To all the black women I never knew…

I hear stories, I see images, I read statistics, I consume art, I learn. I learn names of women doing prodigious things that I have never known. Throughout my adulthood I have found myself frequently asking, “why did I never know this?”. Why was I deprived of this knowledge? How could I never know that the first female self-made millionaire was a black woman who earned her fortune developing black hair care until only a few years ago? I am aware we wouldn’t spend each day thanking every person for every invention, remembering every person that came before us in every avenue of life, that’s intense. However I can’t help but ruminate over the days I was made to feel alien because of my curly hair (or very much frizzy at the time) as a teen, in a predominantly white secondary school, having a teacher threaten a uniform report on my natural curls citing it as an extreme hairstyle. The next morning as I dolloped a large amount of of pink or dark and lovely (if you know, you know) in the palm of my hand and ran my fingers through my hair attempting to tame it in the hopes of steering away another similar public disagreement, with not another brown face present to shoot me a knowing nod in relation and support. I wonder, had I possessed the knowledge of this self-made millionaire whether my mind would have floated to Madam C. J. Walker with thanks and I would have walked a little taller, left my hair a little bigger knowing this hair was the catalyst for an idea that brought in a fortune, before I was even an idea in this world, my hair was history, history that had been hidden away for far too long 

Throughout history too many women have been overlooked, too many black women have been expelled from our lessons. Over the past month we at Freebird have released our first three instalments of our ongoing feature “to all the black women I never knew…” we aim to shine a light on the names that have been concealed from our vision. We directed the torch on Phillis Wheatley, Claudia Jones and Olive Morris, but come on, the depth of these dynamic women’s stories cannot be crammed into an instagram square. Though still just a snapshot view of their multifaceted lives, Wheatley, Jones and Morris deserve the brightness directed their way, so we at Freebird urge you to indulge in their stories and dare you to share them, think ‘pay it forward’, intersectional feminist style.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

The first African American woman to publish a book.

As a poet myself, Phillis Wheatley is dear to my heart. Born in West Africa, Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped in 1761 by slave traders and at just under 8 years old was forced to America on a slave ship called ‘Phillis’, that she would later be named after. Surviving this transatlantic journey alone was a feat, it killed nearly a quarter of the passengers. She was ‘bought’ by John Wheatley as a ‘gift’ for his wife Susanna, as a personal servant and in his mind a ‘companion’, taken to their home in Boston and named against her will. When John and Susanna noticed her brainpower, after finding her writing with chalk on a wall, they began teaching her. Her innate talent, along with her studious attitude empowered her to become fluent in English in under two years. Alongside learning English, Greek and Latin, she studied a myriad of subjects mainly surrounding the humanities. 

Her enthusiasm for writing came from within, the tender age of 13 brought her first published poem ,“On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” in the Newport Mercury newspaper. From here she travelled to London in 1773 to publish her book “Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral”, a collection of 39 poems. The works were published here in the UK as the publishing industry was more established here than over the pond. She was the first African American woman to have a book published, and the works were captivating; consequently scepticism was rife with the questioning of Wheatley’s authorship. Rightly anticipating this may happen, Phillis and the Wheatley’s recruited eighteen of the most notable and respected New England religious and political leaders to sign a document, verifying her as the author. They were well aware this was a political statement and were awaiting the controversy, Phillis’ story was extraordinarily different to many other African people who were dehumanized and enslaved, as she had the opportunity to explore her talent and intelligence. Her works’ popularity across the United States and United Kingdom eventually earned her freedom and she went on to be a pivotal supporter of the colony’s independence during the Revolutionary war.  Wheatley was a creative and an intellect, we at freebird urge for an equal representation of genders across the creative industries. The patriarchy wants us to believe that women as serious creatives is something that is new, yet we have been here, letting our thoughts pour onto paper the whole time. Fighting for equal representation in all avenues in 2020 seems ludicrous when Phillis Wheatley was out here representing in the 1700’s. Thank you Phillis. 

