The Ecosystem of Gun Violence

A virus attaches itself to an animal. It can replicate quickly, or it can lie dormant. It does not present as a killer until the symptoms of the illness it transmits are seen, and even then, the carrier of the virus is under no obligation to seek treatment even if the  animal has the consciousness or the means to do so. As a result, many may die from spreading infection.

Twenty inches of rain fall. A river swells and breaches its banks, drowning the surrounding houses, destroying lives.

An “act of nature.”

This is the destruction we ascribe to “natural” causes.

But what about human nature? What about human “animals”?

Of all the ways in which people die in this country, very few have become as controversial and divisive as gun violence, particularly gun violence by rampage killers such as the one who opened fire at Umpqua Community College two weeks ago and killed ten people, injuring nine.

Do we need gun control- universal background checks, am emphasis on gun safety, a ban on assault weapons? Or do we need to focus more on access to mental health care? The arguments usually fall into either one camp or one another.

Image by Maria Maarbes, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Image by Maria Maarbes, courtesy of Shutterstock.

We know that for all of those who die because of high profile mass shootings- whether those that are motivated by the racial hatred — as in Charleston, South Carolina this summer– or by other causes, there are countless more that are murdered because of other crimes, and because of the realities of violence born from poverty and oppression.

In his press conference, Obama urged news agencies to compare for themselves how many Americans have died from terrorism, and how many from gun violence in the past ten years.  CNN reported that the disparity is  a staggering one. One  American is killed by terrorism for every one thousand killed by gun violence. And yet, no substantive changes in legislation.

What is embedded in our cultural ecosystem that makes mass shootings  so commonplace? Why must the cycle of hurt, pain, and tragedy continue, inflicting unimaginable sorrow on those affected?

In many parts of the country, including, apparently, in Roseburg Oregon in which the shooting took place, hunting culture predominates, and guns for that purpose are a way of life. This is not something that can be swept aside or merely heaped with scorn. Hunting, too, is a part of human history, can be done in a sustainable way and, most importantly,  will not soon drift away.

On CNN when Bradley Cooper interviewed a couple whose daughter had been injured in the event, asking what they would say if President Obama spoke to them, they seemed to indicated that given the chance they would tell him that problem is not with guns, its mental health care. For them, The carrier of the “illness”, the mental health of the shooter, is at the root of the problem.

Mental health systems are often inadequate in our country. They are geared towards stopping people when they are about to harm themselves or others and often less successful in abating the slow deterioration of spirit and soul that leads up to the point of violence. Stigma, an inadequate number of doctors and counselors, and many other factors still affect mental health care despite some advances in health insurance parity.

In the argument about the nature of violence and rampage killings in the United States, there are no binary explanations. It is not an “either/or” but a “both, and.  The gun lobby is not the sole cause, and to be sure, millions of people who may be lumped into the category of “mentally ill” never result to violence on a grand scale.

Acts of violence are not separated emotionally and psychically by distance, either. If it happens in another state or even two neighborhoods away, we are all still damaged, we are all affected.  Our prayers may turn in that direction for a time, and but then get distracted by other events.  The rising toxin of violence still spreads over the landscape.

I was reminded recently of a famous report about the impact of the reintroduction of wolves back into Yellowstone Park. When a small wolf pack was reintroduced into the park in 1995, nearly seventy years after being wiped out, a series of changes occurred in the ecosystem. A cascading series of effects occurred. Grass returned to certain valleys in the park because the deer population were now forced to alter their habits. This in turn led to more trees and changes in the amounts of smaller species, like rabbits and foxes, which in term brought more bald eagles back, and beavers, which ultimately even affected the way rivers ran into the park.

In the end, the interdependence of life in the Yellowstone meant that everything was connected. All aspects of living, dying and surviving are interdependent.

Similarly, in the culture we create- the social culture– we need to understand that there are no binaries. There are no either/ors. There is only a chance to act.

We need common sense gun control, to prevent humans from hunting one another unnecessarily. And we need to rethink mental health systems, and remove  stigma so that those who are prone to violence can get the help they need.  Everything is interconnected.

Unlike many biological pathogens, and unlike many violent storms driven by nature, the means to stop this mass killer are directly within our grasp. May the Goddess grant us the compassion, wisdom, and will to find and use them quickly.

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Neighbors and Strangers

Who is a neighbor? Who is a stranger?

