Achieving Excellence Through Equity (not Equality) in Education with Steven Cleveland
December 21, 2021
Steven Cleveland

We’ve all heard that equality and equity are not one and the same. What one child needs to be successful can (and likely is) wildly different from what another child needs to be successful. But yet, so many schools still teach prescribed curriculum to the masses.

On this episode, Professor Steven Cleveland is sharing his own take on equality and equity and offers a different way to look at it–one that will make the concepts crystal clear.

Steven’s understanding of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s old-school love message is sure to build bridges and develop solutions for everyone, while at the same time not wasting time and energy focusing on our differences of opinion. His perspective on loving those you disagree with and choosing to focus on commonalities and success is refreshing.

Tune in for a fun and really positive conversation around critical race theory, transformative parents, equality, and making sure students feel centered. You won’t want to miss this one!

About Professor Steven Cleveland:

Steven was born into poverty in Birmingham, Alabama. His family eventually settled in the Bay Area, specifically Richmond, CA, which at the time had more murders per capita than anywhere else in the country. From these humble beginnings, Steven graduated from UCLA & USC in Los Angeles, the first of his family to go to college.

College transformed Steven’s worldview by opening him up to the many possibilities that are available but when he returned home to his “ghetto,” he noticed a different message of hopelessness. He wanted to change that message through the use of film and education.

After cutting his teeth in production on music videos for such artists as Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, and Mandy Moore, Steven was fortunate enough to executive produce commercials and music videos for the likes of the Old Lahaina Luau Company and Grammy Award Nominee Ledisi. He then began to develop a media-based service-learning curriculum aimed at producing high-quality media by pairing professionals with youth.

The marriage of cultural exploration via the arts served him well in both of his roles, i.e. filmmaker & educator. At Cal State University, East Bay, Steven is a Black Studies Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, a Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) Professor in the Department of History, and an African American (AFAM) Faculty Fellow at the Diversity and Inclusion Student Center (DISC). Currently, Steven resides in Los Angeles where he wakes up every day working to infuse Black Humanity into a variety of media projects.

Jump in the Conversation:

[2:03] How transforming learning began for Steven
[2:40] Power of parents as tools for transforming education
[4:08] What to consider in critical race theory construct
[6:15] Social justice isn’t one size fits all
[7:31] Black Excellence Project
[11:10] MLK’s old school love
[14:23] Applying radical love to education
[16:34] Collaboration: We can’t get there alone
[17:43] Commonalities are the heart of collaboration
[18:57] Turbo Time
[22:32] How to become a change agent in education
[24:04] Steven’s Magic Wand
[26:43] Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of EdActive, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:49
If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hey, Steven, it’s so good to have you on Education Evolution today.

Steven Cleveland 1:12
Awesome. Thank you for having me.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:14
Absolutely. And listeners. today I’m chatting with Steven, the professor Cleveland. And from humble beginnings, Steven was the first in his family to go to college. He graduated from UCLA and USC in Los Angeles, and college transformed Steven’s worldview opening him up to many possibilities. But when he returned home, he noticed a different message. One of hopelessness. Steven is a filmmaker and educator committed to changing that message. So let’s hear from Steven.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:50
Steven, first question. This podcast is all about our schools evolving to serve our learners. So tell me, how did this story of Transforming Learning begin for you

Steven Cleveland 2:06
really started with, you know, filling of otherness that I felt in school. So I was one of those people who public school worked for well. So for me, I was a nerd, I loved it. They never came at me. And I recall, when I transferred, we moved from Alabama to California. And when they enrolled me in all my classes, they put me in all remedial classes. And this was the first lesson of transformation that came from my mother. Because I recall, an adult knowing the order of power actually occurred.

Steven Cleveland 2:49
But I recall my mother spending a whole day at that school, because the principal wouldn’t meet with her at first, but she was like, that’s okay, I can wait. And so she’s been a whole day waiting until they transferred me into the accelerated classes that I was in, for the school that I came from. And then that showed me the power of parents as as, as as tools right to change and transform education. And it also showed me within her the ability to get change how the status quo is not immovable, right?

