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DECEMBER 4, 2023
Good morning, Fearless readers:

As I write this, my family’s freshly cut Christmas tree is still tied to the top of our Subaru. I feel behind on everything this season. Holiday expectations seem so high for parents these days. (My second-grader is still mad at me for not adequately celebrating El Dia De Los Muertos.)

Here is a list of 11 holidays the world celebrates in December. What will you celebrate this month, Fearless friends?

In this week’s Fearless e-newsletter, you will find:

  • A story about Aspire to Inspire, a new Central Iowa conference that will focus on employee resource groups and inclusion efforts.
  • A profile of Monique Scarlett, a Sioux City leader who founded Unity in the Community after the slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
  • In the headlines: According to a recent study, the maternal death rate for Indigenous women in Iowa rose from 26 per 100,000 live births in 1999 to 139 in 2019. Rural hospital closures are forcing Indigenous women to travel farther for prenatal care.
  • A break from the news: Elaine Graham Estes, the now-retired director of the Des Moines Public Library, has collected more than 300 versions of books based on the famous Clement C. Moore poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
  • Lots more!

– Nicole Grundmeier, Business Record staff writer

New Des Moines conference to focus on employee resource groups, inclusion efforts
Jordan Mix and Damian Thompson, educational programming director and director of external affairs, Iowa Safe Schools. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Employee resource groups began forming at businesses more than five decades ago. The groups create internal communities for employees to focus on networking and shared experiences of those with certain identities.

One of the first formal employee resource groups was formed at Xerox in 1970 in response to racial tensions in the 1960s. The Black Employee Caucus was founded with the support of the then-CEO Joseph Wilson, who encouraged Black employees to create the group, according to Boston College’s Center for Work & Family. A decade later, Xerox started the group that is now called the Black Women’s Leadership Council. In 1978, Hewlett Packard created the first LGBT employee resource group, according to Forbes.

Today, 90% of Fortune 500 companies have employee resource groups, according to McKinsey & Co.

Two Iowa organizations are partnering to host a new conference in Des Moines in February focused on the role these groups can play in creating equitable workplaces. The Aspire to Inspire Conference will emphasize empowerment of employee resource groups to take action on their knowledge of diversity, equity and inclusion issues.

The conference is set to be held Feb. 23-24 at Drake University.

Aspire to Inspire was created by Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit focused on creating supportive learning environments and communities for LGBTQ and allied youths, along with Schabel Solutions Inc., a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting business. Though Iowa Safe Schools is particularly known for its work on LGBTQ equity, the Aspire to Inspire Conference will focus on all types of inclusion.

The conference will focus on arming employee resource groups with the tools to make collective change. Employee resource groups allow employees to bring issues to the attention of leaders by saying “it’s important to ‘us,’ not just it’s important to ‘me,’” said Jordan Mix, educational programming director at Iowa Safe Schools. Advocacy from a group can be more effective in getting company leaders to take action, they said.

The professionals in attendance will get to practice taking action as they’ll have an opportunity to put their skills to the test by engaging with high school and college students looking for future employers that align with their values.

Why now?

Through various programs, Iowa Safe Schools has worked with employee resource groups to assess the work they’re doing to support LGBTQ youths and employees. Some of that work has focused on allies and parents of LGBTQ youths.

The idea to expand on that work through hosting a conference focused on employee resource groups in partnership with Schabel Solutions has been in the works since the beginning of this year. The leaders decided that they would focus on all aspects of equity and belonging.

The conference comes at a time when numerous changes targeting diversity and inclusion policies have been up for discussion at the federal level and in the Iowa Legislature over the past several sessions. This year, Gov. Kim Reynolds passed a few into law.

One law bans books with descriptions or depictions of sex acts from school libraries and prohibits instruction on gender and sexual identity until seventh grade, which left districts scrambling to evaluate their library materials at the start of the academic year. Two other laws banned all forms of gender-affirming medical care for minors and restricted students from using a school restroom other than one that corresponds with their sex assigned at birth.

Though a bill that would prohibit funding for DEI programing at Iowa’s public universities failed to pass, the Iowa Board of Regents announced it would freeze DEI initiatives at the state’s three public institutions while they initiated a “comprehensive study and review” of all such programs.

