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Only Tell Positive Stories

Positive stories are great –– they convey a goal, inspire, give us something to cheer! They don’t require the teller to remember difficult experiences or make listeners uncomfortable. And they’re often rewarded by those in power — or at least don’t bring reprisals. I get it.But I find the pressure on tradeswomen to LIMIT themselves to telling stories of success, counterproductive (and depressing). Five reasons why STAYING PURELY POSITIVE can be harmful:

1. First, it’s just NOT TRUE. Not because the stories are false, but because so much is omitted. Like a heavily redacted document, it signals what people with power want known. And so, silences complaints and lowers credibility.

2. LOSES an important OPPORTUNITY TO TEACH. Fatal accidents are talked about on construction sites not because they happen all the time, but because they PROVIDE WARNING that might prepare a person to react appropriately in unexpected moments of danger. Or see patterns, see where things are heading and change course or bail before it’s too late (like change to a contractor or local where they’ll get trained or stay employed). Researching We Remember, about tradeswomen whose deaths were work-related, I found that being unable to imagine that someone responsible for your safety might want to cause you serious harm could be fatal.

3. MISLEADS and SHAMES. Women considering these careers  deserve an accurate picture of what they’re entering, including how likely it is they’ll receive that good pension. And tradeswomen who did things right but were failed by the system –– those hard-working apprentices who worked to become capable mechanics but found themselves unemployed at journeylevel — DESERVE NOT TO BE BLAMED. Unless discrimination is talked about frankly, the implication is that women who left didn’t measure up.

4. UNDERCUTS OUR OWN GOALS of reaching a critical mass. If tradeswomen only have positive stories, what explains our tiny numbers (2.5% of the workforce)? Lack of interest in these occupations? Simply poor marketing?

5. UNDERESTIMATES ALLIES in and outside the labor movement. Tradeswomen need people who can take the time to understand their situations and stand with and for them. If we can’t believe the labor movement is capable of growth –– not just numerically, but emotionally –– or capable of acknowledging mistreatment and making needed corrections, we’re in trouble. If we’re not able to say what’s been wrong and still wrong, how would anyone know how to help?

Finding the right balance of upbeat and harsh (and boring day-to-day) is challenging. And different for everyone. And changes for the same person at different times. That accuracy is what to aim for.

The stories that draw me most are the saves: bad situations that were rescued, discrimination that was acknowledged and corrected.

Nitwits or 1963-ers?





“The training will be good for those nitwits.” I winced, but said nothing, then mulled over my silence and ‘nitwits’ for weeks. The speaker was describing the 2-hours of required harassment training for the electrical maintenance department at Massport, a quasi-public agency that oversees three airports (including Boston Logan), and the port. Those permanent, well-paid jobs everyone wants.

There’s always someone who’s going to “do something stupid” … “act like a jerk” … “be an asshole”
I’ve been bothered by this kind of language for a long time. Language that makes the person sound pathetic or laughable, when they’re often quite smart, determined, and — too often — successful in achieving their goal. Words like “nitwits” keep the focus on personal — rather than systemic — failings. And sends us in the wrong direction.

1963-ers is the term I’ve been trying out. It seems more accurate and useful.

Not until 2006 did Massport’s electrical maintenance department (roughly 40 workers) hire its first woman. In 2011, she and the second woman hired –– both after very successful careers in construction –– were gone. During those 5 years they tried unsuccessfully to redress persistent, systematic abuse through Human Resources and their union. After both won discrimination and workers’ comp settlements for career-ending injuries, the department is back to being a woman-free-zone. Some in attendance described the harassment training as “a joke”.

Before Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employment discrimination in hiring, advancement and layoffs was LEGAL. Let’s be honest, some people are nostalgic for 1963, and some of those people have control over the work environment. I often think “traditional industry” is a code word for this.

Back in the summer of 1981, I was sent to the GM plant in Framingham, MA, the only woman among 400 men. We were reconstructing the assembly line after demolition, installing the first robots –– a great job for a new 4th year apprentice. “Everyone is welcome here,” the steward assured me, “blacks, guys who refuse to work with blacks, women, guys who refuse to work with women.” At the time, it was a relatively progressive point-of-view.

