S3 E5: AIM’s DEI Council: Lessons Learned and Best Practices for Starting Your Own


Podcast May 3, 2023

Are you thinking about launching and leading a diversity, equity, and inclusion council in your workplace? This week, Pete Wright sits down with Reid Tomihara, Vasundhra Sangar, Gaetan Kashala, and HR expert Terry Cook as they share their personal stories, successes, and challenges in bringing diversity councils to today’s organizations, and the power these councils have to drive meaningful change.
Join us for a personal and engaging conversation about the realities of launching and leading a diversity, equity, and inclusion council in your workplace. Are you thinking about launching and leading a diversity, equity, and inclusion council in your workplace? This week, we’re going to help you do just that. Reid Tomihara, Vasundhra Sangar, Gaetan Kashala, and Terry Cook join Pete Wright to share their personal stories, successes, and challenges in bringing diversity councils to today’s organizations, and the power these councils have to drive meaningful change.
Tune in to discover the story behind the formation of AIM’s Diversity Council, how top-down approaches and grassroots initiatives can help build a dynamic council and the crucial role of HR in supporting diversity and inclusion. You’ll also hear about their challenges and their plans for the council. This episode is packed with actionable takeaways and recommendations to empower you to create a more inclusive workplace.
Links & Notes

Podcast Transcript: 

Pete Wright:
Welcome to Human Solutions, simplifying HR for people who love HR from AIM HR Solutions on TruStory FM. I’m Pete Wright.
Are you thinking about launching and leading a diversity, equity and inclusion council in your workplace? This week we’re going to help you do just that. I’m sitting down with Reid Tomihara, Vasundhra Sangar, Gaetan Kashala, and Terry Cook as they share their personal stories, successes and challenges in bringing diversity councils to today’s organizations and the power these councils have to drive meaningful change.
Hello everybody and welcome to the show. Our guests today come from across the ranks of Associated Industries of Massachusetts. A quick round table of introductions before we get started. Reid Tomihara serves as Chief of Staff and manages the Office of the President and CEO. Hi Reid.

Reid Tomihara:
Hi, Pete.

Pete Wright:
Vasundhra Sangar serves as AIM’s Vice President of Governmental Affairs. Vasundhra, hello.

Vasundhra Sangar:
Hi, Pete. Thanks for having us.

Pete Wright:
Excellent. And Gaetan Kashala serves as AIM’s Engagement Director. Hi Gaetan.

Gaetan Kashala:
Hey, Pete.

Pete Wright:
And Terry Cook serves as AIM HR Senior Vice President of Employer Services. Hi Terry.

Terry Cook:
Hi Pete.

Pete Wright:
Today on the show, our hope is that this panel is able to offer not just background and purpose for creating a diversity council in your own organization, but to give you the takeaways and recommendations to empower you to create a more inclusive workplace yourself.
To get us started, Reid, I’m going to turn to you. Why a diversity council? What role does this council serve in the organization and what does it actually do?

Reid Tomihara:
AIM’s DE&I journey started about five or six years ago, looking at the organization as a whole. The DE&I council sort of came out of that, started in, we had our first meeting in May of 2021, but the planning for it started probably about six months before that. John Regan, our president and CEO in collaboration with Juliette Mayers, our DE&I consultant for AIM, got together and wrote a charter for the AIM staff Diversity, Equity and Inclusion council. In doing so, they collaborated with senior leadership and senior staff about what it would look like. Vasundhra, Gaetan and myself were asked individually if we wanted to sort of share this staff council.
I think the goal and purpose of the council is really to create an inclusive workplace at AIM, but also to embrace the diversity at AIM as well for the staff members, as well as holding AIM accountable to the commitments it has made in the diversity, equity and inclusion space as an organization. So yeah, I think that’s how and why I think the diversity equity and inclusion council was started here at AIM.

Pete Wright:
We have this thing on this show. We have this fictitious manufacturing organization that we sometimes bring up, and it is as yet unbranded, unnamed, but boy does it have an awesome HR department. And one of the things we like to ask is in our fictitious manufacturing organization, what would the DE&I council serve? What purpose would it serve? What would it do day-to-day to help the organization?
And I don’t know, Reid, if you want to hand that question off to someone else on the panel, Gaetan or Vasundhra. I’m really curious, what does it look like to move this council into operations?

