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A toolbox of processes for community work

For more resources for communities,
see the co-intelligence community page

Below is a list (still in progress) of processes that can increase the capacity of communities to respond intelligently to the changing environment around them, including crises. Most of these processes are on the leading edge of organizational development, group work and community organizing. These were chosen because guidance -- written material, expertise, training, or replicable models -- exists for each of these methods, for people who wish to put them into practice. Most of these methods are quite simple (although not always EASY) to do, and are therefore good grassroots tools. This also makes them easier to communicate and implement in cases where they are being initiated from the top down. Ones that require the most expertise are often the least described here, but have references to guidance resources. Some of the simpler forms are described at length.

The impact of many of these processes can be greatly broadened and deepened by a number of factors, three of which I've listed here:

a) Servant Leadership. Often the initiative for processes such as these in communties comes from the bottom, the grassroots. In such instances, while the benefits for those involved tends to be great, participation tends to be limited to relatively small groups, resulting in minimal benefits for the community or society as a whole. On the other hand, where there is active cooperation or initiative by the government and media -- promoting the activity, reaching out to seldom-engaged populations, providing space and other resources, reporting on what happened, encouraging follow-up, etc. -- there is a dramatic improvement in community expectations, community participation, and community follow-up (both further dialogue and deliberation, and actual actions taken by citizens and officials). Another dimension of servant leadership that we should keep in mind, especially when the initiative comes from the top -- is that these processes must serve to empower -- rather than to control -- the participants and their community. Otherwise they will fail or backfire.

b) Regularity - A good process done continually or at periodic intervals over time has a tendency to generate positive effects far beyond its use in a single event. It becomes part of the culture of those using it, weaving itself into their assumptions, interactions, and expectations. A familiar example is voting. A one-time election for a leader would be better than no election for a leader. But when a society has elections every 2-4 years, that nurtures the idea that the leaders are answerable to the electorate. (Even when, as happens in our society, powerholders find loopholes in the electoral system that reduce the ACTUAL power of citizens. There remains the ASSUMPTION that the citizenry SHOULD be powerful, that something is wrong and needs to be corrected.) Furthermore, people become habituated to elections and use this method in other areas of their lives, such as their voluntary associations (clubs, community groups, etc.). In the vast majority of cases below, a group, community or society would benefit greatly by practicing the method regularly and incorporating it into the normal rhythms of their collective life. By using them as an event, we empower individuals and groups. By using them as a process, we empower whole communities and societies.

c) Complementarity - Each one of these processes has a power of its own. Those who advocate it tend to focus on that power. Far rarer are those who see opportunities to use such processes together in some synergistic way. To return to our previous example: voting is powerful and so is a free press. Either COULD exist without the other. Their combination is FAR more powerful (and empowering) than either of them could be without the other. Hopefully at least some community leaders will recognize this and weave a number of the tools below into patterns that will enhance the overall efficacy of each one. (For one vision of how one might integrate some of these approaches, see "Designing Multi-Process Public Participation Programs" by Tom Atlee.)

And if anyone should combine servant leadership, regularity and complementarity into a community involvement program using a number of these tools, they will have transformed the system in which they operate -- moving into a form of democracy never seen before.

(Note: For issues and criteria related to public participation,
Principles of Public Participation.)

I have sorted these methods into a number of categories, depending on what each process is particularly good for:

For public education

I don't have any leading edge processes for this, which includes PSAs, outreach to existing community groups, creation of videos, all varieties of media, internet services, parades, fairs, conferences, essay contests, fliers, door hangers, etc., with which most PR people or media activists know about. I include it because it is very important, it is what people think of first, and it should be part of any integrated program.

And now for the more unusual approaches.