“In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression and Pants for deliverance”- Phillis Wheatley


Claudia Jones (1915-1964) 

Political Activist and founder of the Caribbean Carnival (precursor to Notting Hill Carnival)

This year, every annual carnival goers heart was broken (me included), with the confirmation of what we already knew, Notting Hill Carnival was cancelled, for the first time since it’s beginning due to uninvited, ill-mannered Miss Rona. With a Carnival shaped hole in my heart, it feels more important than ever for us to know, understand and celebrate the woman that created a space that allowed carnival to develop into the euphoric honey pot, attacking the senses in all the right ways that it is today.

Trinidad born Claudia Jones, moved to Harlem, New York aged eight with her family, in an attempt to find a better quality of life. They were met with prejudice and discrimination and so her parents struggled to find long term work, leaving them with poor living conditions and consequently, health. Claudia was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, and her mother died prematurely at 37, which she noted as her first major realisation that the mistreatment of black people was costing their lives. Jones is the covergirl of working your way to the top and giving a voice to your community, starting at a local newspaper, landing a position on the communist party’s editorial staff and eventually became the editor of Negro Affairs. Jones advocated for the rights and mobilisation of black women long before Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’. (Watch Kimberle Crenshaw’s TED talk on the urgency of intersectionality, thank us later**).  Forms of discrimination are not isolated, they befriend and work together at the crossroads of oppression. Her most famous piece ‘An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman’ screams intersectional feminism, loud and clear. 

It’s the mid 50’s and Senator Joseph Mccarthy is leading a pro-conmunism witch hunt, and Jones being a key face of the Conmunist party, is charged with ‘un-american activities’ (she wasn’t even american). She was deported, bypassed by her home, Trinidad, and sent to London, unaware of the mark she would make. Her deportation coincided with the windrush generation – she had a community to join and build. She founded England’s first major Caribbean newspaper the ‘West Indian Gazette’, her office located above a small record shop in Brixton, she was the beat in the heart of the culture, wherever she went.

What you’ve all been waiting for… Notting Hill Carnival. The Notting Hill race riots took place over august bank holiday weekend 1958. Racist English defence leagues were growing, inciting violence on black communities. 5 days that left people injured, dead and those surviving, distraught. Jones knowing she had to act for the community, picked celebration over mourning, it was time to honour their heritage and the community – showcase, feel, and bask in all its power and glory. Did you know the Caribbean has more than 700 islands? The culture of our people is vast, with colourful sounds, dance, food and drink in abundance. The Caribbean Carnival celebrates that, inviting others to entangle themselves in the sounds and glimpse into the West Indies. First held indoors at St Pancras Town Hall (I KNOW!!), the precursor to the Notting Hill carnival we know today now has over 2.5 million attendees. Claudia died only 5 years later, at only 49! She achieved what many could only dream of in a lightning amount of time. Carnival, ‘til we meet again.

“A people’s art is the genesis of their freedoms” – Claudia Jones 

Olive Morris (1952 – 1979)

Political Activist and British Black Panther Party Member.

When Claudia Jones passed, Olive Morris would have been 12 years old. As I write this piece, I find myself imagining a spring afternoon outside a Brixton record store and a conversation between Olive Morris and Claudia Jones, had they crossed paths. The things they would talk about and movements they could make, if only Jones lived a little longer, south London’s overlooked icons of their own time. 

Olive Morris moved from Jamaica to South London aged 9, as part of the Windrush Generation. For many political activists there is a pivotal moment remembered, that is the impetus for a life of considered action. For many young people today, it will be the normalisation of the countless lifeless black bodies painted across the TL, it will be 8.46, the number that was given meaning on May 25th 2020, it will be the name Breonna Taylor that appears every time they close their eyes. For Olive Morris the catalyst was the 15th November 1969. Not a headline in the news, but a firsthand experience that would solidify her path. Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk parked his Mercedes near Desmond’s Hip City, a Brixton record store. The police accused him of stealing the car. (Let’s talk about the “sus” law, in which the police were empowered to stop anyone they suspected of wrongdoing. This law was used and abused as a tool to keep black people down. It was hard to prove ill-use. Many organisations wrote reports that demanded revising of the law and it was finally repealed in 1981. Yet, as many systemic forms of racism do, it has just been given a new framework, the official figures for england and wales show black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people, as per 2019-2020.) Gomwalk naturally objected to his arrest (this is where accounts vary), and the police became forceful, 17 year old, 5 foot 2 Morris interfered, confronting the police on their treatment of the diplomat, which riled them even more and the aggression turned towards her. She stated “each time I tried to talk or raise my head I was slapped in the face”. When in custody, she was threatened with rape, forced to undress while police watched to prove her womanhood and brutally beaten. She was fined, given a suspended sentence and released. 