Reid Tomihara:
I could start, before passing it off to Gaetan or Vasundhra. I would just say that it really is a place for staff members of AIM to come together to talk about issues, news, current events, things that are happening in the diversity, equity, inclusion space, and actually to really explore parts of their identity that maybe are not critical to the work that we do every day on a daily basis for AIM. But if we want to bring out our full self to the workplace to be productive, to be effective, I think it provides a space for us to have honest conversations, as well as being a little bit vulnerable.

Pete Wright:
Well, this might be a great opportunity to transition to Gaetan and Vasundhra and talk about just sort of best practices that go into building a diversity council. And maybe this is the segue. In terms of what the council does every day, how do you build the council to achieve those goals?

Vasundhra Sangar:
I think I can piggyback right off of Reid’s most recent statement. So yes, perfect segue, and it being a very personal topic. And so it being a very, it’s bringing your whole self to work and making sure that whatever’s going on on the outside world, especially as we’ve seen the past couple of years, the pandemic itself, not to be the first one to bring up the pandemic, really drove everybody home and your work life, your home life became one thing. And then at the same time, the whole world seemed to be just kind of changing and all these inequities that did exist, they’d get so further exacerbated in the news and in everything. We were watching the murder of George Floyd happened in 2020. Breonna Taylor was killed in 2020 and everybody was at home. And really in a place of some people surprised, some people, depending on who you are, it’s a very different experience.
And then having to come back together to work, kind of reintroducing yourself to the differences that you bring to the table. I think from a personal level, it was really helpful to know that our leadership at AIM was already taking charge of acknowledging the differences that make up our employee base and wanting to expand that and understanding that opportunities exist that aren’t as accessible to folks depending on their area codes, depending on their zip codes within Massachusetts and beyond. And how can we start from our own neighborhoods to start addressing these discrepancies, addressing what we’re seeing in the outside world from work where we do end up spending most of our time, especially when work and home became one place.
We did have to build towards it, I guess is what I’m saying, is that the first couple of meetings, folks were very quiet. Folks weren’t really into sharing anything, not really sure what was safe to say and what was okay to say and didn’t want to be offensive. All the normal things that you would expect when you’re approaching something so sensitive for the first time.
But creating that space, making sure that folks had the ability to bring their experiences from life into the workspace was really important for us. And building that did take some time, did take buy-in from leadership. Thankfully we did have our CEO and our external consultant Juliette, again, pulling that stuff together for us from the top down. Otherwise it was just really good to make sure that we had that space built out and we had to take that time to build that trust, I think amongst members of the council.

Pete Wright:
Gaetan, as Engagement Director, you are seeing people from or seeing organizations from all across the Massachusetts, I imagine, community by community. I’m really curious as you talk about your perspective on building toward a smart diversity equity inclusion council, how those community by community cultural norms end up being challenged? To Vasundhra’s point, when home and work become one, where home is suddenly matters and what that community’s perspective on these issues happens to be starts to really matter more than maybe it did before. What do you think about all this?

Gaetan Kashala:
That’s really a great point. AIM’s DE&I staff council, one of our principal responsibilities is really to hold the organization accountable for its DE&I commitments as Reid was laying out. Now, we are unique in that. We are a member organization. So our goal encompasses both internal like Reid, Terry DE&I, and efforts to advance DEI within the organization. But also importantly, a big part of what we do is helping our member organization, our member companies also embrace DEI.
And what we found is to be one of the most critical elements to securing that buy-in is ensuring that DEI strategy is tied to current business goals and objectives. So what is the business case around implementing some of these programs? So that’s the internal versus external dichotomy of what we’re looking to accomplish as a council.
Some of the important lessons learned or best practices, at least in my mind, it was at the outset, raising awareness about the existence of the council, what we were looking to accomplish, both internally, externally, having an understanding that this is important to the organization. It wasn’t just kind of a short term response to George Floyd. It was an initiative that there’s executive sponsorship for, and it’s tied to real goals, goals and objectives.
So raising that awareness was critical to recruitment. We wanted to really have a cross section of the organization, both from a function perspective. We have people in there for marketing, government affairs in the membership department. So there’s that cross functionality, as well as representatives from different levels of the organization. We’ve got our executive leadership in the council, as well as entry level employees. So generating that awareness, recruiting people in there. And then it’s about the day-to-day, month-to-month activity of the council.
And just to reiterate, echo what V said about the importance of creating a safe space. I believe that was really critical to establishing the trust that’s necessary to have the type of conversations that we need to have here. And we kicked off our meetings with statement of guiding principles that we’ll get into a little bit as we continue this conversation. But that was really helpful in establishing just kind of that foundation for the DEI staff council to begin its operation and really begin setting goals and execute on some of those goals.