By now, the fallout of that thinking is clear. You can’t give safe harbor to people who feel entitled to discriminate and exclude AND provide a fair workplace. It’s not hard to figure out why women’s workforce percentage has stalled at 2.5%, if women can be trained, given work assignments, evaluated for promotion or layoff, and have their safety overseen by someone who feels entitled to remove them. When 1963-ers are in supervisory or leadership roles, even men who are fair-minded read the signals and become afraid to act as allies. Effective harassment training would teach how to intervene, and would address the power issue.

Hopefully, 2014 will be a year when the industry helps 1963-ers join the 21st century — or makes THEM unwelcome.

Thank you! 2013


2013 was an especially productive year for the On Equal Terms Project, grounded in a national network of activists. Thanks to the many people and groups who made that possible. Some highlights:

We gained the ability to receive not only grants, but also tax-deductible individual and corporate donations through our Brandeis University affiliation.

A radio panel in St. Paul, MN, built on new Midwest connections from 2012. Testimony was contributed to a winning discrimination case for the first female hired in the electrical maintenance department at Massport — a workplace shamefully now without female employees.

Grants and the generous hands-on support of NYC tradeswomen, their family & friends, made an On Equal Terms exhibition at the Clemente possible. Bathroom shack walls, a gangbox, Stella — everything! — had to be unloaded and carried by hand up to the 2nd floor gallery, installed, de-installed, packed up, and carried back down. Thanks also to everyone who came to see and consider the work, especially those who gave feedback, left comments and remembrances. These conversations keep the installation growing. A personal highlight was the chance to read new work poems, incubated on Whidbey Island, WA, to construction workers in NYC, at a closing event for On Equal Terms at the Clemente Center. — Susan

Berger-Marks Foundation
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center
Estelle Disch
21st Century ILGWU Heritage Fund
J.& M. Brown Company
National Electrical Contractors Association, Boston Chapter
New York Labor History Association
Poets & Writers
Tyre Fund
Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University

Melinda Hernandez, Miguel Trelles, Jack Fahey, Harlo Holmes, Gayann Wilkinson, Deb Gilcoine, Sara Driscoll, Brigid O’Farrell, Lisa Narducci, Cynthia Long, Veronica Session, Laura Kelber, Rudy Mulligan, Odessa Thomas, Vanessa Salazar, Caridad Castro, Chris Levesque, Sinade Wadsworth, Scott Havelka, Brenda Berkman, Sandra Dunn-Yules, Eileen Macdonald, Devin Lindow, Cora Cofield, Cecelia Baez Raymond, Sinade Wadsworth, Anda Clark, Michael Hernandez, Justin Hernandez-Pinero, Eric Hernandez-Pinero, Stevie Weinstein-Foner, Eileen Sullivan, and Jennifer, Zach & Jack Kocienda

Colorlines, review of On Equal Terms by Von Diaz
Labor/Arts virtual On Equal Terms exhibit
McClatchy Op Ed, 3 April
Truth to Tell, KFAI radio, St. Paul, MN hosted by Andy Driscoll “Women in the Trades”: Mary DesJarlais, Susan Eisenberg, Rasheda Pettiford & Heidi Wagner
Stanley’s Girl poems in The Progressive (“Power”) and
On the Issues (“Code”)

Hedgebrook, Whidbey Island, WA, writing residency
Melinda Hernandez
Nancy Mason

Kelly Harrigan
Theresa Waldo

Spring term: Zuri Gordon
Fall term: Rose Wallace
Blog Design: Julie Shih


ON EQUAL TERMS _ NY_BannerCroplr-3IMG_1160ON EQUAL TERMS _ NY_lr-JackCrop_35

On Equal Terms had a fantastic NYC launch thanks to Stella’s many amazing friends! More than 150 people packed into the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center for the October 3rd opening event, to celebrate tradeswomen, view the installation, and greet old friends. The vocal crowd gave all the speakers a warm and rousing reception.

Painter Miguel Trelles and Executive Dir. Jan Hanvik –– who’ve both done so much for On Equal Terms — spoke on behalf of the Clemente Center and the poet for whom it’s named. Tradeswomen representing 3 generations –– pioneer electrician Melinda Hernandez; Sheet Metal Local #28 training director Leah Rambo; and apprentice carpenter Rudy Mulligan (who got a loud cheer when she said she was ‘the apprentice’) — shared moving personal perspectives. Local 3 IBEW Business Manager Chris Erikson argued that a labor movement that’s under attack cannot afford to harbor discrimination.