At this point she was already a part of the British Black Panther Movement youth group and similar to Claudia Jones, she was thrust into the world of intersectional politics and became an integral mobilizer of black women socially and politically in the 1970’s. She set the first networks for women, both black and asian with her two organisations; the Brixton Black Womens Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), a physical space for women to have their voice heard for the first time. Whilst studying in Manchester between ‘75 and ‘78, her activism didn’t take a backseat, she took it with her north setting up the Manchester Black Womens Co-operative. 

Whilst her activism was broad she had a particular fixation on, housing/squatting and black women and children. In 1972, two black children died in a fire after their portable heaters were knocked over. Morris led a demonstration for more secure heating in public housing outside the local government offices, which resulted in central heating being installed. She squatted in 121 Railton Road in Brixton and created a space for community groups to meet, it also housed the Sabarr bookshop, one of the black communities first. She died of Non-hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1979. She was 27. All her activism was carried out in just one decade, in the UK and across the world. 

“She represents the kind of Black women who, over the years, have thrown themselves into the struggle of this country and made an indelible, if anonymous, mark” this quote about Olive Morris from “Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain” rings true for Wheatley, Jones and Morris, and many more black women who have been overlooked. The history of black people is rich, overflowing, and is so incredibly varied. We, as black people, are multifaceted leading incredible and extraordinary lives. We are itching to learn, we are itching to share, we are itching to teach, and we can’t wait till all the black women we never knew, becomes all the black women we adore that we know. 

(Keep an eye out for my poem “To all the black women I never knew…”, which will be featured on FreeBird in the coming weeks)

Yasmin Dawes

Further learning: **Kimberle Crenshaw – TED Talk – The Ugency of Intersectionality 


A letter on ‘Growth’

"<spanPhoto by Clemens van Lay on Unsplash

Life is made up of hundreds of thousands of moments. Some move us, others change us, and some moments provoke us. Busy lives, distracted lives, and daily routines tend to take us away from important moments. However, 2020 has been full of moments, and it’s been the time to slow down. We’ve stopped. We’ve listened to 2020, and we’ve focused.

The moments of 2020 have provoked us. 

We desperately want to go back to ‘normal’, but it’s just not possible. And frankly, even if we could go back, the life pre-Covid that we used to know simply wasn’t… normal. 

Thanks to Covid-19, life as we know it has fundamentally changed. We’re staying apart to keep each other healthy, but none of us can feel completely well while we’re apart. Some of us are probably asking questions we’ve never asked before; about ourselves, our families, our careers, our culture. And there aren’t necessarily easy answers to those questions– no quick fixes for the crises we currently face. 

We’re all going to need a deep re-think about many areas of our lives. Our attitudes, our priorities, and most importantly, our compassion. We’ve been forced to take a beat and assess how we think, decide what we stand for, and how we voice it. And most importantly, we’ve had to dig deep into thinking about how to make changes for the better.  I know, myself, I’ve learnt a serious amount in the last few months, been forced to think about other people (rightly so) and made bolder choices than ever before. 

Routine allows us to go through life without thinking much; change forces us to look at things with fresh eyes. In this post-Covid world, people around the world are now changing paths– in their careers, studies, relationships– and opening up to the idea of something new. Many people have more time to reflect, adapt, and finally make room for growth. Growth isn’t easy. We know it’s often uncomfortable, confusing, messy and can be full of feelings you weren’t expecting. But let’s be honest: normal wasn’t working. And with FreeBird, we want to help support this communal growth into something new.

At its most basic level, this pandemic is dealing us two options: evolve, or regress. 