Pete Wright:
I’m curious from the perspective of, I think Vasundhra, you brought up George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and I think all of those events, anytime you have a racially motivated or racially impacted event of violence, it makes more explicit that which was already so implicit that we need to have these kinds of conversations. And to your point, Vasundhra, to bring our whole selves to work because those things are inextricable right now, the work and home.
But I would ask what you say to critics who say, “Look, work is work, home is home. Just do your job. Why do you need a safe place to just do your job?” What do you say to those who are critical of the efforts to build a DEI council?

Vasundhra Sangar:
I think it makes complete sense. I understand that we’re not going to always have complete buy-in on anything really when it comes to changing the way structures have long been established, especially the workplace and that work-life balance that everyone’s trying to strike.
So first of all, I would say I understand where you’re coming from. But the world is a different place. It’s definitely not what it used to be where you can just take what’s given to you and just go back home and face it there. The whole world is much smaller place. Everyone’s way better connected. We have the internet. We have technology. We know what’s going on around the world. We have each other to connect with and to speak with. And we’re all really here. We’re actually, when I go to work, I’m not just talking to people that don’t exist outside of work. People are right here and this is where change starts from. And I would want to know from their perspective too. And I think that’s a really big part of having a DE&I council.
One of my favorite things that we keep being reminded of is that diversity, equity, inclusion, and inclusion means everybody. So inclusion means even the perspectives that don’t agree with you, even the perspectives that aren’t sure about what it is that you’re trying to do, and trying to bring them into that conversation, not so much to change their mind, but also just to maybe expand everybody’s perception of what it is that’s going on. So we definitely try our best not to shut out any critics, but understand that there will be some who won’t think that this is maybe the first thing their companies need to be doing.
But at the end of the day, also, if we want to talk about this being a good case for business, we have endless countless studies saying that the more diversity that does exist within your employment, within your networks, the more successful your business is going to be, the more perspectives you can bring to the table, the more people you can answer to. That translates into the more people you can answer to if it comes to a product you’re selling or a service you’re trying to provide. And the more diversity that exists within your employment hopefully translates into the leadership of your companies and who’s actually calling the shots into where we’re going to take this and what next steps are going to be happening.
I think all of us have met at least one gen Z in our lives, and I don’t think they’re going to be backing down from this charge. And I’m proud to see what they’re doing, and I’m glad that there’s room for that. But yeah, I guess I would say DE&I, the I means inclusion. So we do include people that wouldn’t agree. Let’s continue having these conversations.

Terry Cook:
And I think, Pete, just to echo on what Vasundhra was just saying as well, it is a reality that employees are looking for a sense of belonging in the workplace. If you look at a lot of the articles and studies out there, you’ll see if somebody doesn’t feel like they belong at their workplace, it’s one of the biggest reasons they leave the workplace. So I think as Vasundhra and Gaetan and Reid have already said, it’s important to create that environment for your employees to feel like they can be heard and that they belong in the company. And the company not only respects it, but embraces it. And it just helps for that retention, in my opinion and experience in human resources.

Gaetan Kashala:
It’s a competitive marketplace out there where job seekers have a greater agency in terms of where they want to work, where they’re looking to spend their time and their resources. So it’s our belief that the more inclusive of an organization you are, you’re going to be better positioned to attract some top talent there.

Pete Wright:
So I’ll turn attention to challenges and roadblocks. And I think this is for both Gaetan and Reid to talk about addressing the, what I think in my head, I’m categorizing them as both the sort of internal administrative challenges or the sort of productivity challenges to getting a board going like this, and then the cultural challenges to overcome in getting a board like this going. But how would you like to address overcoming some of these challenges and getting things moving smoothly?