Planning has gone on for more than a year and a half. In the last weeks before the truck headed out, when photos of working tradeswomen began to arrive in my email, I started to get really excited. Thanks to Eileen Macdonald of IATSE for gathering photos of women electricians, carpenters, and stagehands on Broadway; thanks to Thom Thacker for photos of Local 79 LIUNA members; to Rudy Mulligan for photos of carpenters; to Celeste Kirkland for images of women in TWU Local 100, and to many individual tradeswomen who added their photos. I love how all those faces personalize the installation!

On Equal Terms arrived in a 16-foot truck. A great crew of tradeswomen and their friends helped unload and carry bathroom shack walls, a toilet, wallpapered panels, a gangbox, and many, many boxes up stairs to the 2nd floor. Tradeswomen helped turn an empty gallery into a mixed media installation: giving a few hours or a few days. Cynthia Long and Melinda Hernandez hung the outdoor banner. Odessa Thomas assisted installer Jack Fahey. Lisa Narducci and Veronica Session built the stud walls and attached the panels that Boston tradeswomen Gayann Wilkinson and Deb Gilcoine had wallpapered on my dining room table. It was fun to see one set of skilled hands start something that another set of skilled hands completed.

Big thanks to the New York District Council of Carpenters Women’s Committee who held their monthly meeting at the gallery, bringing another 40 women. And thanks to Labor Arts, hosting an online exhibition of some elements at

For those who’ve seen the installation in other cities, in NY you’ll find a new Flying Tool, a torpedo level with a bubble that can move, and a remembrance space created by NY tradeswomen for community members who have died. Honored are: Joi C. Beard, Judy Johannessen, Flora Ng, Nancy Offenhauser, Nancy Quick, Evan Ruderman, Linore Simmond and Patricia Sullivan. Pat’s family –– her sister Eileen, daughter Jennifer and grandsons Jack and Zack –– came early the day of the opening to help get things ready, try on the hard hats, and read Pat’s testimony. Hers is one of 16 individual testimonies from the 1990-1992 NYC Hearings on Discrimination in the Construction Industry visitors can pull out and read in the gallery.

Fri, Nov. 1, 4:30 – 6pm: Poetry Workshop for Tradeswomen.
To sign up contact:
Fri, Nov. 1, 6:30 pm: Poetry reading by Susan Eisenberg.
STANLEY’S GIRL and other construction poems.

I’ve been getting calls that Stella’s so thrilled to be in NYC, she’s been slipping out at night!
CrowdEllySandy_MiH_i180971B0-AF9D-48EA-8464-69DE84D4AEA18X10_April Rodriguez7-2013 4-1crowd_MiH_i6DDD69F9-1602-455F-8EF3-1846A0EE3824Crop8X10_Sylvia Yoshioka Head Electrician Golden Theater

Women Run Work!

images-2women run work

As a kid I loved teeter totters –– the playful shift of ups and downs. There’s a rhythm, laughter. Even the meanest tricks on them were pretty harmless. As a grown-up, I can appreciate the hands-on learning. The math and physics kids figure out instinctively: the heavier person moves in so the two are balanced.

Talking about the history and experiences of tradeswomen has the same challenge: finding the balance of delight and routine and terror that feels fair and accurate. My eyes tend to roll backwards when the conversation is limited to successful pilot projects, but not whether they were replicated. Or how many women graduated pre-apprenticeship training, but not whether they were placed in apprenticeships — and fairly trained and graduated to journeylevel careers. Obviously with women only 2.3% of the construction workforce there’s a lot that requires concerned attention and activism.

But the goal is, of course, the satisfaction of skilled work and successful careers being available without discrimination. It’s important to celebrate the experiences that help us see that possibility. So, with the On Equal Terms installation going to New York City this fall (September 29 – November 1, 2013 at the Clemente on Manhattan’s Lower East Side!), I’m adding a new element–– Women Run Work –– to the always-shifting exhibit.

