Reflections about Change and Resistance

Carol A. Hand

Recently I have been reflecting about what I can do to work toward positive change in the current political context. What have my past advocacy efforts taught me? I have had many learning opportunities (typically thought of as “failures”) and some successes addressing issues that felt hopeless at the time (infant mortality, Indian child welfare disparities, and public school use of demeaning Native American names and caricatures, among many others). I have also been reflecting about my recent attempts to explore possible involvement in existing advocacy efforts (to prevent the expansion of tar sands pipelines in my state and lakeshore community, and progressive initiatives to get out the vote) or catalyzing local initiatives (helping develop initiatives for the high school on the poor side of town where I live, or creating a story-sharing group in partnership with the elders who live in the high rise apartment building across the street). As I reflected, I remembered the importance of essential ethical principles and advocacy strategies that have been effective.


Photo Credit: Tug-of-war

But before I share my thoughts about change strategies, I want to share a story.


Writing about Ed and Jerry in my last post brought to mind a relevant experience that I think is worth sharing. It still makes me chuckle when the images of my first public speaking gig as “THE STATE” flash through my thoughts. I haven’t witnessed karmic payback often in my life, but that’s what I think happened when one of their attempts to manipulate Native Americans and elders was trumped.

Ed and Jerry had finally abandoned their ineffective letter writing campaign in favor of another way to focus attention on putative failures of the state Bureau on Aging. They mobilized tribal leaders and Native American elders promising to expose the lack of concern the Bureau showed toward the unique needs of Native American elders. They set up an all-day forum for elders and tribal leaders to present their concerns to Bureau representatives. I can’t remember why the job of listening and responding to the concerns fell to me, alone, but there I was as Ed and Jerry listed their many concerns. The key change they demanded was the creation of an “Indian desk” – that is, the demand that the Bureau hire a Native American staff person to focus on the needs of tribes. (On the surface, this didn’t sound like a bad idea. But in practice, it really ghettoizes Native American issues and foments conflict among tribes when one staff person from one tribe is hired to serve all eleven tribes in ways that are perceived as fair by all.)

They gloated from their seats in the back of the room as the anger in the room grew during the morning presentations. It was my turn to respond after lunch, but in the meantime, I needed to at least appear composed. When lunch time finally came, I really had no interest in choking down food. Yet, here I was with almost everyone glancing with hostility in my direction when I tried to find a place to sit, except for one lovely elder. Her face was beaming as she looked at me, so I asked if I could join her for lunch. She smiled and graciously nodded yes. (I didn’t learn until later that she had lost her hearing. She didn’t know what had been said during the morning session and merely judged me by my behavior.)

After lunch, I walked to the speaker’s podium with my carefully crafted typed speech and looked out at the hostile audience, took a deep breath, and began by introducing myself. Because Ed and Jerry’s major critique was the lack of a Native American perspective in the Bureau, that’s where I started. “My mother is Ojibwe. She was born and raised in Lac du Flambeau. And even though I was born elsewhere, it’s where I spent many of my summers when I was a child. Yet, being an Ojibwe doesn’t mean that I have the right to speak for Indian people at the state level.” As I said this, I watched as Ed and Jerry hunched down in their chairs as the rest of the audience leaned forward to listen. I went on to describe the roles of state and regional agencies and acknowledged the concerns raised by tribal members. If tribal people felt that regional agencies were not passing on the information they needed to provide services, or sharing tribal concerns with the state on an going basis, we could explore other options. We could explore the possibility of creating a new regional agency that would serve all tribes in the state. (I had already done the background work to make sure this would be supported by pivotal decision makers.) My speech concluded by leaving the decision of how to proceed up to tribes. After the standing ovation, many people eagerly rushed forward to introduce themselves to me and share their concerns. Ed and Jerry came up when the room finally cleared and merely shook their heads. “They are, after all, YOURRRR PEOPLE.”