During the session, more than 60 Des Moines-area small businesses spoke out against proposed legislation at the Iowa Statehouse that they said would negatively affect the LGBTQ community. The business leaders said they believed the bills would make it more difficult for Iowa to attract and retain talent by creating an unwelcoming environment.

“We’re actively trying to take things away from [the LGBTQ community]. … When you say you may not have the right to exist in the way that you do now, you might not feel as safe as you feel today, your marriage might not be acknowledged, what choices are you leaving someone?” said Hannah Krause, owner of Eden, at the time. “Business leaders are going to move. Community leaders are going to move. Business owners are going to move. People just aren’t going to feel like this is a place that they want to raise their families.”

Iowa Safe Schools has learned of numerous families that are moving to neighboring states with laws that are more inclusive to LGBTQ folks. They’ve also heard from parents who are moving jobs based on insurance benefits and whether their child can receive gender-affirming care through their employer’s plan.

Iowans need to do everything we can to attract new people but also to retain who we have, said Damian Thompson, director of external affairs at Iowa Safe Schools.

With nearly one in five Generation Z folks identifying as LGBTQ, being inclusive and fighting against policies that make LGBTQ persons feel unwelcome is an “emergent workforce issue,” Thompson said.

A major goal of Iowa Safe Schools is not just to ensure youths feel supported in the present, but also to help them see a future in Iowa.

“We want to help LGBTQ young people feel safe and feel like this is their home,” Mix said. They want the young people they work with to look for careers here and not have to leave the state in order to feel like they belong.

Business leaders have also been called to respond to a number of policy changes concerning social issues. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending a nearly 50-year precedent of a federal right to abortion, national companies faced increased pressure to address employees’ reproductive health care within their benefits packages. Locally, companies like Principal Financial Group, Wells Fargo, Dotdash Meredith and Businessolver announced expansions to benefits to include travel reimbursement for health services at the time of the ruling.

What attendees can expect

A number of DEI-related state and federal policy changes that have gone into effect recently have left businesses and institutions uncertain about how they must comply.

In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, ruling against race-conscious admission programs at colleges and universities that receive any form of federal funding. The historic decision was expected to have effects “in every aspect of the nation’s economic, educational and social life – from the Rooney rule that requires a minority applicant be considered in all NFL coach hiring decisions to employment and promotion decisions, DEI programs in schools and workplaces, and much more,” NPR reported.

Learning how the affirmative action ruling affects business will be one of the topics at the conference.

Other topics will include:

  • How to build corporate and community partnerships.
  • Techniques for empowering employees’ voices.
  • Working with individuals to further collective goals.
  • Understanding what compassion looks like in professional spaces.

The first day of the conference will include putting attendees in “working groups, breakout sessions and plenaries led by some of the region’s most successful advocates for sustainable organizational culture change,” the leaders said. Day two will allow participants the chance to put their skills to the test by engaging with some of Iowa’s high school and college students, and up-and-coming professionals.

Youth involvement in the conference was important to Iowa Safe Schools, Mix said. Often conferences that include both professionals and students can focus on one-way conversations with business leaders sharing insight with the young attendees, but they wanted to turn that paradigm on its head.

“We are letting [the young people] have space to speak,” Mix said. The students want to see examples of how employers are taking action on the issues they’re passionate about. From working with the youths, they see that the next generation of the workforce is very aware of what’s going on in the world and they expect the organizations they work for to be responsive to that, they said.

“Everyone wants to belong to something,” Mix said.

Registration and a call for exhibitors is now open. Learn more at

2 more questions about the conference

Claudia Schabel is the founder, president and CEO of Schabel Solutions Inc., one of the organizations partnering on the Aspire to Inspire Conference. We asked her a couple of questions.

What role do employee resource groups play in workplace inclusion?

Employee resource groups (ERGs) and business resource groups (BRGs) help foster an inclusive workplace and promote a sense of belonging for all employees that share an identity, whether it’s gender/gender identity, race and ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexuality, ability status or veteran status, etc. However, ERGs/BRGs are designed to be welcoming and open to all employees. They enable cross-cultural understanding and celebrate diversity. Successful ERGs/BRGs require critical mass, operating procedures, strategic planning (including alignment with your organization’s DEI vision, goals and objectives) and strong leadership support.