I figure that a lot must have gone right when we see a woman lead the work on a jobsite. She’s being trusted to manage a crew and manage business. Someone believes that she will get the job done right and on budget — enough to take a risk on that. I figure there were people earlier in her career who saw to it that she was well-trained, and mentored her. And maybe a good union rep or lawyer who advocated to make sure she wasn’t unfairly passed over . . . maybe a supervisor or owner who recognized talent . . .  or??? Probably different for each woman. But when a woman runs work, it likely represents a lot that’s worth celebrating.

The first responses have been heartening. I found out that high voltage electrician Wanda Davis supervises “two of the hydroelectric generation projects that produce power for Seattle” — how cool is that!!! And I’ve been interested to learn who women credit for their chance.

If you’ve run work, or know a tradeswoman who has, please fill out this form and send it in. I’ll include it in On Equal Terms. I’ll also be adding a Women Run Work page to the blog (as balance to We Remember).

I’d be glad to hear any comments on this. I know some women have told me, No one ever asked me to be foreman. Or, explained why they turned down the offer, when they were asked. And, like Diane Maurer explains in We’ll Call You If We Need You, a woman successfully running a job doesn’t always carry the same benefits as for a man. I’m curious about all that, too. But let’s also celebrate that Women Run Work!

District 6 IBEW
photos © Tracy K.Tolbert, 2012. Tracy is President of IBEW Local 352 in Lansing, MI. Thanks, Tracy!
I’ve been feeling encouraged . . .

Wow! Until I arrived in Green Bay, WI for the IBEW District 6 Progress Meeting, I was unaware that District 6 (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota & Wisconsin) was first to hold annual women’s conferences, started under then-District 6 VP Jim Conway. I was deeply honored to have the opportunity to address their 29th (yes!!!) consecutive Women’s Conference, and impressed by the seriousness of the conversation. The hotel had a golf course and casino, but business managers, reps and District and IO officials were all at the Women’s Conference, convened by the awesome District 6 VP Lonnie Stephenson. I loved listening to 5 women tell their Herstories, like Carmon Ellis, who spoke about being a diesel mechanic and President-Business Manager of Local 1865, the first woman to follow her family’s tradition of railroad work, while we watched images of her great-grandfather at work.

So much impressed me! The large number of women in leadership positions and women’s visibility at the Progress Meeting were clear results of respectful relationships built over decades. Each participant received a copy of We’ll Call You If We Need You. I was moved by the many thoughtful comments and conversations that generated.

Some questions that came up:
Given the discrepancy between the percentage of women in the military vs. construction jobs, how can Helmet to Hardhats better represent women veterans and bring them into union construction careers (one BA asked why he’s always sent men)?
In circumstances where discrimination/sexual harassment cases are more challenging for a local to handle, and systems or good intentions break down, what expertise and leadership can the District bring to the situation, so that fairness and the union’s reputation aren’t compromised?
Looking forward to what District 6 will achieve at their 30!

Thanks to the leadership of Oregon Tradeswomen’s Network and their partners, Portland passed groundbreaking legislation. Check out the details of the Portland Community Benefits Agreement. It establishes guidelines for city construction that link a commitment to building union with a commitment to women and minority hiring goals and encourages contractors to diversify their core workforce. I’m particularly impressed that the 9% goals for women apply BOTH to apprentices AND journeylevel: an important precedent that I hope OFCCP will adopt. I’ll be raising the Portland model when I speak next week in the Twin Cities. I’m curious and hopeful to see both what success Portland really can achieve, and what ripple effect this can create in other parts of the country.

So much is at stake in next Tuesday’s election. I hope everyone votes at least once!


No one expects people trapped in a crashed car to extricate themselves. Others rush to help. Or call for trained rescuers. The 2.3% of women in construction trades could use a hand, too!

There’s bold honesty in the 2010 IBEW Women’s Conference Caucus Report that applies across the building trades and similar occupations:
“Women experience real discrimination every day, including enduring hostile work environments, unequal work assignments, and/or lack of career advancement so it should come as no surprise that discrimination is one of the primary reasons why women abandon their career and the IBEW.”

Aren’t construction workers as smart and resourceful as architects and engineers? And as capable of change?

