us what we need emotionally, what our future selves might need. They help us broaden our minds and build our resources…they have that go-forward quality.

Happiness is the overall outcome of many positive emotions which are more narrow, more day to day, moment to moment. It’s not about being happy in general but focusing on being positive day to day which ends up building up our resources so that we can become the best version of ourselves.

It’s one thing for individuals to build their resilience through focusing in the day to day on their strengths and assets, practicing kindness, expressing gratitude, staying in the moment but how does this work in groups?

In a study of 60 work teams conducted by mathematician Marcial Losada it was shown that the really high performing teams had a ratio of 6:1 positive to negative statements where as the low-performing teams had ratios of less that one to one i.e. more than half of what was said was negative. The high performers had an even balance between asking questions and advocating for their own point of view and an equal measure of focusing outward and focusing within the group. The low-performers were essentially not listening and simply waiting for their turn to talk.

He then looked at the behavioral data and wrote algebraic equations that related the positive and negative behaviors to each other and discovered that these equations matched the very famous equations called the Lorenz system. happiness-equationFamiliar to us from our reading on systems, Edward Lorenz is the scientist who identified the famous “butterfly effect” the idea of an attractor…an identifiable pattern or hidden coherence that appears in all that is incoherent. Some attractors are strong and some are weak. In this case Losada discovers that underneath the dynamics of the high-performing team was a “complex chaotic attractor” which produces unpredictable or novel outcomes. Underneath the structure of the low-performing teams was a “fixed pint attractor” that caused the team to spiral to a dead end.

And, p.s. there is research that shows that when married couples are in a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions they are in a solid relationship.

It seems that no matter what corner one turns…you come up against the same wise messages be still, be focused, be grateful and breathe.

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April 24, 2009

The Praise Report

I write this on the eve of the 3rd day of a training session of our Facilitative Leadership course, where the last of 7 practices,“Celebrate Accomplishment”, often gets the short shrift on this last day of training. The verdict is still out in terms of whether we will give it its just due for tomorrow’s class. Yet, I find myself wrestling with a provocative body of information I became aware of through a recent tweet I received on the subject of praise.

According to a study performed by the National Institute for Physiological Sciences:

Our findings indicate that the social reward of a good reputation in the eyes of others is processed in an anatomically and functionally similar manner to monetary rewards, and these results represent an essential step toward a complete neural understanding of human social behaviors.

In other words, those of us who made a conscious decision some time ago that we would not be, as the hip hop heads say, “paper chasers”, may instead just be chasers of a different kind: the currency of good reputation. Yea, even Solomon in all his wisdom suggests the NIPS report understates the reality: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” (Proverbs 22:1). For this wise king, the pay off of a good reputation is not equal to money as the scientists suggest, it is better. Whoa. News flash: As far as this neurological stimulus package goes, we, in all of our do-gooding, may just be as excessive, greedy, and self-serving as the Wall Street titans and capitalist fat cats we are quick to condemn. At the end of the day, it may be, that we all, in a Pavlovian sense, seek the sensation of reward – and whether money or praise, its all about us/our feelings.

What, then, might be the implications of such a phenomenon for the non-profit and social change sector that we live, work and eh….strive, in? On one hand, it confirms what we already know: that for a job actually well done, where a million dollar bonus or even a competitive salary isn’t on the way, we ought to lavish folk with what author and psychologist Gary Chapman calls, “words of affirmation” – verbal appreciation, simple verbal compliments (Chapman, Five Love Languages)

But not so fast! Hold back on the flowery words, my friends, for just a sec!

Consider the words of Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards

“[The key factor] in a positive judgment is not that it is positive, but that it is a judgment.

Kohn makes the case that praise actually lowers confidence and heightens pressure to live up to the compliment in order to receive future compliments – setting in motion a “rat race”, or the “praise maze” if you will (explaining some folks’ negative reaction to verbal affirmation).

Not sure what all this means for outcomes, evaluation methods, organizational culture, American pragmatism, parenting or how to break the power of negative words/images over groups of people who have been systematically targeted with such, but I’m sure some of you have ideas. What of it? Anyone others who may be cash poor and reputation rich want to weigh in? (No worries if you want to say something, well, nice….;-)

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April 23, 2009

When Theory Met Practice

A colleague and I recently met with staff of a client organization to discuss their interest in crafting a regional “partnership” strategy.  Leading up to the meeting there had been some discussion with folk about what it would mean to bring a network lens to their work, to perhaps approach this as a “network building” opportunity.  Needless to say we were excited and came ready to dive deeply into the conversation.