For national, state or large community
citizen deliberation and policy guidance

1 ) Citizen Deliberative Councils - A random or demographically representative group of 12-24 citizens convened to study an issue (sometimes questioning expert witnesses) and produce policy recommendations. They are usually professionally facilitated to a consensus statement that is formally presented to media and/or officials. Details are not given here, as they require more complex knowledge than can be included in this context, but this approach is one of the most powerful methods of democratic wisdom-generation I've run across. Variations for which instructions, expertise or replicable models exist include the following (for a fuller list see Citizen Deliberative Councils):

a) Danish consensus conference (organized and tracked in the US by the Loka Institute)
b) Wisdom Councils envisioned by consultant Jim Rough
c) Citizen juries (organized by the Jefferson Center)

For community self-organization

2 ) Open Space Technology - A self-organized conference about a topic about which all attendees have passion. After an initial briefing, attendees create workshops, discussion groups or task groups according to their interests. Attendees are encouraged to let go of outcomes, welcome the unexpected, and move around to find sessions where they can actively learn or contribute.

This method allows otherwise hidden issues to emerge and get dealt with, and ensures that any topic raised will have someone to deal with it. It is not the best method for relaying information or controlling outcomes. But for involvement, shared exploration and community self-organization it has few peers. For example, it is tantalizing to imagine what would happen if a town chose an issue of major longterm citizen concern and organized an ongoing open space conference about it, with the sessions well advertised in the media each day. Citizens could come wrestle with new issues as they arose, while making progress on ongoing issues.

Open Space can be done AFTER information dissemination activities. For example, you could have morning presentations by experts, followed by an afternoon of open space sessions. When time is short, one can try a modified open space process: a certain number of rooms/spaces are made available for sessions and anyone who wants to hold one announces it and makes a sign on which they stick a space-assignment post-it note. Then they post their sign on a wall as the next person announces THEIR session, etc., until all the rooms/spaces are filled or there are no more proposed sessions.

In another powerful, simple variation created by Doug Carmichael for crisis situations, a facilitator helps the group make a list of crisis-related community issues and then makes those into breakout sessions, asking for a volunteer to convene each one. The two tasks of each session are to get contact information on everyone who comes and to schedule a time when they can meet again. Those meetings are then announced in the local paper. In short order, the session convenors become leaders of community preparedness task forces.

3 ) Multi-sector collaborations - people from government, business, civic groups, non-profits, the media, utilities, religious institutions, and so on, come together to work on a shared problem. Two specific forms are:

a) Future Search Conference - a gathering of 30-64 stakeholders -- a cross-section of the community plus a few important outsiders -- who explore and record their shared past and the forces at work in their collective lives, and then imagine desirable futures and how to get there. Differences are acknowledged and set aside, and work groups formed.

b) Generative Dialogic Change - Multistakeholder generative dialogic change processes--deep conversations among all relevant system actors--develop a greater level of understanding and awareness about the problem and each actor's role in a larger system of interactions. System actors are then able to generate new alliances, collaborations, and solutions that go beyond traditional approaches.

4 ) Listening Projects - Citizens go door to door asking significant, open-ended, engaging questions about an issue that concerns them and accepting whatever the person says. It might look like a poll, but the object is consciousness raising, relationship-building, and engagement -- not public opinion monitoring. A peace group doing a listening project started their interviews by asking people what was wrong with their brochure about a local navy installation, noting that their promo hadn't been working very well. Respondents gave suggestions and, at the same time, learned about the naval yard. Some spoke very passionately about what they learned and were invited to get involved; some even became local organizers. The main developers of listening projects -- Rural Southern Voice for Peace -- caution that the best results come with training (which they offer).

5 ) Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) - Citizens can discover, map and mobilize assets hidden away in all the folks who live in their community, as well as in associations and formal institutions, and bring those resources them out of the closet and into creative synergy with each other, with dramatic results. Asset-based community development has provided leaders and institutions in all sectors with an approach that is relatively cheap, effective and empowering, and that avoids paternalism and dependence -- an approach that can be supported by all parts of the political spectrum and initiated at any level of civic life. John L. McKnight, co-author of Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets, is adamant about not putting attention on the community's needs, deficiencies and problems since it strengthens them and leads people to see themselves and others as clients or victims rather than as assets. However, in preparing for neighborhood collaborations or crises, you may want to map, as well, where people with specific problems (e.g., disabilities) live, so that neighbors can help them prepare and cope -- without overlooking the gifts that those "needy people" have to offer, as well..