Steven Cleveland 3:27
They saw me and assumed where I was going to be placed, based off of merely the transcript that not necessarily the academic transcript, but just literally at the human that was in front of them concert transcript hadn’t arrived yet. And my mother was able to, through her perseverance, transform my educational experience.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 3:46
Wow. Yeah. What a powerful example. And for our parents listening in it is that fears Mama Bear, Papa Bear, that oftentimes is No, I will not accept this for my child. So I think that is wonderful that you had that modeling. And I’d like to go further on that human transcript. So this frame of critical race theory, could you kind of unpack this social construct, and what you would want listeners to consider?

Steven Cleveland 4:20
I think critical race theory is a really important thing, the not at all in a way that has been presented in the moment to understand that the birth of critical race theory comes out of legal field and the desire to help people understand that equality is not always equitable. And the sense that if you give everybody the same portion of something, let’s say a food per se, and a household where you have a 200 pound father and 120 pound mother and 90 pound or 80 pound or 60 pound baby, if you gave each of them the same amount fuel the same amount of food.

Steven Cleveland 5:01
It’s not equitable, though as equal, right? Because you have different requirements, different needs. And I think that’s a model I like to think about when you think about critical race theory is the idea of us designing systems like education in a way where you feed people where they are. So a student as an English as a second language learner, understanding that they need to eat something different and different. So to support them a student who has dyslexia, or a student who has housing insecurities, right.

Steven Cleveland 5:35
So understanding all these intersections require that we show up differently, not equally differently for the students. And that we’re seeking equity, we have to acknowledge these intersections and critical race theory is just provides a frame to articulate those intersections and to lay a groundwork for what we can do, and meeting those intersections in a way that is equitable, so that everybody gets the nourishment, they need to be the person that they have to be.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 6:06
That is such a clear explanation. I really like the way you unpacked that. Thank you.

Steven Cleveland 6:13
No, it’s something that’s really important to me in this moment, as I hear people talk about critical race theory who don’t necessarily understand it, they understand it’s not even a framework that you use for all social justice folks, like there’s some social justice, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a lawyer, and he does a lot of social justice work. And he’s like, I don’t use that frame at all for what the work that I do.

Steven Cleveland 6:35
So it’s not something that is a one size fit all everything represents everyone, but it’s come to be a dog whistle for a thing that centers blackness, right. And that seems to be the dog whistle that people are responding to. And the idea as with Black Lives Matters, centering blackness doesn’t in any way exclude centering other things. Why?

Steven Cleveland 6:58
Cuz most black people I know, have intersections that put them in multiple spaces, sure. They aren’t centered, you know, as the Filipino side of them, or the woman side of them, or the core side of them, is not always centered when we say black lives matter. But they understand that centering blackness doesn’t exclude the other parts of them that are their

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 7:21
love that. So you take in taken what you experienced, and you have the black excellence project, could you tell us what you’ve created

Steven Cleveland 7:35
So the black excellence project is not super over crazy. I went to UCLA, undergrad, and I have the wonderful support programs that really allowed us to not only see staff members who look like us, who oftentimes went to the same institution that we did, but also empowered us to be in positions to be leaders and mentors to the next generation of folks. And so it was that idea of seeing yourself in the campus, both in students who are mentoring you, as well as the adults who were there supporting you, that really inspired the way that I approached education.

Steven Cleveland 8:16
And so the idea behind the black excellence project is listening to the voices of black students, in particular in spaces where black students are not thriving, right in particularly historical white and white institutions that aren’t necessarily reflecting in their graduation numbers or retention numbers, success when it comes to black students. And instead of focusing on those students who have deficits, right, and those who have not been served, we identify students who are excelling in spite of the challenges they face. And we talk to them about sharing their secrets.