Reid Tomihara:
You’re talking about the cultural challenges of starting a council like this. I always remember a piece of advice that our consultant Julia Mayers gave us was that one third of the people in your organization will be totally for a type of commitment and group like this and would be willing to lean in to do a lot of work for it. Another third would just be passive of the initiative, would hear it, but not necessarily be the first one to jump in and be real for it. And then there’s another third that sort of actively resists, but maybe actively tries to distance themselves from it.
And I guess to sort of take it through what Vasundhra was saying about it means we’re trying to include everybody. We’re still going to offer if you would like to join now and maybe two or three years from now when maybe some things have changed in your life or your mindset has changed, but you’re still going to be welcome in to be a part of this conversation.
So at the beginning when we first asked the staff members to join, we did get a lot of people who wanted to jump in and help and be a part of it. And we have a good cross section of the organization across, as Gaetan said, all across all diversities of the organization. That’s great. But we always want to be trying to bring in those people who are sort of passive or the people who are actively distancing themselves. And if they never do, that’s okay. I think it’s just a matter of the door is always open for them to be a part of this conversation.

Gaetan Kashala:
Yeah, I 100% agree with what Reid is saying, and recruitment, especially at this point where there’s been some turnover, some people have left the company. So it’s about just working as best as we can to raise awareness around the organization as to the operation of the DEI staff council and presenting it really as an opportunity for our colleagues to have some agency in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, access at AIM.
So we are … Yes, we’re having conversations. Last year we kind of defined it as the year of learning, but this year we’re really moving towards implementation. We implement through a subcommittee process. So within the council, there are three separate subcommittees, a people subcommittee that’s focused on internal administration. There’s a membership subcommittee that’s focused on our members and trying to make sure that AIM as an organization is reflective of the diversity that exists in the Commonwealth.
So let’s apply that same lens when trying to identify which members to target. How do we support our members? What kind of training and resources can we provide to equip them with the skillsets to be even more diverse and equitable and inclusive?
And then the third subcommittee is on the policy side of things. How can AIM utilize its voice in Massachusetts to really bring about and ensure that its policy positions are in alignment with DEI and advancing towards that?

Pete Wright:
Two additional questions. One, how many people are on the council, total representation?

Reid Tomihara:
I would say it’s around 15.

Pete Wright:
15. Okay. After last year of learning, do you have a level of confidence at this point in the function of the organization, of the council to be able to go to member, engaged member companies and say, “Look, we’re doing this. We can be a role model to you.” Are you at a point where you can move from the year of learning to the year of, let’s just say, teaching?

Gaetan Kashala:
Yeah, yeah. Yes, I believe so. And it’s teaching. It’s exchange and best practices because one of our guiding principles when we kick this thing off is recognizing that everyone within the council, our members are coming from different level of lived experience, as well as knowledge and expertise to engage these very difficult topics.
So after the year of learning, I feel confident, especially given some of the resources that exist at the organization, Terry and her team, and the learning and development opportunities that we can engage in these types of conversation and in these types of partnerships. Because this is really a tough mission. And you’re doing it within an environment where you have your day job, but you are integrating this as an equally important aspect of the job. And the executive sponsorship from John Regan, who’s also on the council, our CEO is helpful towards that end.

Pete Wright:
Well, and I should just add for listeners, in the show notes you’ll find a link to the podcast episode that we did last season with John and Juliette. And they’re both fantastic in talking about exactly this, turning on executive leadership to inspire the function of DE&I across the organization.
And with that, I turn to you, Terry. I think what I’m hearing, and as usual, please stop me when I start lying. As usual, it seems like this explicitly should not be an HR function. This should not be something spearheaded by HR. And yet here you are, HR. How does HR work with DE&I and support and embrace and extend these initiatives?

Terry Cook:
Thanks, Pete. Yeah, I think collaboration is important. I do think a lot of times it may start with human resources if smaller organizations don’t have a dedicated area for that focuses on DE&I. But I think our company is a prime example. We don’t have somebody that is focused on DE&I full time, as everybody’s mentioned here, but we have a really great group that chooses to work and focus together. And again, that collaboration makes a difference.
So as a company, we’re creating that right space and environment for our employees, even though we can’t engage a full-time person on this one specific topic.
So collaboration with Human Resources and anybody else in the organization that might be interested in the DEI initiative, I think is important. It can’t be always just a one person thing. I think one of the things that everybody has echoed is the great support we’ve had from the leadership.
Anytime you have any initiative at all in an organization, if you don’t have the support of the leadership, it doesn’t move forward the way it needs to. And we’re just very fortunate that we have that support and we have great group of people that have a passion and a belief in DE&I that want to move it forward in the organization.