For group/community reflection and "issue exploration"

(see also Open Space, above)

6 ) Listening circles (a.k.a., talking circles, council, wisdom circles, etc.) - A process originally borrowed from tribal council circles, which now appears in many forms. Participants' communication is mediated by a held object, often (but not necessarily) one with some special significance to the participants. An aesthetic hand-sized stick or stone works well. In the simplest versions, the circle's convenor holds the object, welcomes people, makes some brief remarks about the process and spirit of the circle, and then makes his or her personal statement. He or she then passes the object to the person on their left who speaks (or can remain silent for a few moments), and then passes the object on to the next person (on THEIR left) -- and the object proceeds around the circle, with each person who holds the object speaking while the others listen. The object can travel around the circle many times with great benefit. Unlike ordinary conversations, there is no cross-talk or discussion, per se. In the most fruitful circles, all present "speak the truth from their hearts," briefly and deeply sharing what they think and feel. There is no way to command this quality of participation, of course, but participants can agree on the spirit what they're trying to do, the convenor can model a certain way of being, and the circle process, itself, often invokes a reflective spirit.

There are many variations, among them:

  • The circle can have an explicit theme, or not.
  • Turns can be timed, or not. Timing can be done by the convenor, or by passing a watch or clock right behind the stick or stone, so that the person who just spoke times the next speaker.
  • "Popcorn" - Anyone can speak, but no one can speak twice until everyone has spoken once. Between turns the object is placed into the middle or is handed to whomever wants to speak next.
  • Scrip circles - Each person gets several special slips of paper (or pebbles or poker chips), each representing an amount of time (usually 30 or 60 seconds). When they wish to speak, they "buy time" for their turn (putting some of their "scrip" in a hat that is passed to them) -- or they can give some or all of their scrip to someone else to use, at any time. This process generates lively group dynamics and contains the total speaking time.
  • Some groups enjoy opening rituals, such as placing something (a candle, personally meaningful objects, etc.) in the middle of their circle to symbolize a shared center. In these groups, closing rituals usually involve putting the candle out, removing the center-objects, and/or holding hands in the circle.
  • Impromptu circles can be done by two or more people whenever they need or want, using whatever's handy (such as a stapler or salt shaker) as an object to pass around.


7 ) Dialogue is shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility. Many forms of communication fit this definition. And many forms don't, including arguments, posturing, holding forth, defensiveness, bantering discussions and other forms of communication where we don't discover anything new or connect with each other.

Dialogue's spirit of exploration is useful when we want to understand something or someone better. Dialogue is often needed to reach sufficient shared understanding to come to a decision together. However, in decision-making situations, dialogue (inquiry) often needs to be balanced with getting things nailed down in due time. Many grassroots groups develop strong disagreements over this, and it is wise to create separate opportunities for both the exploratory and the get-it-done energies to dominate.

Here are some basic guidelines for dialogue which can be discussed and agreed to by a group and posted around a room to remind participants:

  • We talk about what's really important to us - but we also like to have fun together.
  • We avoid monopolizing the conversation. We don't talk overly long and we make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
  • We really listen to each other. We see how thoroughly we can understand each other's views and experience.
  • We respect ourselves and each other, making space for our differences. We say what's true for us without making each other wrong.
  • We try not to get stuck in old thoughts and feelings. We see what we can learn by being curious and exploring things together.

8 ) The World Cafe is a process in which a large group can have the intimacy and engagement of small group dialogue without losing the broader understandings and connection possible in the full group. It evolved out of conversations and experimentation one evening at the home of consultants Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, with their friend Nancy Margulies.

A World Cafe is set up with space for groups of 4-8 people to sit in circles, preferably around circular tables (although you can do it with no tables at all) and ideally with flowers, candles, paper tablecloths and marking pens (for writing notes on the tablecloth).

A host/hostess welcomes participants and tells them (or reminds them of) the topic -- a question worth asking or statement worth exploring -- something of real interest to those present. He or she explains that after a set period of time (usually 30-45 minutes) people will be asked to bring the conversation to a close and move to new tables. S/he encourages them to record on the tablecloth (or note paper) any ideas, insights or questions that emerge.