Here at Freebird we believe in growth, we believe in change, and– as a core team– we believe in supporting something different . We all know that for anyone in the arts, if we were afraid to take risks and adapt to change, we wouldn’t survive. In an ever-changing industry filled with uncertainty and variation, we’ve learned to adapt to our surroundings on a daily basis. But what happens when life comes to a halt? Daily activities and routines go out the window and life as we always knew it, has completely changed. In my opinion, you have the option to step forward into growth or step backwards into safety. Come with us on this month’s journey into growth and let’s get inspired together. We are completely here for taking risks. If we didn’t ever jump, we might not ever fall. A brilliant colleague once said to me – “Sometimes you have to jump… and it feels like you’re free falling, but when you free fall, you land.” That one certainly stays with me. 

For myself personally, after several brilliant, busy years at Bill Kenwright Limited, I’ve now made the decision to step away. I couldn’t have ever imagined– on the 16th of March– the scale of events that were to follow. Over the next week, the country launched into lockdown, we’ll certainly never forget rushing home that night to watch Boris give that speech that halted life as we knew it. Having worked tirelessly for BKL from my kitchen table in the ensuing months, I remained part of a core team battling against the damage Covid-19 was, and still is, wreaking on the theatre, events and live entertainement industry– battling the unknown. As news of redundancy consultations, venue closures, and ongoing chaos unfolded across the performing arts each week, lives and careers came to a complete stand-still. And after five solid months of helping to keep the wheels turning, this girl now needs a break! 

How is it then, that somehow– in a time of ultimate crisis– I almost feel more grounded than ever? I’m a prolific planner; I plan my life day-in, day-out. I write daily tasks and lists, track my eating habits, my sleep, and constantly have things booked to look forward to, along with goals to achieve. Perhaps taking control of my time has enabled me to feel more steady. For now, I’m trusting that this has all happened for a reason. I’m allowing myself space to breathe, and understand that the events of this year are bigger than any of us. I’m allowing myself space to reflect and assess– I want time to consider the elements of my life and my industry that require change. I don’t know for sure, but a large part of my gut tells me this shake up hasn’t happened for nothing. 

One thing’s for sure– we’re ready for there to be something new; a world where fighting consistently for change and progress means there is no ‘normal’, but there are goals and ambitions that unite us and guide us forwards. We all know it’s time for change. Let’s take this opportunity for Growth–  we’re all in it together, and there’s a hell of a lot of power in solidarity. 

Milly Summer 

“It’s empowering, to know our own bodies”

We’ve teamed up with Hannah (@sustainable.period), a coordinator for The Red Box Project and Environmenstrual Ambassador for the Women’s Environmental Network, to talk all things Aunty Flo

More than 800 million. That’s how many active users TikTok has. 

It’s also the number of people who are menstruating on any given day.

Imagine that for a second. The number of people on TikTok– that gargantuan internet republic– is the same as the number of people who are shedding and discharging their uterine lining (along with, on average, 30-40ml of blood) every single day.

Let’s go even bigger. The global sex ratio at birth is around 48.8% female (FYI, population statistics on sex and gender are pretty complicated; for a preliminary explanation, have a read here). Even at a conservative estimate, we’re still talking around 3 billion people who will have to deal with Shark Week for around half of their life (on average).

Over this weekend, we want to make a point about the level of comfort we should have– the ownership we should feel– with regards to our bodies. Especially when it comes to the red menace, and the products we use to manage it. We’re deeply concerned about the impact our periods have on the environment, and about making sure everyone who menstruates has the right to access sanitary products in a safe, low-cost (ideally no-cost) way. Basically, we want to throw out the cultural stigma surrounding menstruation, period poverty, and spread the message about how we can all surf the crimson wave in a more environmentally-conscious way. 

Hannah, a coordinator for The Red Box Project, Environmenstrual Ambassador for the Women’s Environmental Network, and the vagenius behind @sustainable.period, has exactly the same goals. Aiming to show people the advantages of going sustainable when you’ve got Communists in the kitchen, Hannah brings new brands and resources to the attention of her followers– helping people make informed decisions about their monthly blood festival


So Hannah, what’s your experience of these kinds of products, and why is this so important to you? 

I switched to reusable period products around four/five years ago, and they have literally been a life-changer! They are much more convenient for me. I feel like so many people I speak to have no idea what a menstrual cup is, let alone cloth pads or period pants, so this gave me an idea. We have posters in the toilet cubicles at work which state ‘do not flush sanitary products’. This sparked an idea with me, so I contacted the relevant department and helped to design new posters– which included facts about flushing period products, and the damage it can do to our environment, as well as information about period pants, cloth pads, and menstrual cups! 