I admit I was surprised that Ed and Jerry hadn’t figured out that I was Ojibwe sooner. I had worked with them for almost a year and had been a frequent visitor to their regions and board meetings, but it never seemed relevant for me to inform them about my ancestry. It had no bearing on the way I did my job, other than make me particularly sensitive to the needs of elders with the greatest socio-economic needs.


The moral of the story is to do your homework. When I critically examine why some efforts were successful and others were not, the most obvious pattern I seem to find is simply “it was the right time.” The right group of people came together to make it happen. Of course, this was (and still is) always impossible for me to predict beforehand. What mattered across diverse settings and issues were the principles or ethics that guided action. Even if initiatives weren’t successful in accomplishing the desired final outcome, if they were based on the right constellation of ethics and principles, the lessons learned and networks established could still be the foundation for future efforts.

One of those ethical principles is respect for the sovereignty of others to make their own choices. As a Native American, I am not only wary of outside experts who descend on communities to solve issues without ever asking community members what they want, I am repulsed by their self-righteous ignorance and arrogance. After working with folks like Ed and Jerry, that shouldn’t be surprising. I’m not alone in this feeling.

aboriginal mauri quote slide

Photo Credit: Aboriginal/Mauri Quote

Many writers, activists, and scholars agree that change efforts need to be directed by community members. Yet community members may not be aware of the collective historical and structural forces that affect every aspect of their lives. Outsiders can play a role in raising awareness and providing forums to envision alternatives as I did in this instance and as Freire (2000) describes in his liberatory praxis work. Mad Bear cautions us, however, not to focus on negative agendas to eliminate threats, but to focus on creating something new.

“There’s no need to create any opposing destructive force; that only makes more negative energy and more results and more problems” (Boyd, p. 244).

When we are trying to create something new, we need to make sure that the process we use avoids the taken-for-granted expert-driven, power-over, winner-and-loser approaches embedded in most models of social change. It’s what I love most about the Aboriginal/Mauri quote. We are all in this together. We will survive or perish together if we don’t learn to live in peace with each other and in balance with our one and only planet.

Yet proposing change in my experience has always engendered resistance. Today I remembered the process that has become automatic for me. I know that I’m not willing to let violence and oppression go unchallenged, but the first step for me is to try to understand the situation and look for ways to raise awareness. I begin with the assumption that it is possible to find common ground with others and come up with solutions together. I’m sure that has happened often, but the funny thing about my memory is that I forget the times when things go smoothly. I tend to only remember the times when they do not.

Working toward positive change in the times ahead is likely to be daunting. Often the approaches we choose make it worse – like outside experts telling us they know best. Just because I have learned to follow the “principle of parsimony” doesn’t mean others do or even know it exists. One of my very old textbooks describes this principle.

“… the practitioner confronted with a problem who is in the process of selecting a tactic is advised to begin his [her] deliberations with the most modest tactic that might conceivably do the job. If persuasion will work, for example, it is unsound to pursue the goal by mounting a coercive effort. Only when experience or cold judgment suggests that mild methods are inappropriate would a more extreme method be considered.” (Brager and Holloway, 1978, p. 140)

Because I think in pictures, the illustration of their model helps me remember what I need to consider in planning how to approach change efforts.

change tactics

Photo Credit: Change Tactics (Brager and Holloway, 1978, p. 142)

Do those who are proposing change (change agents) share the same goals as those who are being asked to support change (targets of change)? The words we choose to frame issues matter more than we often realize. An obvious example of this is the use of language that provokes strong emotions with polarizing effects – such as “anti-abortion” or “pro-life” to frame the debate about women’s choice. How we frame issues can set the stage to collaborate or compete, to fight against demons or to work together on a shared vision. Taking time to frame one’s agenda is crucial.

Do change agents and the targets of change have equal power? Power is not only wealth or status, of course. The most intractable obstacles are “fear, apathy, and ignorance” (Homan, 1999, p. 55). It is possible for those with little formal power to actually be more appealing and influential. If we take the time to frame issues and develop messages that encourage hope, use egalitarian and inclusive processes to work collectively, and incorporate opportunities to continue learning though dialogue, the playing field can be leveled long enough for pivotal breakthroughs.