How do you foresee this conference differing from other opportunities to engage on DEI topics?

The “Aspire to Inspire” conference will be a great opportunity for ERGs/BRGs leaders and members to learn from each other, share best practices and develop new skills to lead their respective groups effectively. The conference will inspire all attendees to continue to learn and engage in this conversation.

Monique Scarlett thinks Unity in the Community could be a blueprint for peaceful relationships nationwide
Photo by Duane Tinkey. Illustration by Kate Meyer.
Monique Scarlett founded Unity in the Community in Sioux City after the slaying of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. Scarlett has a son, Xavier, and she wanted to do whatever she could to keep him – and everyone – in the community safe. Unity in the Community has a close, ongoing relationship with the Sioux City Police Department and other law enforcement. Scarlett’s cellphone never stops ringing. Despite considerable challenges, the relationship between communities of color and the police in Sioux City has been mostly peaceful. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Sioux City police handed out cold water to protesters. The conversations never stopped. Scarlett’s goal is to make Sioux City a welcoming, safe and empowering community for everyone – and her dreams aren’t small. She said that Unity in the Community could be a model for nationwide programs. In September, Scarlett was one of several partners who came together to host Deaf Awareness Night at a football game. The play-by-play of the big Sioux City North versus Sioux City East game was signed by an ASL interpreter. Scarlett was born in Sioux City and grew up there in the late 1960s and 1970s, although her family lived in California for part of her youth. Scarlett is a survivor of domestic violence. She is a devout Christian and a school board member. Scarlett, 56, works full time at U.S. Bank in addition to leading Unity in the Community, which is a nonprofit.

The following story has been formatted to be entirely in her words, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Growing up, I remember we couldn’t go into certain places, certain stores. Especially downtown, if you went into a store, you were followed the entire time you were there. Then finally if you had not purchased anything … of course, as kids, we had this “wish list,” we always called it. When we’d go into stores like Sears, which was here and it was very large, and you already got that big Sears catalog, you thought that you’d go to the store and look. You didn’t have the money, but you were wishing. Then, pretty soon, you’d spend so much time, and they would tell you, “You have to leave. Get out of here. You don’t have any money, get out of here.”

This was before Cook Park was developed. Minority kids couldn’t swim at just any swimming pool in Sioux City. So we had to walk, as kids, from Isabella Street on the west side of Sioux City to Riverside and swim at Riverside Park and the pool there. We would walk in the summer – we had our old towels rolled up because we couldn’t use theirs. I remember the N-word being used quite a bit. My mother was furious a lot. She’d get into it with different people. The N-word was loosely used.


It was fourth grade. My teacher would mispronounce my name all the time. She was saying “Mon-nick” or “Mon-nick-Q.” I would always say, “My name is Monique. My mom named me Monique. My name is Monique.” And well, “I’m gonna call you Mike” or “I’m gonna call you Mon-nick-Q. That’s what I’m gonna call you.”

I remember kids in that classroom would call me names and call me the N-word. She wouldn’t do anything about it, for some reason, and she was a sharp teacher. I learned a lot in the classroom as far as book knowledge and things like that, but boy, she didn’t stick up for me. When I think back now, well, maybe she was under a lot of pressure. If the teacher would have stood up, maybe she would have faced the bullies at that point or whatever.

But I just remember feeling so alone and being the only Black kid in the class and being teased and had to just go through it. My mom would always say, “You’re tougher than that.”

That was probably the same year the TV series “Roots” by Alex Haley came out. I remember one Monday going to school and a girl on the playground decided to call me the N-word and said, “That’s, you know, what you are, that’s what my mom and dad said.” And that was it for me. I just remember doubling up my fist, and boy, I socked her good. I just socked her good.

Back in those days, your principal could paddle you, and then you got disciplined at home as well. I was raised old-school and I just thought, “Man, I’m gonna go home and I’m gonna get the whupping of my life.” But my mother didn’t. She did not whup me. She sat me down and she explained to me, “You’re gonna get called all kinds of names in your life, but you have to be the bigger person. You have to understand.” First of all, she said, “Never, ever be conceited. But always be confident in who you are.” That stuck with me.