Steven Cleveland 8:51
And the thought was both as a peer to peer level, they have a chance to let people who are struggling and trying to do some of the same things they’re doing. They can follow their example as a way to sort of make it through but also as a way of speaking to those people who are adults who are serving these students to get that sort of real time feedback from them on things that are working for them things that need to be shifted and changed.

Steven Cleveland 9:17
And so the black excellence project is a media project that features 30 stories of Black Alumni, who have succeeded who were successful in graduating. And it allows them spaces to share those ways in which they made it through highlighting the good stuff that worked for them and highlighting the challenges that they face.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 9:39
I love that I love celebrating the victories as an inspiration for other students but as you say, also feedback to the professors to the institution. Hey guys, this made all the difference or this was really a roadblock help us out here. So I think it definitely has multiple roles. That’s powerful.

Steven Cleveland 9:59
No, it is and It’s awesome for me to be able to do the pilot at Cal State East Bay, which is my home school. And the vision is that it’s not something that’s one size fits all. So we get some great messages back that are really specific to the institution. So the vision of the black actions, LLC is to provide the services for other institutions, both high school, as well as colleges that are looking to hear from their students, and hear from our students in a way that’s not passive. That is really invites them to be a part of developing solutions that can lead to the results that we all hope for, because no institution wants to not graduate, not retain students.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 10:43

Steven Cleveland 10:44
so So this, this is allows us a bridge towards where we want to go by listening to the people who we’re trying to serve. And I’m really excited to be a part of uplifting these black voices at my institution, and hopefully have an opportunity to do this in other places around the country.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 11:03
Absolutely. So a lot of our listeners won’t see any visuals. But in the background, you have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And you and I, in a previous call, you had talked about his old school love. And that is like the best four letter word out there. unpack that just a little bit, because I it made me happy when you mentioned it last time.

Steven Cleveland 11:29
No, I It’s one of the things that I am very much wrapped in now is understanding the love that he talked about that I don’t think I necessarily got when I was younger, I think a lot of younger folks feel more connected. If you look into Malcolm versus Martin, you’re more connected with the idea of revolutionary standing up to the task. Whoa. And it to me, I think as I get older, I see the power of seeing people that are not getting it right people who are standing in opposition, people who are standing with systemic racism, and sometimes our systemic stopping intersection from being able to fully move from the margins into the center.

Steven Cleveland 12:11
And it’s easy to be mad at them and to villainize them. And I think we are in a moment right now, where off times we end up hating as a way of coping with the challenges that faces how they’re different from us, they’re too liberal, they’re too conservative. And I love really moves you leading with love leading with love moves you to offer grace to people, right, as opposed to operating in a space where people are, they live up to these certain parameters, they have these certain values, and if they don’t have them, and it doesn’t work for me, but leading with love offers a bridge for folks.

Steven Cleveland 12:50
And it offers grace to folks because I think if you extend grace, then you put yourself in a position to receive grace and and that’s something that that studying MLK is really got me too. And so I was like, man, it’s really hard for people to hate you when you love them. Like it really is hard. I mean, some people can do it. Some people have the fortitude to make it, stick with their hate no matter what. But I think the idea of seeing those common grounds and even, you know, I remember as a as a kid growing up in South, I’m born in Birmingham, Alabama, and being with people who were openly racist, right?

Steven Cleveland 13:27
And so, and being able to understand and love that right to say like, oh, okay, you really love white people. That’s cool. Like, you know, you love what your contributions are to this community, I can understand that idea, like, in the same way that I unapologetically love black folks, and I love the culture and to be a part of it. It’s something I’m proud and excited to be a part of. And it really was off putting for them when they couldn’t get me to be mad at them loving themselves. I was like, I’m not mad at you. I was like, you know, as long as you’re not, you know, attacking me physically.