Discrimination directly threatens an individual’s finances and safety and sometimes their life. But the ripple of harm from each incident extends much farther. Affecting their family, friends, community, co-workers, union.

When an equipment failure or human error puts lives at stake –– an aircraft, a power plant, an oil spill –– common sense says DON’T IGNORE IT. Figure out what went wrong. And then fix or replace –– not just that one, but any like it. Prevention is always the best strategy.

So why do the same stories of discrimination and violence repeat in the construction industry over 34 years? Why no national alarm or prevention system?

On Labor Day, let’s remind ourselves: human rights and labor movement success are inseparable.

    Stella set off by truck mid-January for Michigan, with her diamond hardhat and bathroom shack, and sporting a new flannel shirt in MSU green under her Carhartt coveralls. I arrived two weeks later, greeted at the airport by John Beck, director of Our Daily Work / Our Daily Lives, co-sponsor of the exhibition at the Michigan State University Museum Main Gallery. A terrific student crew worked on the week-long installation.

The larger space allowed me to expand and add several new elements that heighten focus on institutional issues, including We Remember: tiles, memorabilia and history of tradeswomen whose deaths were work-related. Thanks to the many labor leaders and tradeswomen — Wisconsin, California, Washington, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, British Columbia — who suggested names and helped with research and the emotional processing of some of the more difficult stories. I’ve added a We Remember page to this blog.

The highlights of course were the events, and the chance to meet and learn from Michigan tradeswomen and other activists from the building trade unions and the UAW. A poetry reading in Lansing was hosted by Ann Francis as a tribute to local tradeswomen (posted on youtube by peaced: At the opening reception, tradeswomen from Boston, Detroit, Lansing and Cleveland gathered in the coffee break area.

On Equal Terms exhibits in East Lansing, MI, until May 13. Both Museum Director Gary Morgan and John Beck are glad for the gallery to be used as backdrop for discussions and events, or to host tours. Contact:

Remembering Robin Johnson

At last May’s Seattle Women in Trades Fair, Vanessa Downing’s mom sat at a table filled with tributes to her daughter, who was killed June 24, 2010. Just a few months short of completing her apprenticeship with Operating Engineers Local 302, Vanessa was hit by a barge crane while welding on the Seattle waterfront.

As everyone was packing up, I was given Vanessa’s welding suit to add to the On Equal Terms installation. I had no idea what I could do. But I took the responsibility seriously, knowing how admired and beloved Vanessa was across many communities –– from Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, to the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council. Even while going through her apprenticeship and moving from being homeless to homeowner, Vanessa remained close to the street community she’d been part of in Seattle’s University District, bringing others into apprenticeships.

When the Michigan State University Museum decided to exhibit On Equal Terms in their Main Gallery –– a large space –– it was an opportunity to expand some of the elements and add two new ones. Prompted by Vanessa’s welding suit, I am creating a tribute to tradeswomen whose deaths were work-related. Those like Vanessa and Kat Engnell of Seattle, who died in workplace accidents; like Carlyal Gittens, a leader in Vancouver’s tradeswomen community who committed suicide; and like Local 7 Ironworker Kathy Leonard of Boston who was murdered.

Please let me know of tradeswomen who should be added, even if you have only a fragment of a story. And please spread the word.

I’ve started going back to people who mentioned a death, to learn names, dates and details. One fragment was of a woman ironworker from Kenosha. I’d been told about her death on a trip to Milwaukee in January, 1999 (January –- I remember crying, my face hurt so much from the cold!). I contacted Marge Wood in Madison with the pieces of information that I’d put into a poem, “Remembering the Fire at Triangle Shirtwaist.” Marge asked the apprenticeship and labor communities in Wisconsin; and ironworker Gayann Wilkinson from Boston joined in. Soon there were eight of us searching.

First responses questioned whether such an incident had ever happened; and then Nancy Hoffman Emons came forward with her name, Robin Johnson; and then newspaper accounts were found. We learned that Robin Johnson, 37, was a pre-apprentice ironworker, with less than a month’s experience, when she was killed in the Kenosha County town of Prairie Creek, Wisconsin, September 24, 1996. She fell from the roof while installing roof decking on a windy day, leaving her husband and two children. As Ken Moore of the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards explained, she was hard to find at first, because she hadn’t been in the trade long enough to have signed Ironworker apprentice papers on file. Back then, the Ironworkers “tried out” a pre-apprentice for a month and then decided whether to formalize the individual’s apprenticeship and grant one month’s credit — a practice no longer allowed.