These are the questions that confront anyone who volunteers for accompaniment work for with the New Sanctuary Coalition. The people I volunteer to accompany to their immigration check-ins are often, at first, strangers to me- people who are navigating the often byzantine system of regulations which often keep them marginalized and uncertain about the future- not just their own, but their families as well. Yet, they are also my neighbors. They are part of the city I live in. The most ancient moral precepts of social justice call upon us to be witnesses to those who are strangers, and to reach out to and associate our neighbor’s welfare with our own. And that is what makes New Sanctuary Coalition and its work so essential to the current condition of our nation’s immigration policy.

I have met several people through the New Sanctuary Coalition. Several have young families that might be split apart. One gentleman is working as a counselor, attempting to give back and pass on what he learned from his life’s experiences. Another wants to work in the field of economic development, transforming local communities. From these experiences, it became clear to me – as was never so clear in a seminary class- that the prophetic and the pastoral are one. We can protest and demand legislative systems to reform the immigration process, but the real impacts of the crisis are felt in individual lives and stories, in moments and sometimes hours tensely waited in a crowded room for your name to be called and your story to be heard by a judge or officer.

In pursuing my religious avocation, I have seen much that has redirected the way I think about my social location, the condition of the world, and what gifts we are given to work with in order to effect change. In activist work, there are so many ways in which the tide can be turned that are unexpected, small, and unnoticed. By bearing witness in a pastoral way, to someone life, or being silent when one previously jumped in to dominate a conversation. This is the activism that does not show up on twitter feeds or on the front pages- but it is active and engaged all the same.

Let us never forget to make the stranger into our beloved neighbor, and let us start by listening- not to respond, necessarily- but to hear.

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Ritual in the news this week: Red socks, Soccer, and Latin Mass?

What is in the word “ritual”?

Lately, the word “ritual” has broadened to include what I would call magick.  The World Cup has some doozies. Here is an entertaining advertisement based on pre-sports rituals of soccer players. Note the appearance of a range of rituals in this Beats World Cup Ad– from the mundane like wearing red socks to the more elaborate, like Afro-Caribbean altars and the opening pep talk by presumably the player’s father.

And, in case you didn’t notice, it’s all really an ad for headphones.

So-called  “weird” pre-game sports rituals are nothing new, and have been reported on for probably as long as their have been sports reporters.  Here is my personal favorite, a player who liked to watch the original Willy Wonka before every game. 

Will it may seem easier to call these “rituals”, I like to think of them more as singular actions implying magical intent. One of the things I learned from my esteemed professors Janet Walton and Troy Messenger in graduate school was to define my perception of what ritual is. In the case above, we are speaking of an audience of usually two, (unless the Malvin Kamara invites his team to watch Willa Wonka with him) the participant and the intended audience. I am going to hazard a guess and say the intended audience might be the “powers that be” that produce good results in soccer matches. However, as a full-blown ritual, they kind of miss the mark. The red socks the player wears in the video above seem more like talismans to me. Now, if he did a sun-salutation, series of prayer and offerings, or a blessing of the socks BEFORE wearing them, that would entail a ritual.

Also, this week in liturgy, another story I find fascinating and sad– the apparent struggle between Holy Innocents Church here in New York City and the local Roman Catholic Diocese, which is apparently (again) trying to close and consolidate churches. This time, however, they have chosen the one church in New York that offers a full Latin Mass of the type performed before Vatican II.  You can read more about the controversy in a June 28th issue of the NYTimes:

 the Holy Innocents, Home of the City’s Only Daily Latin Mass, Might Close –

I am not in agreement with some of the positions of the Roman Catholic church on several issues, but I find it fascinating that Father Wylie is in danger of censure because he speaking for (or with) those parishioners who choose to worship in an old way that appeals to them, that brings them closer to God. Aren’t these ways of worship valuable for keeping the flock together, at the very least?

Pope Francis is heralded by those on the left  as the necessary correction, a long-awaited answer to those who felt that the Vatican  was out of touch with the laity, more concerned with articulating sin and regulated sexuality than helping the poor.

But here is an issue in which Latin most decidedly is not a dead language especially when a priest and a parish are on the line. Is it wrong to let old ways die a slow death?

I welcome your comments.

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Air Moves Us, Fire Transforms us, Water Shapes us, Earth Heals Us!