My colleague and I decided it would be best to “start where the people are” and hear what their interest was in a partnership approach, how this had come about, and how they saw it as different than what they had been doing up until now.  There was some very interesting discussion about the need and desire to break out of silos, change from being project-focused to creating more of a coordinated continuum of services, and develop stronger relationships among stakeholders in each of the regions in question.

Then the time came to pop the question – “What about networks?  How do these fit into your work?”  I was invited to say a few general comments about network theory and network building and how this might be different than general collaboration/partnerships/coalition building.   On the heels of my brief presentation, there ensued commentary that is coming to be a bit of a refrain.  “I still don’t understand how network building is different than what we are trying to do in terms of partnering.”  “I’m not sure how we fit our work into that theory.”  In some instances, there was palpable consternation expressed along with these comments – “Frankly, that just makes it all the more confusing for me.”

Okay, I said, let’s stop right there.  If we are working too hard to fit our efforts into network theory or bending our brains too much to understand how networks are different than other kinds of collaboration, then we may not be headed in a very productive direction.  I decided to add simply that partnerships have a lot in common with networks, that they may in fact be networks of a sort.  The only caution is that partnerships can be overly deterministic in terms of who is in and who is out and how things get done, which might not move the needle as much as we hoped.  If network theory can offer anything, it is the suggestion that we not make our partnerships too much like business as usual with the usual suspects.  It might be of some benefit to hold space open for new ideas to emerge and make efforts to reach out to those to whom we might not otherwise engage.

To these comments, all heads around the table nodded.  Brows unfurrowed.  And we moved on.  With each of these kinds of conversations I realize that we are all truly where we are.  I am also reminded that practice often makes a more powerful lead than theory.  The two must, of course, dance together, but the real star is what we make happen in the world.  So I say, let’s not wait until we get it right, because there is no such thing.  Let’s just remain open as we go, because there’s life in that.

April 22, 2009

Building a Bridge and Creating a Space

For a while, I’ve been fairly unsuccessfully trying to create a space in my apartment that works both for my heart and for my head. My meditation cushion is there – as well as my altar and poetry and spiritual books. It also has my desk, computer and two bookshelves overstuffed with books and journals about power, white privilege, race, class, genocide, conflict and social issues. If I’m really honest about it, it’s the most chaotic room in my apartment.

I’ve been intentionally trying to create this space because I’m trying to bring these two parts of my life together. In part because I’ve been noticing what seems like a split in progressive groups. For some of us, talking about the ways society is structured to benefit some groups and deny those benefits to others rolls off our tongue and is a framework that holds great resonance. Others are more comfortable talking about the ways we’re all connected – oneness and love are foundational ways we understand the world. There are a few wonderful examples I know (or know about) of people who fully integrate both. But I don’t know that many. Most people seem to lean in one direction or the other.

So for those of us who lean toward one or the other, talk of structure without spirit – or of spirit without structure – seems incomplete. As if the speaker is missing a huge part of our experience and belief. They may even seem to deny what we think of as reality. We tend to then move more vehemently to our “side.”

From a Buddhist perspective, reality can be described as being made up of two truths in which we live simultaneously – the relative (or historic) truth and the ultimate truth. The relative truth describes the world in which there are deep separations – it is the truth that describes a world with oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia and many other divisions. The ultimate truth describes the world in which there is no separation, in which we are one. The understanding is that both these truths co-exist – though we may only be aware of one.

The question I’ve been having (and don’t yet have many answers to) is this: How do we become aware of both, in our work toward social justice and social change, so that we build an authentic bridge between the two – so that anyone, no matter their leaning, can walk with us as we talk about structure or spirit? So that no one feels their truth is left behind. I’m wondering where others are in thinking about building that bridge – or would advise about setting up that room.