The Michigan State University Museum is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, so it feels particularly important that the exhibition there honors tradeswomen whose deaths were work-related, and recognizes the impact their deaths had on the tradeswomen community. The pattern of deaths reveals how much efforts to open the construction industry shares in common with other civil rights efforts.

Some of what I’ve stumbled into is harsher and more complicated and more painful than I’d anticipated. I feel almost as though — in a very familiar building — I've stumbled into a whole new room I didn't know existed.

Please add in your memories of tradeswomen we’ve lost. And, if you can, please join me at the On Equal Terms opening reception in East Lansing, MI, February 5, 2012.


There was a recent kerfluffle of emails about women working at the World Trade Center site –– the most high-profile construction project in the country. According to a September 2011 CNN Money video, “The hammer girls rebuilding Ground Zero”, only 30 women worked there “surrounded by 3300 men.” WHOA!?! Doing the math, women held fewer than 1% of the construction jobs at the World Trade Center.

How can this be?!? As early as 2002, meetings were being held about the reconstruction of Ground Zero, and how to ensure that women would be fairly represented. Mayor Bloomberg’s Construction Opportunity Commission issued initiatives that included ten percent women in apprenticeship classes. What other site could possibly send a stronger message about the heart and hopes of the nation?

While it’s wonderful to watch a video that profiles and celebrates carpenter Josefina Calcano, electrician Patrice Morgan, and sheet metal worker Leah Rivera, the piece made 1% seem normal –– rather than outrageous. Nontraditional Employment for Women, one of the NYC organizations that’s worked hard to open access, has questioned whether CNN’s numbers are accurate, or maybe apply to only one of the towers –– but so far no one’s pointed to any other stats. Or, where to find them. I’ll gladly include corrections in a future blog –– but right now, it’s 1%.

Bad news is better than no news.

Whatever the stats are –- for jobs across the country –– let’s get them out in the open where they can be discussed. We can only work forward with transparency of information. I’ve added a link to an article that my mother clipped and sent me from the Cleveland Plain Dealer back in 1994, that I recently found. Back then, Hard Hatted Women was able to get the monthly stats on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame published in the city’s major newspaper. The assumptions of September’s CNN video represent quite a backslide from the PD article published more than fifteen years earlier.

With new federal regs due out in November, public perception of what’s normal is important. We need to counter the notion that things are okay or, as good as can be expected. Now is the time to be open about barriers.

August 2011 marked a third of a century (!) since the April 1978 regs that opened construction jobs to women. In just a few years we’ll celebrate the half-century anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination in the workplace.

Hold the sparklers! ­–– let’s celebrate with straight talk and accurate, public accounting. Acknowledging the problems would be a welcome sign of a commitment to creating real solutions.

If someone’s willing to COUNT AND TELL . . . 4 things I’m curious to know:

1. What percentage of women who graduate apprenticeships are working steadily 3 years after reaching journeylevel (are women making it into the core workforce: real careers)?

2. Do women lineworkers have longer apprenticeships than men? I’ve been surprised that so many linewomen I’ve talked to –– who seem awfully smart to me! –– have been held back for reasons that sound pretty vague.

3. Do showcase jobs work as models? Does the percentage of women working in the area actually rise –– or are all the women just put there? AND if so, is that percentage maintained 18 months later? Do model projects trigger change or hide a flatline?

4. By checking hours counted toward pension benefits, how do the careers of women compare with men from their apprenticeship class?

What are you curious about?

ALERT!!! New affirmative action regs are due from the Department of Labor in November (I’ll publish them on this site). Only a 30-day response time is expected. LET’S BE PREPARED! The On Equal Terms Project participates in the National Tradeswomen’s Task Force. Please join the conversation — use or adapt this draft letter to gather tradeswomen and allies in your area to discuss what you think is important to make regulations EFFECTIVE. Response letters to the DOL will COUNT and WILL BE COUNTED.


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