When the first round is up, the host/hostess rings a bell or chime and says, "Each table should decide who will be its host or hostess. That person will remain at the table for the whole session. In a minute I will ask the rest of you to get up and move to different tables. When everyone is seated in their new places, then the home table host or hostess can welcome the new people and share with them key ideas and questions that emerged from their table's earlier discussion. Then the others can share what occurred at their original tables."

At the end of the second round, the presiding hostess/host asks everyone to return to their home tables to compare notes with their original companions. At the end of this third round most people in the room will have heard the ideas generated by the others in the Cafe.

In longer Cafe's, people can just keep moving from table to table.

Two variants derived from World Cafe are (a) Conversation Cafes which are easy-to-organize and facilitate small group dialogues in regular community venues like cafes and (b) Commons Cafes in which four distinctly different populations are brought together at tables of four to learn about each other's lives.

9 ) Study Circles are voluntary, self-organizing adult education groups of 5-20 people who meet three to six times to explore a subject, often a critical social issue. Each meeting commonly lasts 2-3 hours and is directed by a moderator whose role is to aid a lively but focused dialogue. Between meetings participants read materials they were given at the end of the last meeting. These materials are used as springboards for dialogue (see 7 above), not as authoritative conclusions. The materials are usually compiled by the sponsor or organizer of the particular study circle; but groups who want to form a study circle on a particular topic can create their own materials or get ready-to-use packs from organizations like Everyday Democracy (formerly The Study Circle Resource Center).

By encouraging people to formulate their own ideas about issues and to share them with others, the study circle process helps overcome people's lack of information and feelings of inadequacy in the face of complex problems. They can be sponsored by civic organizations, activists, businesses, unions, churches, discussion groups and governments

10 ) Scenario and Visioning Work - diverse ways of a group or community exploring possible and desirable futures together.

For group decision-making

11 )   Holistic Management Allan Savory's step by step process for holistic decision-making.

12 ). Consensus (including color-coded straw polls) (distinguish from unanimity)

13 ). Supermajority (66%, 75%, 80%)

For conflict work / exploration of differences

See also Open Space and Commons Cafe, above

14 ). Dynamic dialogue - People moving through polarized emotional stances about possible crises, to a place of working together on shared possibilities.

15 ). Widening Circles exercise (Joanna Macy) - People expanding their perspective from their own to others very different from themselves, to other species, to the voice of the future.

16 ). Process Worldwork (Arny Mindell) - A gathering that calls forth the archetypal voices in groups that occupy a tense community, conflict, or situation to confront and speak their truth to each other, ultimately shifting the emotional energy in the collective field they share.

17 ) Conflict Styles Coaching - A coach works with one or more individuals in a conflict to explore their usual conflict style -- accommodate, avoid, collaborate, compete, and compromise -- and reflect on what style they want to use in the current conflict.

18 ) Dynamic Facilitation - This process follows the group energy, hearing each energized person in turn, making sure they feel well heard (including at an emotional level) and adding their perspective into the growing collective pot. As people feel heard, they open up to hearing others. As most people feel heard, they begin to think together about the growing complexity in the collective pot. At which point breakthroughs start to occur....

19 ) Fishbowl - People from one perspective sit and talk in the middle while all others watch and listen. And then people from another/opposed perspective sit and talk in the middle while everyone else watches and listens. If there are more than two significant perspectives, the process continues until all perspectives have been heard. Then it starts over again, with the conversations now influenced by what they've heard from the other perspectives.

20 ) Transformative Mediation - This is not so much about resolving the conflict as transforming the parties, relationships and issues involved.

21 ) Mediated Dialogue - Search for Common Ground gets people on opposite sides of a polarized issue to debate each other -- but with a twist: Before Party B can reply to Party A, they have to summarize what Party A said to Party A's satisfaction -- and vice versa. The intention is not to "win the debate" but to clarify what the actual differences are between the parties and explore what any common ground. Usually, they discover they share a lot more than they thought -- and sometimes come up with projects to do together!

22 ) Nonviolent Communication - Delve down below behaviors into the underlying emotions, then into the underlying needs (unmet, met) and then see what else might serve those deep needs.