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April 21, 2009

Sifting Pragmatisms

Courtesty of Enlightnnext.orgLast Friday night I went to a great talk by Jeff Carreira, Director of Education at EnlightenNext, it was titled “The Roots of Integral Spirituality and Evolutionary Enlightenment in American Philosophy.”  It has been almost ten years since I last gave such focused consideration to the tradition of American Pragmatism, a strand of philosophy that focuses on “considering practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of meaning and truth.” Ten years ago I was privileged to take a memorable class on the subject, it was called “American Democracy,” and was beautifully lectured by contemporary pragmatists Cornel West and Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the term “pragmatism,” specially as used in popular culture, which is somewhat different from the way it is used in the academy. My activist roots were grounded in an ideological framework that tended to equate pragmatism with compromise. In my work for social change I have often found myself identified with those communities that are more likely to have their needs and demands compromised away by some “pragmatic” solution or other. With this lens, pragmatism has often felt like a way to keep the balance of power stable while giving away enough crumbs for the excluded not to riot.

However, our recent national experience shows us this argument from the other side. We have seen how eight years of ideological leadership wreaked havoc on the country and the world. And today we find progressive hope in the thoroughly pragmatic approach of an even-keeled Obama administration, whose approach to leadership that has thus far proved amazingly steady even in the throes of ongoing turmoil. So I am interested in sifting through the sort of pragmatism that seems to generally keep things as they are, from the pragmatism that facilitates change and the pragmatism that Carreira was talking about on Friday night.

While the conversation has only just begun, I am starting to understand that the pragmatism of the American tradition, which Jeff was connecting to the Integral Philosophy of Ken Wilber and the Evolutionary Enlightenment of Andrew Cohen, is called pragmatism because it demands to be experienced. This sort of pragmatism looks suspiciously at a philosophy that is purely conceptual, it is a pragmatism that calls for the observation and experience of the actual – but it doesn’t stay there. We are talking about a sort of experiential pragmatism that demands we engage the very process of evolution, and this is what makes it exciting.

This is the first of a series of blog posts. Next, I’m interested in distinguishing between pragmatism as doing “what works” vs. pragmatism as doing “what could work.” Your insights are needed and welcomed!

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April 21, 2009

Changing the Unstated

I am currently working with a client who is focusing on an issue that illuminates all of our recent blogs about this great moment of transition. They are seeking to influence the international community to make the issue of fragile states, a first order root cause in creating an unjust and disordered world. And, here’s the problem…the U.S is still working out of its cold war script i.e. that “most transnational problems like terrorism or piracy can be linked back to an enemy state with an irredeemable ideology” though most recently there are signs that a new understanding is beginning to emerge. The Obama administration is talking about “smart power” and the need for multilateral action. And, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently testified to Congress that ‘In recent years, it seems that we’ve had more security problems from states that have been in trouble than we have from strong states that have been an adversary to us in the traditional way” And, hello…we’re making friends with Cuba!

In Donella’s Meadows book, “Thinking in Systems”, she talks about the greatest leverage point, or place to intervene in a system to make change is at the level of paradigm, the mind-set. She describes this as the shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions about how the world works. So, here we are with a front row seat as so many of these great big unstated assumptions are being examined opening the door for real change. Let’s be aware and awake and contribute where we can!

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April 20, 2009

On American Privilege

As a black woman in America, I know a lot about racism and white privilege. I am aware of privileges I enjoy by way of other aspects of my identity—education (graduate level), language (‘standard English’ speaker), able-bodiedness (relatively, speaking), citizenship (American). I’ve always fashioned my sense of Americanness after DuBois’s notion of ‘two-ness.’ I am black in America. That makes me American, but it makes me a “other” American who is set apart from Americanness because so much of Americanness means whiteness. When the attacks of September 11th happened, I didn’t feel like part of the “us” that was under attack. This is my country, but not completely, down to the core of my being.

Even so, I recognize certain things that are very American about me. Take my general stance that most things can be changed; that with enough energy, resources, brainpower, commitment “it can be done.” I recognize that point of view as a privilege that not everyone can partake.

I recognize the privilege of holding that little blue passport in the context of international travel. And, I know I have the privilege of freedom from scrutiny and discrimination in civic and economic processes like registering to vote or applying for a job, loan, or college.

But, there’s an even more basic privilege that I rarely consider. I carry shame and grief at the realization that I have done precious little to leverage or neutralize it. My American lifestyle and the privileges I enjoy are a direct function of genocide. On one level I’ve always known this. There were people here before the European settlers arrived. The Mashpee Wampanoag’s even helped some of them survive and learn to live here. And their repayment? Near obliteration and more than 350 years before the U.S. government would deign to recognize them as an official tribe. The unmitigated gall!