To this day, when I make decisions or I have to stand up to bullies, as I’ve done recently, in the board that I serve on, I always have to remember that I’m confident in who I am. You’re not gonna bully me. You’re not going to do this. So growing up in Sioux City was tough. It was. I love Sioux City, though. I love my city. I try to do the right things for my city for the generations to come. I always encourage young people, regardless of who you are, where you come from, whether you’re poor, rich, Black, white, Native, Hispanic, it does not matter. Gay, straight, it doesn’t matter. Believe in yourself and chase your dreams, and your dreams become reality because you make them real.


When I came back as a teenager, I watched the NAACP chapter and Native community just roar. And the officers just roared right back. It was just like, OK, nobody’s coming together. Why are we not coming together?

So before I did Unity in the Community in 2016, and that was as a result of Trayvon Martin’s death, that’s how I said, something’s got to change. Because I have a son that this could be happening to. And I have cousins. So I went to the chief of police. I think I shocked him, because he said, “No one has come to me the way you’re coming to me.” I said, “Look, we’ve got to sit down at the table. We got to talk this through.”

I went to former Sioux City Manager Paul Eckert. I talked with him. I talked with Karen Mackey, who was the city of Sioux City human rights director; she still is. I talked with her and I talked with Councilwoman Rhonda Capron. They were all like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” That day, I said, this is what I want to do. I said, “Let’s talk this through. We need to have a relationship instead of this division. We got to come together, we got to find common ground. Common ground right now is saving lives. Saving your life as officers, saving our lives as citizens.”

They all agreed. I said, “I want to start out with a peace march.” So in 2016, we put the word out. It was just word of mouth.

At that time, it was just me, myself, and a guy named Cliff Coleman. He’s from Dallas, Texas, in a very rough area. He didn’t like officers, but he trusted me enough to say, “OK, Mo, let’s sit down and see where this goes.” To hear his testimony and to watch the first time he broke down in a meeting. He said, “I did not like police. I hated police.” He broke down and he said, “But you know what? I can honestly say now, ‘I love you, man.’” And he pointed to Rex [Mueller], who’s our current chief of police. He said, “I love you, man. I love you.” It was just like, wow. So I watched his transformation.

Once we did that peace march, it was community coming together, a diverse community: officers, people from the sheriff’s office, Back the Blue, all of it. We all came together. We marched around the block, around the police station, and then at the end, we all held hands. We prayed together as people.City

So the organization Unity in the Community, that’s what came out. It was birthed in 2016. We’ve been working programs from educational forums to the first time we held the annual block party. That was Cliff’s idea. He said, “Hey, Mo, let’s do something out of the box.” I said, “What do you got in mind?” “Let’s hold a block party, but let’s do it in the neighborhood of the people.”

We started reaching out to people, and people were like, “Yeah, we’ll donate. We’ll do this.” The first block party, we had a little over 500 people.

We gave bikes away. We watched kids, we watched police officers, sit and laugh with the community. That had never been done before in Sioux City. I heard that from the police officers to the sheriff’s department to the City Council. They said, “You’re making history.” I wasn’t making history. We are making history as a community.

So then after that, that’s when we said, “OK, this is fun to have the block party, but now we have to educate our people.” We have to educate officers to understand why we do what we do. They have to tell us why they do what they do.

That’s when we started doing the fall educational forums. “Handling the hurt” was a topic one year. “Who’s responsible?” was a topic one year. Mental health was a topic. Yeah, it was like, we’re hurting, but officers are hurting. They didn’t get up that morning and say, “I’m gonna go kill somebody today.” That’s when the community started looking at – “Oh, wow.” You should have seen lights going off in these educational forums.

So those are extremely important. That’s why we continue to do those, because you get to hear both sides. We get to talk through things that are affecting our community. Or things that we think are going to try to infiltrate in our community, and we have to be proactive. We can’t react. We have to be proactive and say, “We already have something in place.”