Steven Cleveland 13:57
I think that we all have to allow people the grace and then the freedom to sort of be what they are to be comfortable where they are. And as long as it’s not, you know that freedom is not in intersecting with my liberty, then we’re good, we’re good. And I think, I don’t know, it’s just it used to be that we had leadership that lead with love, and it was all about trying to find that middle ground. And now I feel that we are submitted into the sidelines now and applying that to education. I think that oftentimes people feel like they either have to go along with the status quo, or they have to fight against the system.

Steven Cleveland 14:33
And I think the revolutionary approach to transcendent apologists and like, I don’t have to accept the way things are structured but also don’t want to spend my energy fighting against it. I really want to just dream, this dream of what education can be. And things like the black excellence project, to me is an example of ways to sort of move it beyond those models and saying like, Oh, I know it’s tough for black students. Yeah, but that’s not tell those stories.

Steven Cleveland 14:58
That’s when I look at what is the look like, and can we get to success, either through the metrics of what the status quo is, doesn’t allow us to? Or do we need to blow it up and do something totally different. But I don’t want to fight like, I don’t want to fight it. I think that fighting is wasted energy. Hate is wasted energy. Love. That positive energy is like, I love that we disagree. So but I don’t you’re not an evil person. We just disagree. Let’s figure out how we can do this together. So that’s, that’s the energy I like living in.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:30
Oh, my gosh, it feels good. It feels good through the internet. I completely agree. Thank you.

Steven Cleveland 15:38
It’s aspirational? Yes, not every day, some days I wake up, and it’s not set, meditator, whatever tool you use to get back to that center. But yeah, I mean, it’s really the philosophy being there, as in the background, that clarity, that many examples of, you know, really leading with love, which is not, you know, not being you’re still strong and clear about what you stand for. But you realize that, like, you know, I evolve on things, there’s some positions that I’ve taken in my life that I’m like, Man, I can’t believe I thought that when I was younger, right, I have that experience. And so, you know, just offering that grace.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:19
Exactly. And knowing that we’re works in progress. Definitely. So I know also, when we talked before, that you another aspiration is a collaborative future. What are you envisioning?

Steven Cleveland 16:37
Well, I think that the vision of tomorrow is, it’s a fool’s errand to think that you’re going to be able to get there alone, right. And I think that they will share this world. And oftentimes, we have far more in common with our neighbors, than we have pieces apart. And so one of the things that I think I’ve been able to develop is the ability to choose where I look, right. And so my mom used to always say, you can always choose joy, and I thought she was like, crazy.

Steven Cleveland 17:09
I was like, What are you talking about? Lady, you can always choose joy. Sometimes somebody stepped on your toe. And then you can get like, examples in my head. And I’m saying every now. And now I see what she is saying. I’m saying that like, yes, challenges exist. And you can focus your energy on those challenges. Or you can look in areas where you can forward an idea of finding those places you can move forward collaboratively, and particularly with people who you may live, you may feel in opposition to that thing is powerful.

Steven Cleveland 17:40
One of the things I loved about my experience of living in Alabama is I I’ve met a lot of Republicans who I agreed with, like, especially on things like education, like they’re like, look, I don’t like the public education system. I feel like we throw a lot of money at it, it doesn’t have good results. But they’re like, if you got to get program, you come to me, I’ll cut you a check. And I mean, I’ve found a lot of success in funding programs I was doing with people who I thought were different from me.

Steven Cleveland 18:07
But I found the commonality was they believed in what I was doing, and different senses of what public education I love them fan of public education. So I was like, Okay, I got it. I disagree with you on that. But we found agreement on certain approaches. And I think that is the power of collaboration, the ability to get there. And that really does require love, love allows you to get there as opposed to, again, looking at the places where you disagree on focusing on those places where you can come together and then running at it running at it.

Steven Cleveland 18:41
And then that’s the energy I want to spend like I don’t want to spend my energy in opposition of this my energy and collaboration.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:49
I agree. Yep, life is too short. I would love to just shift the gears a bit and learn a little bit more about the person behind this black excellence project. And just ask you some turbo time questions.