I’m ashamed of my smug progressive stance. Of course Native peoples have been oppressed and I call Columbus Day a Day of Mourning. Yet, I know so little of the history and I’ve been so unengaged in the struggle for justice for Native peoples. I’m only getting outraged in a very visceral way as I ingest spoonfuls of history. (Thanks PBS for “We Shall Remain“!) And, just as I’ve been told white people sometimes feel when they first really confront the reality of their privilege, I’m unsure what to do with the outrage and how to live inside the reality that every day my life is made possible by what has been taken from other people. It’s one thing to understand it in the abstract—to know that we’d need four planets for the entire world population to live the way we do. It’s another to know I that literally grew up on land in Massachusetts that was taken by force from people who initially acted in compassion and good faith. And that was repeated “from sea to shining sea.” And, now we’re back to the two-ness. The people who did that were not my people. And, yet, what they did accrues to my benefit daily.

April 17, 2009


I suppose it’s the overlooked companion of Change: Anticipation. It’s the silent provocateur that causes us to peer into the distance, squint past the horizon, turn the proverbial corner, stand on the brink, gear up for the jump off, and on and on. It is the automatic reflex within us that kicks into gear once we have a cognitive or instinctual knowing, that things are about to…shift.

That Change is afoot, we well know: Sam Cooke crooned it; Grandma prayed for it; Obama touted it; analysts predicted it; planners plan for it. My thoughts here turn to unpacking a hunch that what we are missing out on, quite unbeknownst to us, is the wisdom, creativity and knowledge available to ( through?) us/clients in that (anticipatory space of) calm before the storm (of Change). Scharmer’s naming and exploration of pre-sencing gets at it; Gibran’s queries around testing for “readiness” in groups is along the same lines; prototyping as a way into solving complex problems is yet another expression within this same sphere. Rather than an anxious, fear-based, controlling energy wherein we brace for change, I’m suggesting that there is a playful, curious, self- and Other-awareness we can decide to adopt that enables us to learn from Change, and how to navigate it, perhaps even before it occurs.

Although it sounds pretty ethereal and intangible, I am convinced that there are skills and practices that individuals/groups can employ and imbibe that strengthens abilities to anticipate Change in a fruitful, strategic, edifying way. What those skills and practices are, Im not entirely sure (ability to reflect, trust, sensing, spiritual sensitivity, emotional healthiness, confidence, calmness – whether as individuals or among groups — are some things that come to mind).

At a time when families, institutions, neighborhoods, our nation and indeed the World seem to be in a cosmic holding pattern as we await what unfolds with the economy, the planet, the political arena, and within our own neighborhoods, the words of the great mystic Howard Thurman remind us of what is available to us in challenging times, where Change is imminent and the Hope that Curtis speaks of is so desperately needed:

“The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication, they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges, and to kindle a hope that inspires.” ~ Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 1959

Help me along. What do folks think this notion of a sphere/realm of practices of anticipation when change is imminent?

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April 16, 2009

Hope Out of Muck

Former (and first) President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel tells a little story that may provide a little guidance in these times. In 1989, only a few months before he completed an incredible journey from prisoner to president of his country, Havel found himself in a dire situation. The dissident poet and playwright turned politician, who had risked his life numerous times in the fight against communism, was walking with a friend in the countryside outside of Prague. In the near total darkness, he suddenly fell into a hole, a deep pit surrounded by cement walls – a sewer. Disoriented and covered in muck, Havel tried to move but this only made him sink more deeply. His friend above was joined by a number of people who gathered around the rim of the hole and tried frantically to rescue Havel. It was only after someone managed to find and lower a long ladder, nearly thirty minutes later, that Havel was saved from an untimely and messy ending.

From this freak accident, Havel climbed not just to dry land, but to the presidency, a truly amazing turn of events. Having lived through a number of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Havel continues to be a profoundly hopeful man. He sees hope as a state of mind that most often does not reflect the state of the world. Hope for him emerges out of the muck of absurdity, cruelty, and suffering, and reaches not for the solid ground of what is certain, but for what is meaningful, for what fundamentally makes sense. Hope, in his view, is not the same as optimism. It’s not the belief that something will ultimately work out, but that it feels true in a very essential way, beyond what is relayed in headlines, opinion polls, and prognostications.