Can the relations between change agents and targets of change be characterized as socially close or distant? This question highlights a fundamental taken-for-granted assumption – that we are not all in this together. From my perspective, we will all lose if we don’t work together. We really are interdependent. There would be no upper class or elite without technicians, artisans, farmers, grocers, physicians, and workers of all sorts, to support them. The challenge is to find ways past our own biases – to build bridges and discover our shared humanity and visions for the best we can imagine. I know from experience this is not simple, yet I know I am still willing to keep finding new ways to try.

What the model omits, however, is equally important to consider: the seriousness of harm that is or will result if we fail to act, and the immediacy or urgency for action. Are there ever times when it’s appropriate to tell others what they need to do? This is something I have struggled with in my professional life. In emergencies, I have acted instinctively to tell others what to do. And even though I sometimes didn’t have any reason to expect people to listen, they did. Often they would tell me later that they felt what they accomplished was meaningful, important, and part of a collective effort. I worry that this will be the reality we face – ongoing crises have already been affecting the most vulnerable people in the world. Eventually, however, no one will be spared. You can’t eat money, although you can burn dollar bills for heat for a little while. I’m not sure what hoarded gold will be good for, though.

“As men and women inserted in and formed by a socio-historical context of relations, we become capable of comparing, evaluating, intervening, deciding, taking new directions, and thereby constituting ourselves as ethical beings. It is in our becoming that we constitute our being so. Because the condition of becoming is the condition of being.” (Freire, 1998, pp. 38-39)

I didn’t know where I would end up as I wrote this reflection, but here it is. The Borg may be right when they say “Resistance is futile.” But I still have hope – creativity is where it’s at! I honestly do believe that it’s not too late. I know it’s the right decision for me to continue to do what I can as an individual and only engage in those collective efforts that are community-directed, inclusive, egalitarian, and vision-based rather than those that are expert-driven and continue to use the same old tools that led to the situation many of us now find unacceptable.


Photo Credit: Cooperation

Works Cited:

Doug Boyd (1974). Rolling Thunder: A personal exploration into the secret healing powers of an American Indian medicine man. New York, NY: Random House.

George Brager & Stephen Holloway (1978). Changing human service organizations: Politics and practice. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Mark S. Homan (1999). Rules of the game: Lessons from the field of community change. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Paulo Freire (199) Pedagogy of hope: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary edition). New York, NY: Continuum.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

36 thoughts on “Reflections about Change and Resistance

  1. This is a lovely reflection, Carol. I so hope it reaches far and wide, and the wisdom within it gets cherished. I remember listening to (many different) people sharing similar vissions, and the feeling of hope that transpired because of that. Keep sharing. Please.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. this deep reflection has me thinking
    about causes and conditions of suffering
    and ways i can help reduce it, in my neighborhood.
    wishing you success working with friends and allies, carol 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, David. I’m so grateful to hear that this post was a catalyst for reflection. 🙂

      My experience suggests it takes time for some ideas to catch on and others many never reach that point. But I wait because it’s not my wish to impose my views on others. It’s teaching me patience. I’m still waiting to hear from the high school 18 months later, but there is a beginning group of two inspiring women I meet with for monthly “tea for three” discussions to share stories. In the meantime, as I wait, I have many other projects to keep me busy…

      I look forward to hearing about your neighborhood projects!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting your observation “It was the right time.”