I didn’t know anyone who used a menstrual cup, so I had to do tons of research to try and discover which cup would be best for me. This made me realise– if I found it difficult to make a decision based on the overwhelming amount of information there is out there, other people probably feel the same, and some are probably even put off trying reusables, due to this!

These products have to end up somewhere. If they aren’t being flushed and causing blockages, when these products go into the sanitary bins in toilet cubicles, they’ll usually go into landfill and can take hundreds of years to break down– and very few places are starting to convert this waste into refuse-derived fuel. A lot of items that are flushed down the toilets end up in the sea, this is why it is so important not to flush wipes, pads, tampons, cotton buds, or anything else that should go into the bin! It also costs a lot of energy to create these products and their packaging, which in turn affects our environment.

When buying disposable tampons and pads I would encourage you to look at the ingredients and do your research on the company. Just because the box says ‘organic cotton’, it doesn’t mean the wrapper or applicator is plastic-free.

And it isn’t just tampons which contain plastic– one packet of pads can contain as much plastic as 5 carrier bags, and up to 90% of the pad can be plastic. Pads also sometimes have fragrance. Why? Sometimes it can be used to cover up the smell of chemicals used to create the pad, or it could be because the companies think we need it!

So I started collecting a variety of products and leaflets from many different companies, which I then took to work events, and also community events, to show people the different styles of products– as well as introducing a conversation around sustainability, and reducing the stigma of periods. Reusable period products aren’t for everyone, so I have some eco-friendly disposable tampons and pads to show people as well as period pants, menstrual cups, cloth pads and a reusable tampon applicator! People are so shocked at the variety of products, materials, colours, styles, shapes, etc… and I feel like this drives me more, because you can’t walk into a shop and actually get them out the box to touch them. If you walk into a supermarket, you’re lucky if there’s one menstrual cup on sale. 

Before lockdown, I had an information stand in the office at work, so colleagues could come and chat about these products and see them for themselves. I’m also lucky enough to have lots of discount codes, so if anyone reading this would like them, feel free to drop me a message on Instagram!

During lockdown, I decided to start @sustainable.period Instagram account, which looks at menstruation within the UK and in India. It’s a way to connect with the community, to arrange WEN workshops, and to help educate people on all things period. I choose to do this as a volunteer– I don’t get paid by anyone to promote their products. I believe it’s empowering to discuss periods and to know our own bodies.

I believe sustainable period products aren’t just great for the environment, but they’re healthier for our bodies, and so much more convenient– not to mention saving lots of money, and I feel like people need to know this! Who doesn’t love the idea of being able to wear a menstrual cup for 12 hours, that’s a whole working day, without having to worry! 

(ICYMI, period poverty is a widespread issue across the UK, and the world. For more context on period poverty, check out our conversation with menstrual mastermind Natalie Apted of Naturally Adapted

Can you walk us through how menstruation affects access to education?

This isn’t just due to not being able to afford the products; it can be because of cultural issues, or they don’t feel comfortable asking whoever it is that looks after them. 

When I was a co-ordinator for the Red Box Project, I collected donations from the public to take into schools. The RBP meant that period products, wipes, knickers, tights, and even soap, were available to students directly from their schools, via donations from local communities. This was an amazing initiative which has helped thousands of students, and I’m so grateful I could be part of that. 

Thankfully, the government have listened to our needs, and since January this year they have now started a new scheme, which means schools are able to order free period products for their students! They can even order sustainable disposable and reusable period products.

It’s kind of a ‘use it or lose it’ situation, which isn’t really fair, as this year, schools have been closed for months– so the budget will be far too low. There doesn’t seem to be a dedicated role within schools to order these products, so it seems to get forgotten about. It’s a matter of urgency that these schools make orders by December.

We need local MP’s and councillors to take a more active role– you can download a letter template from:

What’s WEN?