Pete Wright:
Transitioning for you from this sort of big umbrella of leadership support to practical day-to-day thinking that goes into DE&I for HR, what are you doing at our fictitious manufacturing organization, Terry?

Terry Cook:
Okay. I think-

Pete Wright:
You’re the de facto leader of this company-

Terry Cook:
I am, evidently. I don’t know when that happened, Pete, but sure.

Pete Wright:
But it was just now.

Terry Cook:
Just now. Great. Thank you. No, I think it is about creating, looking at the entire space. So the entire space means even beyond the workplace. I believe it was Gaetan mentioned, people that are looking for jobs or candidates of any kind are actually looking at a company, all of the social media, everything the company’s involved in way before they’re even applying for the job itself.
So I think it’s important to start there to create that environment that shows that the company believes in this, the company has a culture that they’re dedicating people to in order to make it an inclusive environment for everybody. So I do think from an HR standpoint, it goes certainly beyond policies or procedures of any kind. It’s really starting with the face of the company to an external person, and then that external person can quickly become an applicant.
And then when it starts to become to that point, it’s important that the company shows that it’s not words on a website, it’s not words in a job advertisement. It’s how we live our lives with each other every day at the company. And that’s where human resources can always get involved.
As I mentioned earlier, if somebody doesn’t feel they belong at a company, it’s one of the biggest reasons they’ll leave. So if you try to sell somebody ahead of time about being a real diverse a DE&I company, an inclusive environment, and then when they get there, they don’t see that or they don’t feel that, they can leave as quickly as they came.
So it’s really important to make sure that the entire group, whether it’s through hiring, interviewing, training, onboarding, any type of environment, we have to make sure that everybody feels like we are living that day-to-day in order to really be successful in that initiative.

Pete Wright:
I want to turn to Vasundhra, again, your role in government affairs. I am curious how we’ve talked to Gaetan, we’ve talked to Terry about HR and engagement with employee organizations. How then does your effort toward DE&I and building a sound council translate into role model advocacy for some of these issues? How front of mind is that for you as you go into this next year in this next cycle?

Vasundhra Sangar:
Definitely. Thank you for the question. I think that it was one of the toughest things for me. As Gaetan mentioned, we do have the three subcommittees, the people, the membership and the government affairs. Reid heads our people’s subcommittee, Gaetan heads membership, and as the representative from the government affairs team co-chairing the council, I chair our policy subcommittee on the council.
And it was definitely a very daunting, I think, mission that was given to me initially where I was like, okay, so I take what is a business organization, a trade organization, and I try to encourage our membership and the folks that push our policies and our agendas to include DE&I and how does one person do that all on her own? And so it was a very interesting experience.
But again, thanks to the leadership that we got from Juliette, our consultant, external consultant, I really was able to hone in that this isn’t a one person job and it never will be and that there are organizations that exist that do already apply this diversity, equity, and inclusion lens to the economy and to how businesses run and operate.
We have the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, BECMA, we have Conexion that helps Latinx leaders and Latinx businesses find better footing. There’s the Boston Women’s Workforce Council, there’s the Women’s Edge, there’s lots of groups set. We have the LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce that’s also based in Massachusetts.
And it’s honestly all about expanding your network and expanding the folks of people you have that come to the table to make these decisions with you. And making sure that when it comes to specifically policy oriented decisions that the company’s going to make, that we have as many voices and perspectives that are providing their insights on, well, this is what will be feasible for us and maybe not feasible for another entity or another way that other folks run. Or what’s more accessible in terms of funding and grants and business resources for one type of business versus another? And why is that historically the case?
I don’t have to go out there and find that. There’s folks that are talking about that. I just have to make sure we’re connected with them.

Pete Wright:
Well, to your point that, I mean, if there’s one thing that I can take away from this conversation is that it’s not a one person job. And that key learning, particularly because of where AIM sits in the overall Massachusetts economy, is incredibly valuable to engage members and engage policy makers and engage everyone in this issue to elevate and extend and again, make what was implied explicit. It’s incredibly powerful.
Reid, to you, what are your next steps? What do you see as coming in this next year for the council?