    Many years ago an African American activist taught me virtually the same thing even though he expressed it different. He said to look for strategic opportunities – periods and issues where other oppressed people were showing the inclination and motivation to mobilize.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wise counsel, Dr. B. But it’s hard for me to predict that beforehand. Circumstances in one’s context sometimes change so rapidly that what seems possible one moment becomes impossible the next. The converse is true as well. Once when I was testifying for a particular piece of legislation that certainly would not pass in a time of budgetary austerity, a rude legislator made such an appallingly racist comment during my testimony, his colleagues were silenced. I was able to respond with humor and diplomacy and as a consequence, the proposal was enacted…

      Liked by 2 people

  4. As I said in my last comment, if you see any way I can ever contribute to your efforts, please let me know. I really liked this reflection, you raised many issues and share some practical approaches. I’m talking with a young man who shares many of our motivations, so I’m sharing this blog with him. And I love the story you shared in your last comment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Skywalker, thank you for your generous offer. I promise to involve you when I figure out what I’m doing 😀

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments and knowing that you felt this post might be helpful to the young man your working with. Chi Miiwgwetch.


  5. Carol, this is a powerful reflection. Infused with intellect and heart, you provide multiple avenues for understanding what can and often does happen, especially when change agents are not connected to their own hearts, and therefore the hearts of those they intend to lead through any change. Your last paragraph says so much. Creativity is borne of the heart. Therein lies the answer(s) for how to move forward on just about anything that we are feeling called to engage. My experience has taught me that when we lead with our hearts, we will make the difference in the hearts of the people even if the structures do not change in the ways we intend. Open hearts are empowered to take up their own causes/conditions/situations. Blessings to you, dear Carol as you continue to reflect and choose your next steps.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing such thoughtful insights about the importance of “leading with our hearts,” Carrie. It’s the only way I can think of to work toward deep and lasting positive change. Loving what we do and the people we are working with makes the challenges we encounter on our journeys easier to bear. Blessings to you as well with your upcoming move and new adventures. ❤


  6. “From my perspective, we will all lose if we don’t work together. We really are interdependent. There would be no upper class or elite without technicians, artisans, farmers, grocers, physicians, and workers of all sorts, to support them.”…if I may, I would take this statement one step further. The world can go on spinning on it’s axis without the upper class or elite but would grind quickly to a halt without the “technicians, artisans, farmers, grocers, physicians and workers of all sorts.” In their heart of dark narcissistic hearts, the elite know that they are the expendable ones not us. Therefore, they must operate from a deeply insecure state lest everything they’ve constructed to shield them from reality comes tumbling down. War, exploitation and corruption are not the hallmarks of well-adjusted human beings.

    As Dr. King and Frederick Douglass remind us, we must speak and it must be a struggle.

    “And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” -Dr. King

    “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.” -Frederick Douglass

    We are all grateful that you are on our side in the struggle, Carol. Peace to you and your family, my friend.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. So many important issues and perspectives, Jeff! I agree that the elite are driven by fear and ignorance. They’re buffered by the Eds and Jerrys of the world who keep us busy dealing with minor issues while oppression is deepening out of sight.

      But I no longer even deal with the Eds and Jerrys. I prefer to live with simplicity, honesty, and kindness and to do so in whatever situations touch my heart. Writing about my experiences has helped me realize that blending caring and knowledge (and humor) can be a powerful foundation for advocacy. For me, it’s a struggle to help people find their own dignity, passion, and voice, to open up choices, and allow people to choose for themselves even if I don’t agree with their choice.

      I don’t want to struggle against enemies. (I didn’t see Ed and Jerry that way. Although their actions were harmful to others, they were really rather endearingly buffoonish in some ways.) I’m willing to work hard (or struggle) toward the best I can imagine and interweave the ethical values that are part of that vision into the process I use in that work. An important part of my struggle is internal – taking time to reflect and balance, to be clear about purpose, when it would be so much easier to just “go for the jugular.” (My father taught me to do that very well. My mother taught me to stand helplessly on the sidelines as a silent witness to abuse. Neither approach is helpful to others.)