23 ) Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) -- This covers a range of options used by the legal system outside of usual governmental judicial processes. It usually includes negotiation (in which parties seek to find a solution together), mediation (in which parties try to resolve the conflict with the help of a mediator), collaborative law (in which the parties and their lawyers work out a resolution contract), and arbitration (where parties agree ahead of time to abide by an imposed solution).

For emotional processing/sharing

(see also Listening Circles and Nonviolent Communication, above)

24 ) Re-evaluation Co-Counseling - a process through which people in pairs take turns listening to each other's distress, helping them release trapped emotional energy, so that they become freer to see clearly how to deal with their lives and recover their natural joy and resilience.

25 ) Open sentences practice - Joanna Macy - Facing difficult public issues or crises together by each of us completing three simple sentences.

26) Despair and Empowerment work - Denial comes from caring and feeling powerless to take effective action. We can work together down through our denial to our caring, and then using that passion to take effective action together.

27 ) Story sharing - We find no page that describes this in generic terms, but sharing stories and personal experiences around a problem (as is done in Alcoholics Anonymous), a trauma (as is done in support groups), a conflict (as is done in the Public Conversations Project), a social dynamic (as is done in feminist consciousness raising circles), or in drama (as in multiple viewpoint drama) is a very common and powerful way of connecting people at the heart level and broadening their sense of how different experiences generate different responses to issues and situations.

Meeting techniques

(see also Dynamic Facilitation, Listening Circle and Scrip Circle, above)

28 ) Reverse agenda - List the whole agenda and then read the items to people, asking them to "raise your hand if you can end this meeting without handling this item." The items with the lowest numbers are the highest priority items.

29 ) Brainstorming

30 ) PMI - positive (plus), negative (minus), and interesting (deBono)

31 ) Chime and stone

32 ) Gestures of Conversational Presence

33 ) Commitment chunks - People commit to 3-10 meetings and then review how that was for them and decide if and how long to commit for further meetings.

34 ) Facilitation technique resources and guidance

Community resilience and sustainability resources

See also Asset Based Community Development and Wisdom Council, above

35 ) Learning for Sustainability - guidance for sustainable development and collective learning at the leading edge of the mainstream.

36 ) Appropedia - an alternative wikipedia on sustainable solutions to community and global challenges

37 ) New Rules Project of the Institute for Self-Reliance - a growing storehouse of community and local economy-building rules - laws, regulations, and ordinances

38 ) The Community Solution - down-to-earth solutions to support local resilience in a future increasingly defined by peak oil, climate change, and shaky economies and infrastructure

39 ) Permaculture - a coherent theory and practice of sustainability in all areas, at all levels, starting with the garden

40 ) Local and complementary currencies - guidance and examples of local currencies that keep economic energy within the local community

41 ) Worldchanging - a blog of alternative approaches and sustainability initiatives of all types