Obviously we are now faced with circumstances that demand some faith on all of our parts. With the uncertainty of a volatile economy and a swirl of other forces, there is plenty to be pessimistic about. And if we consider Havel’s story, the antidote is not to be optimistic in the sense of desperately looking for something that tells us everything will be alright or return to being as it was. Rather, the more powerful response comes from within and attaches itself to what most deeply motivates us, what tastes most like truth. Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities has said that, “New culture is formed by people who are not afraid of being insecure.” That may be the promise of this slowdown, if we can quiet the chatter, avoid panic and attune ourselves to what is waiting to grow out of the cracks in the foundation. The question is, in following those roots, how deep are we willing to go?

April 16, 2009

Scooter Reflections on Social Media Tools


Riding into IISC this morning by scooter, I was reflecting on some things that have happened in the last week as a way of getting ready for a conversation I;ll be in this afternoon about how to bring more social media tools into our consulting practice. As we are working globally with groups (among which is a beginning field of Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace) and are attending to our carbon footprint, we’re looking at ways to deepen our practice in this regard.

A few things came to mind. I was reflecting on a number of important things I’ve seen happen for advocates over the past week on Twitter. The Moldovan “twitter revolution” that came about because six friends were drinking coffee, discussing how upset they were about what they saw as election fraud and decided to try to start a flash mob, gathering their friends to protest. They were expecting a few hundred to come but by the time they got to the square, 20,000 people were waiting – and the votes had to be recounted. (Click here for an article about this.)

Or the Egyptian blogger, journalist and human rights activist Wael Abbas, who was arrested over the weekend and tweeted constantly everything that happened to him. This was passed around on twitter so that he ended up with hundreds more people following him by the end of the day – and was released. As Ervin Staub talks about in The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults and Groups Help and Harm Others, this was a powerful demonstration of the importance of bystanders actively witnessing atrocities and making it known that they are – in this case, in a virtual space.

And then there was the Twitter and Facebook firestorm that happened over the weekend about Amazon’s “de-ranking” books with gay and lesbian content. Within a few hours, the story was the top story on twitter and (from my small section of Facebook) was also one of the most frequent things being written about on Facebook. People were quickly signing petitions, passing along information about how to write to and starting a boycott until they changed the policy. Within about 24 hours, came out with an apology and has promised to fix it. (Click here for an article about this.)

While I personally am waiting until the books are all ranked again before I’ll shop from Amazon, it’s clear to me what a difference social media tools can make. They’re fabulous for spreading news quickly and for organizing a response.

And what about how to work together virtually – beyond quick responses to situations? What are the tools for that? I’ve been thinking a lot about this – more to come!

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April 14, 2009

“Pre-Planning” or “Readiness”

We were in a learning session the other day and I was amused when I heard Marianne Hughes, our Executive Director at the Interaction Institute for Social Change, refer to “back when it was still ok to talk about planning…” I appreciated her currency in the field, as well as the decades of experience she is able to bring to the table. Marianne was talking about how important it was to apply a “pre-planning phase” to any organizational change process. What I specially appreciated was her call for an equivalent moment in group process as we are coming to understand it today, what she called a “readiness” phase.

What is important here is that as paradigms shift we are not just playing around with language but we are actually learning to look at the world with an entirely different lens. I forget who it was that said “strategic planning is obsolete, what we need is strategic thinking.” This to me is a lot like what Marianne was saying, understanding the state of a group that is clamoring for change is not exactly pre-planning, it is actually testing for readiness. When I hear “pre-planning” I get right into linear thinking, and it feels like linear thinking is actually a limitation for groups that want to deal with complexity.

“Readiness” on the other hand seems to be testing for something else. In my experience, testing for readiness must include the skillful probing into a group’s interest or capacity to engage an “adaptive challenge.” And here I’m using the language of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky who skillfully make the distinction between technical problems and those challenges that demand a shift at the level of values, beliefs and assumptions. It seems to me that a “pre-planning phase” can serve to solve a technical problem, but an adaptive challenge demands organizational readiness.

One of my key learning edge questions is found somewhere around here. I have a core interest in helping people and groups of people shift out of what I call the “dominant-and-dying paradigm” into what I see as the “emergent paradigm.” I am passionate about this specifically because the dominant paradigm has calcified while this emergent paradigm seems to have potentially liberating attributes. Certainly there is much more to explore here, but I’m currently highlighting a key question – how do we test for readiness?

How do we know a group is ready to make a shift at the level of values, beliefs and assumptions?

And if a group is not ready, is there any way we can help?

Any ideas?

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