(The Long Beach Boardwalk)

I went to Long Beach, Long Island on Saturday, June 14th, hoping to get a chance to hoop and holler and raise my voice to the wind, cheering a runner at the finish line of a grueling 100 mile race.
Instead, I got amply blasted by sand and wind, and the lovely picnic supplied by the three families from  the Sustainability Committee at 4th Universalist Society, my Unitarian Universalist congregation, was packed away relatively quickly: Case closed by the Element of the Air: wind power works.


The occasion was Wind 100, a Sierra Club event to put pressure on Governor Cuomo to make due on promises to  develop the off-shore wind potential of Long Island. We were there to rally and to await the arrival of Matt Kearns- an activist for the Sierra Club who was running the length of Long Island in one day in order to draw attention to wind power.


As we sat on the bleachers on the board walk and watched local officials speak, we had a reminder of how grave the fight to promote renewable energy-rather than fracking or other fossil fuel infrastructure- really is. The entire board walk was brand new- rebuilt after Sandy over a year and a half ago, a storm many believe has heralded the tipping point of the climate crisis. With the proposed LNG/Port Ambrose port for the Rockaways poised to bring greater amounts of dangerous fracked gas into our area, there is no time like the present to pressure Governor Cuomo and other government officials to make wind farms a reality. If you want, you can start doing that right here.

Matt Kearns made it safely to Long Beach that night, but we have a long, long ways to go to making renewable energy taken for granted in New York. We have Matt and countless others to thank for the tireless efforts. Although the turn out at the beach was somewhat smaller than expected, I took a lot of hope from seeing the range of generations there- from the kids to the old stalwart environmentalists I have seen at other rallies. Let’s continue to lift our sails, and send our voices out to the powers and spirits of the wind!

**this blog post also appears at the NYC Pagan Environmental Coalition’s Blogsite***

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Religious Constriction –

Religious Constriction –

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What Unitarian Universalists can learn from the tradition of Shavuot


Yesterday and today marks the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. I  was reminded of this when I was speaking to an old colleague of mine at the 92nd Street Y. This holiday, coming about 40 days after Passover,  marks the return of Moses from Mt. Sinai with the Torah. It is one of the two major holidays– Simchat Torah being the other one- that specifically relate to Torah itself. (Torah study and commentary being a constant feature of Jewish liturgical life and spiritual identity).  Shavuot is celebrated with  dairy products, all-night study, and the prohibition not to work- amongst other things.

An article in the Huffington Post gives an excellent chant to sing as part of Shavuout that, simple and elegant, is usable in other contexts.

From Earth we receive

To the one we give

Together we share

And from this we live


There is another version here

From thee I receive

to thee I give

Together we share

and from this we live..


According to Wikipedia, “first fruits” were offered at this festival when the temple existed in Jerusalem, which makes their agricultural calendar different then ours- I think of apples in the fall, and blueberries in August here on the East coast of North America.

The custom of study combined with the custom (not mandate!) to eat dairy products like cheese blitzes, cheese cake,  and the like, is, in fact, a mental and a spiritual feast. Today, thousands of year later, the celebration of Torah study is, in effect, a remembrance of the first fruits in another way- it  is precious spiritual food.  Further time off for Torah study is a fitting reminder of what nourishes many Jews around the world.

In our Unitarian Universalist communities today, what would we consider our “spiritual food” or our “first harvests”?  If we were to take time to celebrate the “milk and honey” of the liberal faith by studying and not  engaging in worship,  what would we do?

Would it be Emerson, would it be Margaret Fuller, would it be historians like Mark-Morrison-Reed? Or would it be social action?

Perhaps we don’t need a strict cannon for this exercise.  Or do we?  Would a “cannon”  for a day help us to unify our congregations, and serve a common purpose?  A day off for study- or more exactly- resting and taking pleasure in study-  may help us to find, as the song says, that “from which we live” in a new way.  I invite your comments!



Please note: I am looking at getting an audio recording of this song and others embedded in my blog.  It will likely be no frills of me chanting. Stay tuned!





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Sparks on the Water 2.0

In the effort to re-tool my blog, I have taken a gander at the UUA’s questions for UU bloggers. Here we go!