Steven Cleveland 19:09

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:10
My first question, what’s the last book you read?

Steven Cleveland 19:14
Ah, I love that. So The Dream Begins, I think it’s called it’s how Hawaii shaped rock Obama. And it was a book I was reading for a project I’m working on. That’s looking at Mr. Kay’s 1959 trip by he. And I wanted to learn more about the black experience in Hawaii. And it’s very, very interesting insights to why Barack Obama was uniquely set up to be the first black president based off of his experience in Hawaii.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:45
Wow, I’ll definitely put this in the show notes. How about two inspirational folks you’d love to meet?

Steven Cleveland 19:52
I’ll put the rock on the list. Oh, yeah. And I’d say Will Smith analysis because of the IRS. Both of them have really large years and thing that I love them both because they articulate dreaming. They both are dreamers and and have been able to be successful in their separate worlds because of that ability to dream. So those are two.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:20
nice. How about a TED Talk that inspires you?

Steven Cleveland 20:25
So I love this one. I don’t know if a lot of people seen it. There’s a California, California has a surgeon general. And it’s, they been Burke Harris and she did a TED Talk. Looking at childhood trauma, it was really impactful for me in terms of understanding some of the intersections that face our children, when they show up things that folks don’t think about, that students are dealing with as educators.

Steven Cleveland 20:50
And I really found that it’s, it was really exciting to see that presented. Because I think that’s something that a lot of teachers could benefit from, because I don’t think I don’t think that we understand sometimes how crazy the worlds are students are coming from.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:06
Exactly. I completely agree. And we think Well, that happened when they were three, come on, they’re in high school, how can that be impacting our high school attendance rate? It’s like, hello, I agree. I have to look at that. I always want to learn more about that. What about the biggest thing you wish folks knew about envisioning the future?

Steven Cleveland 21:27
It’s okay to dream. I think a lot of people get so stuck in like what’s practical, that they sometimes forget to dream and so don’t be so tied to the way things are, that you can dream about the way they could be?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:43
Yes, yes. And a passion that you bring to the black excellence project.

Steven Cleveland 21:49
Well, I really passionately, unapologetically love Black people. And that’s something that I like, interesting thing. You know, sometimes people are embarrassed to say, because again, like, when you hear the word Black Lives Matter, people are like, Oh, that exclusive. It’s like, No, I I love people mystically. But it is something that super, you know, drives me in terms of the work that I do in terms of the purpose that I have. And so being a black studies professor being a, you know, Humanities expert, who uses film as his tool, I really love telling stories about black folks, empowering black folks and letting people know about what we have to contribute to society.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:29
Yes. And how would you recommend others become activists to transform some of these outdated systems and, and update and improve our education system specifically,

Steven Cleveland 22:41
I think the thing that I think of is the importance of not accepting the status quo, but also not getting stuck in opposition. It’s that balance between that this idea of being a transformative thinker, it means that you can’t get stuck in a cat status quo and between those blocks, but you also can’t be like, oh, I want to fight that. That sucks.

Steven Cleveland 23:06
Like, no, instead of connected that leading with love energy, which is about dreaming about possibility, looking for collaboration, sometimes it doesn’t fit the status quo, sometimes, you know, you don’t want to be in opposition, because you oftentimes alienate people if you’re in opposition and something that they hold firmly. So just finding those those those places you can sort of dream that are not locked.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:31
Yes, yes. And what’s something about you that most folks don’t know, Steven,

Steven Cleveland 23:38
I share this only because I’m very, very much. You know, I’m a California guy. I was brought up here, but I’m born in Birmingham, Alabama, at the same hospital that my mom and my dad were born into. And I have over three family members who live in Birmingham, Alabama. So when I go back, it’s like home home home. So that’s Wow, that’s the place.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:00
I love it. I like to close with a magic wand moment. So if you had a magic wand, and could transform the black student college experience, I mean, that’s a place you’ve really focused on. What would you do with that magic wand?