      I know we share these struggles, Jeff, and I’m deeply grateful that you’re my friend and comrade. Chi miigwetch.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. So many powerful ideas in this essay, Carol. And when you write, “Are there ever times when it’s appropriate to tell others what they need to do? This is something I have struggled with in my professional life.” It made me think of the Native elder who was deaf and knew she could trust you because of your demeanor. I think when your behavior has communicated over time that you value participation and equality and you have shown good judgment, people will accept your lead in an emergency or moment when a decision must be made quickly without it diminishing the ethical approach you have always modeled. Of course, the Jerrys and Eds won’t always see it that way — because they aren’t seeing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comments a great deal, Diane. Sometimes I feel inspired to do more than just tell stories, and these days, I do a lot of thinking about how I can use my years of education and experiences to help others. Comments like yours make me feel this approach has some value and is understood. Thank you for that. I learned a long time ago that the Eds and Jerrys of the world were not likely to appreciate my perspectives…

      I also want to let you know how much I admire the work you do with people who have been devalued and mistreated by society – recognizing their worth and dignity and helping them develop the confidence to give voice to their perspectives.


  8. Powerful reflection, Carol, leaving me so much to think about. In particular, I connected with the Maori quote and then the statement “We are all in this together. We will survive or perish together if we don’t learn to live in peace with each other and in balance with our one and only planet.” Amen! How to do that, is the great challenge, of course, but living in peace is the goal. You are certainly doing your part along the path to peace.


    1. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments, Susan. I love the Aboriginal/Maori quote, too, and the question you raise is the one I have been pondering for a long time. How do we work for peace and balance in this world today? I haven’t found the answer, but maybe it’s a simple as “keep trying – that’s what we’re here to learn.”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Carol, wondering if there is a way to contact you with some questions about Native American elder women rather than publicly. I have formed a group of elder women and we are keen to learn about the role/wisdom/honoring of elder women in Native American society. Thank you.


  10. Thanks for sharing your learning and professional insights, Carol. To these I would add the cognitive linguistics research of Dr. George Lakoff, whose book ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ is an excellent political primer. It explains how humans see issues through ‘frames’ and how, oddly enough, the Right has figured this out and exploited it for self-interest. Meanwhile the Left has continued to ignore or miss this fundamental aspect of communications in advocacy. As Lakoff says, social justice advocates need to frame our goals as values, just as the Right does when it talks about “family values” and such. Useful framing examples might be: “My family includes everyone.” Or: “My taxes support civilization.” Lakoff’s work needs to be integrated into social justice work or we will continue to fall behind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Sean. I’m grateful that you mentioned Lakoff’s important work on how to frame political arguments. I remember assigning one his essays to students when I taught social welfare policy. Teams of students were then randomly assigned a specific political ideology. Their task was use this ideology to develop and defend policies that addressed some aspect of poverty. It was fascinating to witness the profound insights many had as they learned to see an issue from differing vantage points. The one thing that became clear to me was how much easier it was for students in some settings to frame issues from a conservative or libertarian stance. In other settings, students were embarrassed to give voice to conservative or libertarian views. I still wonder how many of these differences could be explained by the environments where they grew up and were educated.


  11. Thank you for sharing what only years of experience can teach someone. This wonderfully written article brought up so many things to think about. It reminds me of the need to be humble, engage in dialog more, and develop more understanding for others ideas. It also brought up a good point of ignoring those who are hateful and critical rather than letting them discourage us or cause us to go down to their level. This article was especially meaningful to me at this time. Thank you again for these real world examples showing how this approach can be more effective than the typical way most approach things.

    When I write it is based more in philoshy and theory, so its nice to read articles showing positive things working in the real world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comments a great deal, Alan. I’m grateful to know that you found this essay helpful. Thank you!