1. Why do you blog? What goals do you have for your blog?

I wish to explore the questions that concern me- imagination and reason living side by side, wonder, prophecy, and action and how these questions heal our fractured planet. I am interested in how we (i.e., Unitarian Universalists, CUUPS members, everyone who reads this!) integrate our creative selves into what we do, especially through liturgy and creative rituals. I want my blog to help me improve my writing skills, get my ideas out there, and communicate and be confronted by others who think differently than I do and can enlarge my perspective.

3. Who is your intended audience?

Unitarian Universalists and other religious people of all types and on both sides of the spectrum.  People with a flair for the dramatic, mystics, dreamers, activists, those who hover in the spectrum of “spiritual but not religious, art and music lovers, eco-dreamers.

5. Who owns your blog? Does it belong to you as individual or to your congregation or other organization?
I own my blog.

6.How frequently do you post

At least once a week

7.What is the tone of your blog?

Sometimes funny, sometimes angry or engaging in advocacy. Hopefully always poetical.

8.What steps do you take to make sure that your blog is a safe space, both for you and for other participants? Do you have a code of conduct?

Yes- no swearing or flame wars. Healthy debate okay. I will remove anyone who uses inappropriate language, who engages in racism, sexism, homophobia  or  who acts like a troll in general.

9. What kinds of boundaries do you observe around confidentiality?

I am not sure I understand this, aside from I think that in describing people or situations I know first-hand that are of a sensitive nature (someone’s illness, someone’s trauma) I think it wise to change their names unless they are comfortable with being known. I think, on the other hand,  that too often people post attacks under pseudonyms. I wish to avoid that at all times, while still respecting the privacy of those who need it.

10.How do you respond to comments and email from readers?
I think I will comment and respond but I am not sure if I want my personal email being used for email exchanges.

11. What are the most challenging aspects of blogging in your experience?

Committing to the process (discipline of once a week) and trusting that you have something interesting to say.

12. What are the most rewarding aspects of blogging in your experience?

Getting a chance to interact with others of like mind and learn from them.

13. What advice would you give to Unitarian Universalists who are new to blogging and want to get started?

Well, I am new myself!

I guess I wonder myself if you have to have “a niche” or a “brand” starting out, or can develop a purpose over time. There is tension in that for me.

14. How do you evaluate the success of your blog? What have been your most successful blog posts or series?

By the number of hits and the thoughtfulness of the comments.  The post that was most successful was about ministerial calling and rites of passage.

15. What do you wish you had done differently in your blogging?

Just kept it up regularly

16. What other online tools do you use to promote your blog? (i.e. social networking sites, Twitter, social bookmarking tools, etc.)

I am just starting to use twitter.

17. Do you use an Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed?

I think I do. Luckily, I know what that is, but it has been so long I have not checked!

18. How many subscribers do you have? It says 400??

19. Do you track site traffic? How many unique visitors do you have per day (on average)?

Yes! I do!

20. Do you find Unitarian Universalist Association resources helpful to you as a blogger? What additional resources could we provide to Unitarian Universalist bloggers?

I am pleased with the tools-and not just these tools, but the Church of the Larger Fellowship and the other online resources as well. They are exciting, but one thing I am curious about-how to we integrate them or not integrate them with what is happening in the bricks and mortar buildings??
21. Please write any additional comments or suggestions.
I have none… what I am doing here is using an existing blog and building on it. Wish me luck!

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A liturgy of complaining

Hello and welcome back, sparks on the water!

This year as I begin my last year of seminary,  I thought I would try to get into the regular habit of blogging again. What has crippled me in the past is the feeling that good writing only comes as a result of passionate inspiration, and not through practice. So this week, a few random thoughts , with no illusions as to the weightiness of my topics or the perfection of my writing.

I have been fishing for an angle for my thesis. I am a great procrastinator, one of the best. I have not been working on this steadily over the summer aside from defining the general area I want to write in or about- ecology and liturgy. I haven’t even decided if this is an analytic paper or a liturgical-creative project.  In search of answers, I took out a book called “Ecology and Liturgy in Dialogue”, a thin little volume which has proved a bit disappointing, at least for my purposes. It contains no liturgy, and not much dialogue. Instead, it is a concisely written account of why Roman Catholics should care about the environment, and what the incarnation and the Eucharist should lead us to believe about ecology, along with some questions for discussion. 

However, one of the things that struck was a comment attributed to Charles Dickens that the author of this book,  Fr. Lawrence Mick, uses in order to make a point about the importance of recognizing blessings. Charles Dickens told Americans that  perhaps they had it wrong- there should be 364 days given over to Thanksgiving and one day given over to complaining.