Steven Cleveland 24:25
I just really love the idea of making students feel centered. It’s something that is hard to understand. If you’re in a group that center right, just like books written by people who look like you to hear lectures about things that you’ve lived through, to see people that look like you not only as students but also as staff and faculty, and higher levels of the administration to be able to just feel like You are regular and being you as regular.

Steven Cleveland 25:03
So you don’t have to focus on your blackness as a key to the experience instead of you just be able to be you that full, you have all the intersections that bring together who you are. And that’s really what I would love, love love to see that for Black Legion experience for folks to be able to get out of that opposition to get out of like, Oh, I got to either be the status quo when I don’t want to be seen or heard, or to be in opposition, like I am the different one, I’m the one who’s marginalized.

Steven Cleveland 25:32
But instead of just just being an average person and be able to focus on whatever thing makes you happy, whether it’s nerding out in chemistry, or writing a poem in your theater class, whatever, it really makes you joyful and satisfied. Because I think when we do that, then we’re able to get the best of people and people are not spending all that energy, fighting on margins or living and embracing the margins, but instead they’re able to just focus on their gifts.

Steven Cleveland 26:04
That is when absolute brilliance come about, and we see new discoveries, we see new pathways, all that concept of freedom to be you.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:14
Yes, completely agree. Wow. Well, Steven, the professor Cleveland, thank you so much for being our guest today on Education Evolution,

Steven Cleveland 26:26
its a pleasure as Time flew past during that conversation and hopefully it’s not the last time

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:35

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:45
Wow, Steven has such positive energy. I feel happier just having been in an interview with him. Parents, I hope you heard him talk about how transformative the power of parents can be. And the important lesson his mom modeled that the status quo is movable. Do not stop pushing for what your child deserves for an optimal learning experience. I appreciate how Steven unpacked critical race theory and his reminder that equality is not the same as equity. The example of portion sizes clicked.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:30
It reminds us that we don’t want equal and identical for everybody. We want equality. We know this as parents, we don’t treat each child of ours identically, but we strive for equal love and opportunities. The same is true for creating equality along the lines of race and privilege. Stevens black excellent project focuses on the positive. This reminds me of my interview with Neil Phillips. Both talked about the importance of hearing success stories about people who are like we are check out episode 57 On hearing untold stories for change.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 28:14
Following Martin Luther King Junior’s leading with love. Yes, please. It’s time to wrap ourselves in love and stop villainizing and hating. Let’s be a force that extends this grace and makes it possible for us to receive more grace to I agree with Stephen, we can find that common ground. Looking at dualities and finding what we have in common was a powerful conversation I had in Episode 61 with Lindsey burr on polarity thinking. So let’s choose where we look so that we can move forward collaboratively. I can’t wait to watch the TED Talk that Steven recommends.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 29:00
There’s so much more for us to understand about trauma informed learning. The last college professor I had as a podcast guest, Heather Batchelor had created a focus on trauma for her teacher education graduate program in Utah. Be sure to check out episode 44 on learning about trauma informed education to learn more. And Stephens magic wand moment. Yes, let’s make students feel centered. We can do this. If we make sure that books, lectures, teachers, peers, administrators look like our students.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 29:41
Let’s let our kids feel regular and not different. From that place, they can focus on what they enjoy and using their gifts. So this means we need more people of color and differently abled people and rainbows of people pull in all positions in schools, we can do this. Thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 30:16
If you are finding yourself thinking, I need to do this in my school, let’s talk about it. I consult and also have a book, TEDx talk an online course to support starting learner driven schools and programs. My goal is to help schools and individuals find new innovative solutions to reaching every student. Let’s create an action plan together, visit to book a call and let’s get started.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 30:53
Education Evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now. Before you forget. I really appreciate it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 31:24
Thank you listeners. Signing off. This is Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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