      I enjoy reading about the important human rights topics you discuss 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Carol, I am struck by the depth and clarity of your thought and feelings. I wish more folks would “do their homework” before acting. I often wish I had more time to do mine. Thanks for following my blog. I feel honored.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you so much Carol for visiting my blog and your interest in 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion. Since I have shared this campaign,I have met some very inspiring people like yourself who have a real heart for improving our people and our planet.
    My aunt Dr Anna Haebich wrote “Broken Circles” which is the national history of the stolen Generation of Aboriginal people in Australia. Her partner is Darryl Kickett from WA who was the NAIDOC Person of the Year for 2013. I have a touch of the activist in myself too. I have had an interest in women’s issues and was on our local Status of Women Committee but am leaning more towards equality and dignity for people living with disability and sever chronic illness, which is my own situation.
    I can relate to what you say about experts coming in, taking over and thinking they know best. I get professionals coming to my home and saying I have a hoarding problem when I can’t access many of my cupboards easily and most of the time don’t know what’s in there. It takes a huge physical effort to maintain a house and my kids don’t help much and my husband is at work.
    You need people who begin by listening to you and acknowledging where you’re at and why. Getting into your skin…one of my favourite quotes from Harper Lee.
    Anyway, you already know this but I think it’s always interesting to see how different minority and disadvantaged groups face similar attitudes from the do-gooders. My aunt’s first book was called: “For their Own Good”..a great title.
    Keep up the fight and I hope you’ll participate in 1000 Voices. I wuld love to read a post with a Native-American slant. Best wishes,


    1. Sorry for the delay in my longer response, Rowena. I love the way you have applied the discussion of “experts coming in, taking over and thinking they know best” to your own life and to the situation for Indigenous peoples of what is now Australia. Your aunt’s work sounds fascinating and important. I look forward to learning more about this.

      Your focus on compassion is crucial during these times. Recently, I have been observing the many ways in which everyday actions that are based on lack of compassion affect people’s lives. Actions that may appear insignificant on the surface have profound consequences for the quality of life of many people through ripple effects. The elders’ apartment complex across the street is an example. Elders who love to garden are denied access to garden plots because those in charge of maintenance prefer easy-to-mow lawns. Denying this simple request has profound consequences on the health and well-being of residents on many levels. Many residents have accepted this limitation after voicing their desires repeatedly and simply adjusted their lives to give up something they love, something that feeds their spirits and brings beauty into the world. They could join together and become “guerilla gardeners.” I would welcome the chance to help them dig up the lawn at night and help them build gardens that are high enough to accommodate varying degrees of limited mobility. But that is their decision…

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I bookmarked this post because I think I will probably want to return to it again. I am kind of frightened about the potential for change because I see a population that seems almost completely demoralized. I listened to a Chomsky interview recently and in passing he mentioned that polls show Americans are reporting record levels of feeling helpless and hopeless. There are so many pressing issues yet hardly anyone seems to offer a peep of resistance where in other countries people have gathered together and even risked their lives for much less. I kind of think the first step to reform is to build up confidence in people again. Remove their shame at being victmized. Let them know that their feelings are genuine and ought to be respected. That’s a tall order when put up against the commercial media propaganda machine.


    1. These are such crucial reflections and insights, Debra. It’s so easy to cultivate fear and shame, to destroy confidence and hope, and so challenging to rekindle a sense of real possibilities. In fact, it’s how I met my neighbors across the street. When I moved to this neighborhood a little over three years ago, the yard was filled with piles of tree limbs and brush. I began the long process of bringing in soil and compost, and building gardens. It was difficult manual labor and I wondered if it made any difference at all to anyone else. Then, this past year, two of the women who live in the elder’s high rise stopped to talk when I was working in the front yard. Now we meet for monthly tea and share stories. Neither one is able to have one of the coveted garden plots in the small space allotted for residents, so they come and sit with me sometimes when I’m working, sharing stories about the gardens they’ve had and advising me on what to plant. One is eagerly waiting for the tulips and daffodils I planted this fall as she watched. (The garden is too low for someone who needs a cane to walk because of knee problems.) It’s a small thing, but it gives me hope and allows my neighbors to spend time in a place they see as a sanctuary. But ever a rebel who automatically wants to challenge oppression, I hope they choose to organize creative resistance and create a midnight garden by digging up the lawn. I can bring my shovel and do the heavy work to help…

      Liked by 1 person

  15. ” When I critically examine why some efforts were successful and others were not, the most obvious pattern I seem to find is simply “it was the right time.” The right group of people came together to make it happen. “

    Great post an excellent insights

    Liked by 1 person

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