The Women’s Environmental Network is a charity taking action for our health, and for the planet’s health. When I became a WEN ambassador, it allowed me to give workshops about everything from period activism, and anatomy, to reusable products. I love being part of such a positive, inspiring community. The Environmenstrual campaign aims to raise awareness about hidden plastic and chemicals in conventional menstrual products. We aim to educate people through workshops, and encourage a period-positive discussion which is open to all. So far, the workshops have had to be online due to Covid-19, however we’ve been able to get so many people attending workshops and coming together in a fun environment, to discuss all things period-related. It really is empowering. 

There are so many ways to mark Environmenstrual Week– see the WEN website or my Instagram page nearer the time for lots of ideas.


So, are there reasons to be hopeful about the future, when it comes to period poverty? 

I think lockdown has increased the number or reusable products for periods, and household products, on the market. When people were unable to get hold of toilet roll, and, in some places, when the stocks were low on period products, people moved on to reusable products, so they didn’t have to worry about going out as much. 

Also, before lockdown I was planning on going back to India– a place very close to my heart. Once the current situation starts to settle down, I will go back and carry out my campaign! I will go into schools and community groups and give talks and workshops about menstruation, alongside some Indian friends who are also period activists.

Make sure to check out the resources at Hannah’s Instagram page @sustainable.period, as well as her amazing work with The Red Box Project, and the Women’s Environmental Network

To find more amazing period slang, check out this Refinery29 article from Sarah Couglin. And for a catchy tune about period sex, head over to Rachel Bloom’s youtube channel.

A Letter on ‘Starting’

Photo by Luke Brugger on Unsplash

“Every thing must have a beginning … and that beginning
must be linked to something that went before.” 

– Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

“Don’t look back, I want to break free
If you’ll never see ’em coming
You’ll never have to hide
Take my hand, take my everything
If we only got a moment
Give it to me now”

– Perfume Genius, Slip Away


Before we get going, can we just say; starting is straight-up hard yo. 

It’s sitting, staring at a blank page, with no idea where to begin.
It’s seeing your running shoes in the hallway and not being able to remember the last time you put them on.
It’s being passed the microphone, and feeling your throat close up.
It’s looking down the barrel of a job application – or an Arts Council application – or a mortgage application – or a Visa application – and wondering whether you should just save yourself the hassle. 

And maybe this is partly a new problem. Maybe a few months ago– before the world went into lockdown– things seemed a little easier to set in motion. Processes which were previously effortless, second-nature, now take a bit more energy– and a lot more faith. And if we’re honest, we’re running pretty low on both of those things right now. 

Starting something takes
courage. Global pandemic aside, it takes guts to put yourself out there– even if it’s something you’ve done before. New starts require a kind of faith in the future– a hope that things can be different, that our actions have impact. We’ve found enormous courage in all of the people we’ve spoken to this month, and we can’t wait to pass on their inspiring stories to you. 

To kick us off, we chatted to the hugely driven
Beth Botham, whose first steps into the world of entrepreneurship– at the age of 22– will seriously motivate you. Our own Casimira Hayward-Peel is making the case for a long-term shift in attitudes towards the climate crisis, with our Monthly Sustainability Plan. Later on in the month, we’ll be introducing you to Kate McKeown, one of the women behind Quarantine FM, currently the fastest-growing digital radio station in Ireland. And we’ve been particularly inspired by our activist theatre-maker friends this month, like The Uncultured, who are starting their own producing company while continuing their advocacy work on the Freelance Task Force; as well as the wonderful Penny Babakhani, who has some amazing ideas about a new ethics for creative producing and climate activism in a post-Covid world. We also chatted with Megan Rose Bill Designs about starting her online printed textile business, and how she’s developing confidence as a new small business owner. And we’ve got plenty more conversations in the pipeline, so stay tuned for more new collaborators each week. 

We’ve chosen
Starting as the theme for our first month– not only for the obvious reason that FreeBird is our attempt at a new start, but because there are 7.7 billion of us starting something new right now. Our lives are all starting out on a new course– and it’s our hope, with FreeBird, that we’ll be able to encourage you to make this new timeline a good one. We don’t assume it’ll be easy– and for some of us, making the decision to start something new, right now, is incredibly fraught. But we hope you’ll join with us in seeing the potential in this moment. We’ve got that ‘first day of school feeling’, and we can’t wait to share it with you. 

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