When things happen in Sioux City, my phone rings at 1 or 2 in the morning: “We have a situation, Monique.”

When all that was going on – George Floyd – I went down and I was a little worried. I was. Because people’s emotions was everywhere. Mine was everywhere. I went down there and walked around for a minute.

There was a group of young men, and they were mad and they were just cussing, and saying “Defund the police. We hate the police. ‘F’ the police,” all this stuff. I said, “Hey, guys, can I just talk to you for a minute?”

“Who are you?”

I said, “Hey, I just want to talk to you. That’s it. I just want to share some wisdom nuggets with you.”


So I went over there. They were right in front of the police station. I just began to talk to them. I said, “Tell me a little bit about why you’re angry.” So they began to express why they’re angry.

You have every right to be as angry as you are. All that energy you feel right now, I said, now what I want you to do – take all that energy and figure out a way how you can change this from happening, in a positive way.

I left there about 3 that morning. By the time I left, we had some young folks with a different mindset. Then I marched with them. They didn’t expect me to do that. It’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m hurting like you’re hurting. But I’m here for you. We just got to find a way to take all this energy and channel it in a better way.”

The police officers were out there handing out water, because it was hot. These young people couldn’t believe that. ’Cause in their mind, these are the enemies. Nope. Not the enemy.


We want, somehow, to be invited to the White House. That’s what we say. Rex Mueller and I say we’re gonna get on that plane, smiling, and we’re gonna go in and say, “We have the blueprint for our nation, if people would just listen.” We hear, but are we really listening? We have the blueprint. We have the educational forums. We have the block parties. We have the roundtable discussions. We have the open doors. We have that willingness – you can call me at 1 o’clock in the morning, we can talk about this thing. We have people strategically placed and board members in strategic areas in the city, that they are talking about Unity in the Community.

Here’s the flip side of this organization. I have got, “Oh, you’re a sellout. You’re a sellout.” I went through that, and it was tough emotionally because you want your family and your friends to believe. No, I’m fighting for us. But I’m doing it in a different way, where we can just come together and not be so angry at one another anymore. I went through that emotionally and mentally, and that was hard. Some understood and some still don’t. That’s OK, because at the end of the day, the common ground is unity.

Getty Photos.
In the headlines
Iowa health care professionals discuss maternal health care for Native American women: According to a recent study, the maternal death rate for Indigenous women in Iowa rose from 26 per 100,000 live births in 1999 to 139 in 2019. In roughly that same 20-year period, the state has closed the doors on more than 40 of its birthing hospitals. Those closures largely affect expectant parents living in rural Iowa. In 2019, the UnityPoint Health-Marshalltown Hospital said it would no longer deliver babies. Dr. Elizabeth Tigges is an OBGYN practicing in Grinnell. She is one of the health care providers working to bridge the gap to improve birth and maternal outcomes. “I think the closure for Marshalltown was the worst thing that could have happened,” Tigges said. Tigges said the majority of pregnant women from the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County made the 20-minute drive to Marshalltown for their care. With that no longer an option, the commute nearly doubles, with the closest options for care being in Ames, Des Moines or Grinnell, according to this KCCI story. Tigges has absorbed dozens of patients who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. Indigenous women are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, experience poor birth outcomes and develop postpartum depression.

Sandra Day O’Connor, pathbreaking woman on Supreme Court, dies: O’Connor, whose independence on a court that was often ideologically divided made her the pivotal vote in numerous closely contested cases and one of the most powerful women of her era, died Dec. 1 in Phoenix, according to this in-depth story by the Washington Post. She was 93. The cause was complications from advanced dementia — probably Alzheimer’s disease — and a respiratory illness, according to an announcement by the court. O’Connor had said in 2018 that she had dementia and was exiting public life. In her nearly quarter-century as a justice, from her swearing-in on Sept. 25, 1981, after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan, to her retirement on Jan. 31, 2006, to care for her husband, who had Alzheimer’s, Justice O’Connor tried to avoid what she called “giant steps you’ll live to regret.”