Reid Tomihara:
I think Gaetan put it really well with our year of learning and then a year of implementation. And I think looking forward, I think a lot of the value that the council brings is I think to the council members themselves when they do their day-to-day job functions. For example, for myself, sometimes if we need catering for an event or an office event or for a meeting, we can be looking at diverse suppliers from the beginning. Just because we’ve done business with maybe a larger majority company four years doesn’t mean that we cannot bring in a diverse business to do so.
And I think that the value that I hope that the other council members see is that there’s all these little things that the diversity equity and inclusion lens can be applied to. And I think that it’s like there’s just so many aspects of the internal operations of AIM that sort of have been moving in that direction. But I think that moving forward, it could be even more of a, hey, do we really, do think about this? Can we think about this in a different way? Is there a way to be more inclusive? Not for our staff members, for our different staff members as well as for our members and the community partners, or as Vasundhra said, there’s so many other organizations working on similar things and in the business community space. So why can’t we think about things a little bit differently I think is where I want to go in this next year and beyond.

Gaetan Kashala:
We need to celebrate and recognize the achievements, the things that we’ve accomplished. One of the most useful exercises that I think we engaged in as a council was helping to prepare a report of all of AIM’s DE&I activities that was going to go to our board of directors. So it was just working across the organization once again, the importance of that, that cross functionality to hear, oh, we were doing this, we were doing this, and then collecting it in one place and then taking a look. And it really was a tangible record of what we’ve done to advance DE&I at AIM.

Pete Wright:
It’s fantastic and it’s just really exciting. It makes me just sort of long for maybe year 15 of the DE&I council where we don’t have to worry so much about teaching because these behaviors and policies are so deeply ingrained into every department. And to Reid’s perspective, like this whole idea that we’re applying a DE&I lens to things we’ve never applied a DE&I lens to, not because we didn’t think we could, but because we didn’t know to try it, it’s just a lovely message that comes off of this council and the work that you’re doing.
I have possibly the hardest question for you. I don’t know who’s going to take me up on it. Where do you want people to go to learn more about what you’re doing?

Terry Cook:
I think from the HR’s perspective, AIM HR Solutions website, as we’ve mentioned earlier. We have a lot of great learning opportunities, training opportunities there, and then certainly can turn it over to either Reid, Vasundhra, or Gaetan on the AIM net site.

Vasundhra Sangar:
Definitely. I know we have information on our website that also is completely adhered to what AIM is doing in terms of our DE&I work and a lot of our AIM business connect work and supplier diversity resources definitely exist. And I would feel absolutely more than happy to answer any questions that anybody might have if they want to reach out to any one of us personally. It was a great experience. Like Gaetan said, I also want to thank my teammates and Terry and the team at HR Solutions for being such willing and ready partners. It does take a village and any kind of questions that anyone has that we can answer, I’m definitely available. And this is something I think we’re all passionate about at this point, so we’d be very happy to answer any concerns.
And I think the last point I would like to make is sometimes it’s just the concept of a DE&I council, given that it’s called Diversity, Equity and Inclusion council, that might make it feel too daunting or too impossible for a company such as our fictitious manufacturing company to want to approach. But it doesn’t necessarily even have to be called a DE&I council. It really can just be a space for other people that work for your company and contribute to your growth every day to feel comfortable being not just a professional, so they’re not just their complete work selves, just a safe space, an open environment. Any kind of a council that can encourage that kind of collaboration and communication between colleagues I think will ultimately be a good thing.

Pete Wright:
Wonderful, wonderful. And thank you for bringing back our fictitious manufacturing organization.

Vasundhra Sangar:
I had to.

Pete Wright:
They count on your support, so we appreciate that. And thank you everyone for downloading and listening to this show. We appreciate your time and your attention. As always, you can find the links and notes about the show at aimhrsolutions.com. You can listen to the show right there on the website or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you find your finer podcasts. On behalf of Reid Tomihara, Vasundhra Sangar, Gaetan Kashala and Terry Cook, I’m Pete Wright, and we’ll catch you next week right here on Human Solutions, simplifying HR for people who love HR.

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