See also

Approaches to Community Engagement and the Generation of Community Wisdom

Co-Intelligent Practices, Approaches, Processes and Organizations

Designing Multi-Process Programs for Public Participation

Community Co-Intelligence




  • Creating Community Anywhere by Carolyn Shaffer and Kristin Anundsen (Tarcher/Perigree, 1993). "The most comprehensive book I know of about the community movement." -- M. Scott Peck. Building community with friends, family, support groups, neighborhoods, co-workers, cyber-companions, shared households and visionary communities. Excellent guidance on conflict, decision-making, celebrations, communication and dealing with community evolution and "shadow side."
  • The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (Doubleday Currency, 1990). This book introduced the world to the idea of an organization that can learn. It was followed by the The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Senge, et. al. (Doubleday Currency, 1994), jam-packed with strategies, tools and exercises to help us build such organizations.
  • Future Search by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff (Berrett-Koehler, 1995). A how-to book for finding common ground and co-creating the future of organizations and communities.
  • Complexity by M. Waldrop (Simon & Schuster, 1992). This book opened my eyes to the way nature generates totally new phenomena through the co-evolution of complex synergies.
  • Democracy and Technology by Richard Sclove (Guildford, 1995). Shows how technologies support and undermine democracy, and asks: "What role should democracy have in the development of technology?"
  • The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken (HarperBusiness, 1993). How an economy world work that fully collaborated with nature.
  • Shifting by Paul Krapfel ($12.50 from 18080 Brincat Manor Dr., Cottonwood, CA 96022). Engaging examples of nature dancing entropy into life, and how we humans can join that dance. His updated, nicer, more expensive version is Seeing Nature: Deliberate encounters with the visible world (Chelsea Green, 1999) which is available from bookstores.
  • Who Do You Think You Are? by Keith Harary and Eileen Donahue. (HarperSF, 1994). How to use The Berkeley Personality Profile, which explores human differences without "typing" people.
  • The Three Faces of Mind by Elaine de Beauport (Quest, 1996). An integrated theory of multi-modal intelligence based on the functions of the three parts of the human brain.
  • Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner (Basic Books, 1993). The first fully-researched theory of multiple intelligences that opened the door to expanded views of intelligence.
  • Open Space Technology by Harrison Owen (Berrett-Koehler, 1997). The how-to manual for one of the simplest, most powerful self-organized collective processes we have.
  • Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al. (New Society, 1996). A brilliant, very understandable guide to facilitated consensus process, organized so that pieces can be copied and used by the group.
  • Dialogue: Rediscovering the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard (J. Wiley and Sons, 1998).
  • The Joy of Conversation by Jaida N'ha Sandra (Utne, 1997). The Utne Reader-sponsored guide to co-creative salons of all types. Excellent writeups on study circles, listening circles, etc.
  • Study Circles by Len Oliver (Seven Locks, 1987). The history and practice of small-group, democratic, adult education and social learning.
  • The Quickening of America by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois (Jossey-Bass, 1994). Powerful examples and new theory about how Americans are "doing democracy."
  • The Leader as Martial Artist by Arnold Mindell (HarperSF, 1992). The Aikido of conflict resolution, relationship and change.
  • The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson (Tarcher,1980). The book on the holistic "new paradigm" revolution which laid the groundwork for co-intelligence.
  • Necessary Wisdom by Charles Johnston (ICD Press, POB 85631, Seattle, WA 98145; 1991). The dance of opposites into creative co-evolution; building living bridges between us, where we come alive together.
  • Confessions of Empowering Organizations. by Redburn, Ray, et al. (Association for Quality and Participation, 1991). 92 case studies of partnership and empowerment, self-managed work crews, self-directed reorganizations -- with names and phone numbers.
  • Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley (Berrett-Koelher, 1992). How to relate to organizations as natural systems.
  • Transforming Human Culture by Jay Earley (SUNY, 1997). Tracking the evolution of integral culture from prehistory into the 21st Century.
  • Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and Willima Ury (Penguin, 1981). The classic introduction to principled negotiation. (See review of Roger Fisher's books by Rowan Smith and William Ury's GETTING TO PEACE.)
  • Reworking Success by Robert Theobald (New Society, 1997). An accessible re-examination of how to make communities and societies work better in the 21st Century.
  • Heart Politics by Fran Peavey (New Society, 1986). One of the most creative inquiries into what it means to live a life trying to change things for the better, sensitive to the interconnectedness, mystery, beauty and quirkiness of life.
  • Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets by John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight (Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, 1993; $15 from ACTA Publications [800] 397-2282)
  • The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society by Amitai Etzioni (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1993). The kick-off of the communitarian movement.
  • The Power in our Hands: Neighborhood-Based World Shaking by Tony Gibson (Jon Carpenter, UK,1996). How-tos and stories for those who want to make a creative difference in their communities.
  • Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age by Michael H. Shuman (The Free Press, 1998). The title says it.
  • Self-Reliant Cities by David Morris (Sierra Club Books,1982). The classic visionary text on the relationships of American cities to energy. This and many other books on that topic can be found at
  • The Basketmaker: Helping People Create Communities of Opportunity, ed. by Michael Patterson, et. al. (available online). A fascinating mix of vision, inspiration, how-to's, references and stories, especially targetted for people working with disadvantaged communities, but powerfully useful to all of us.


See also


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