Inside an Iowa adoptive mom’s quest to cover other families’ adoption fees — with a garage sale: Brittany Johnson became a caregiver for a distant relative’s baby girl, Gracie, when she was just 20 years old, according to this narrative story in the Des Moines Register by Courtney Crowder. The situation seemed strange to outsiders. Johnson, now of DeWitt, Iowa,  was a young nurse’s aide who was working on a degree, saving for a house and caring full time for someone else’s infant. Johnson became Gracie’s “Mimi.” She potty-trained Gracie. She signed her up for preschool and drove her every day. She decorated a room for her, complete with her own bed and toy chest. She got Gracie’s birth mom to sign a consent form letting her take Gracie to doctor appointments. She dressed her up for pictures with Santa. Eventually, Johnson was awarded guardianship, which gave her and Gracie more security. But it wasn’t the ultimate stability they sought. Adoption was the safety net they craved. But with some legal fee estimates in the tens of thousands of dollars, Johnson thought she would never be able to afford the permanency she and Gracie desperately wanted. For that, they’d need another blessing.

How menopause changes the brain: Neurological changes and menopausal symptoms are linked to dementia for some women, according to the New York Times. Across the U.S., roughly 6 million adults 65 and over have Alzheimer’s disease. Almost two-thirds of them are women — a discrepancy that researchers have long attributed to genetics and women’s longer life spans, among other reasons. But there is growing consensus that menopause may also be an important risk factor for the development of dementia later in life. Women going through the life phase, which is clinically defined as the end of fertility, face as many changes in the brain as in the ovaries, said Dr. Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist and director of the Women’s Brain Initiative at Weill Cornell Medicine. While the vast majority of women will weather these changes without long-term health consequences, about 20% will develop dementia in the decades that follow.

Worth checking out
Iowa woman has been friends with Xi Jinping for 25 years. Hear what she thinks about him being called a dictator. (CNN). Will gains from the spectacular ‘she-covery’ last? (Washington Post). I gave birth at 45. It was a miracle that almost cost me everything. (Slate). Black women in white workplaces are more likely to be considered ‘low performers’ (Essence). Citigroup is sued over sex abuse. Before 2022, it would have been a secret. (New York Times). A roadmap for supporting women in frontline retail roles (Forbes).
300 Santas and 2,400 tiny reindeer
Elaine Graham Estes has amassed around 300 editions of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Photo by Duane Tinkey.
It all started as a collection to be displayed at the Des Moines Public Library. Back in the 1990s, when Elaine Graham Estes was the library director — the first woman and first person of color in that role — she discovered that Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is the most-illustrated piece of writing in American history. Most people know it by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas …”

“I thought the library public should see works published in different editions,” she said. “So after I retired in 1996, I decided to start a collection of my own.” To date, she’s collected around 300 different editions.

Estes is intrigued by how different illustrators and graphic artists have brought to life the famous 56-line poem that has probably influenced the world’s vision of Santa Claus more than any other story. It’s been published in all sorts of styles and formats, including miniature books, coloring books, pop-up books, 3D books and even books that talk when they’re opened, like certain greeting cards.

She finds them at thrift stores, used book stores like Half Price Books and the Planned Parenthood Book Sales at the State Fairgrounds. But she doesn’t shop online, partly because she doesn’t own a smartphone or a computer. “I like to see that the books have all the pages and that the movable parts work,” she said. “I really like to see, touch and find.”

The poem was first published in 1823 and has been republished in some form almost every year since the late 1800s. Estes has shared its history in presentations to various groups like the Iowa Questers, the Iowa Antique Network and the Print Club at the Des Moines Art Center. She also curated an exhibit for the public library in Springfield, Missouri, her hometown.

By now, Estes figures more than 1,000 editions have been published over the years. Her oldest edition dates to the 1840s, and she’s fascinated by the way Santa’s image has evolved over time. “The early editions always talk about him in his fur and with his pipe,” she said. “But in recent years, there have been concerns about encouraging [the wearing of] fur and smoking for children, so many have eliminated that part of the story.”

In the poem, jolly old St. Nicholas plops out of the sky with a sleigh full of gifts. But as any collector like Estes knows, the real pleasure is often in the hunt. “I love finding things that I don’t have,” she said. “I am pleased with the fact that I have found versions in all these different formats. That’s what is especially exciting.”

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