This got me really thinking- what would a liturgy of complaining look like?

Instead of passing out the collection plates, the collection box would open and each parishioner-congregant could take from the collection box an amount they perceive as “disappointment money”

Prayers for the People or “Prayers for the Common Life” would become a litany of complaints  (this would be a long service)

Music might entail such choral gems as “the Kvetching cantata”.

I can also just imagine what the children’s story could could be- perhaps something about fallen ice-cream cones?

If we were to have an liturgy of complaining, though, for one day, I imagine that it certainly would not be complete without certain complaint-worthy foods, such as Thanksgiving is not complete with the standard foods that sanction it a civic holiday.

Well, what do you think? Any ideas for a liturgy of complaining?


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2013 Just Food Conference: Who Owns the Food

Food Justice: Who owns the food?

Food justice is an incredibly complex social issue. At every step along the food chain, moral choices are being made—from who controls seed patents, to which crops are subsidized, to the conditions of workers who serve, process, and harvest the food we eat. When we separate the health of land and sea from these issues, we do a disservice to the interconnectedness of environmental justice, human rights, food access, and poverty. More and more, activists are beginning to form alliances to address food insecurity in a comprehensive way.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Just Food Conference, which took place March 29-30. One speaker at a workshop I attended indicated that ten years ago the event was drawing around 75 people—whereas this year’s conference was attended by 2,000. No matter what your interest—growing on your rooftop, insuring food-worker justice, starting a food pantry or even just learning how to make your own cheese—there was something to learn.
I attended one particularly eye-opening workshop called Resource Grabs: Taking Back Our Rights to the Land & the Sea. Representatives of two organizations helped frame the resource grab issue, the Northwest Marine Alliance, and the National Coalition of Family Farmers. For both farmers and fisherman, the issue is consolidation. Large pension funds, such as TIAA-CREF, the largest pension fund for teachers and non-profit sector workers, are now in the business of buying farming land as an investment. In the wake of the recent recession, farmland is increasingly seen as a safer, longer-term prospect for wealth consolidation. While this may be good for pensions, it negatively impacts food distribution, because it aggregates farmland in fewer and fewer hands, pricing it away from the individual family farmer and putting it into the control of corporate investors. A March 18th article in the New York Times by Julie Creswell details the plight of smaller farmers, saddled with debt, forced to sell their family businesses in light of the new prices being offered for farmland.

Who Fishes Matters?
A Parallel issue is fish catch shares. Catch shares were originally put into place by local fishing authorities to insure that eco-systems are not depleted. This video from the Center for Investigative Reporting, however, puts the issue in stark relief: By consolidating fishing rights into the hands of larger consolidating corporations, individual fisherman no longer own their own boats. In effect, they are becoming share croppers in the oceans.
Larger boats often use methods and gear that aggravate fish stocks, and do not have to provide fair wages for their fisherman. Moreover, the cost of going into the industry for an individual fisherman is prohibitively expensive, meaning that coastal communities and the fishing way of life are rapidly dying out. Nowadays, Community Supported Fisheries—the ocean’s version of a Community Supported Agriculture program—are offering consumers a choice in how they get their seafood – and providing important outlets for family-owned businesses.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by choices along the food supply chain. Should I buy this strawberry? What is in the cereal? Is organic better for the earth, and can I afford it? What are the conditions in this restaurant? Is fish right to eat anyway? In the end, justice for food producers, consumers, and for the earth and its waters are not isolated issues. Food production is just as much a social justice issue as it is an environmental issue; progress demands that we weave these issues together.

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Extreme Composting at Union Seminary!

EXTREME COMPOSTING- brought to you by the Edible Churchyard!

If there is one thing that the Edible Churchyard is known for at Union, it’s composting. Composting is the one thing we do that reminds us that even in a city environment, there are simple ways to create a holistic relationship with the sacred earth. But why do we compost?

One of the biggest environmental hazards produced by rotting garbage is methane gas. Methane is one of the “greenhouse gases” which contribute to climate change. Methane occurs naturally in wetlands, volcanos and other sources, but it is also produced by livestock and is a byproduct of large amounts of rotting human waste (like landfills). Methane leaching into the soil (along with heavy metals and other toxins) is one of the chief dangers of landfills. At one point in the 1990s NYC’s infamous Fresh Kills landfill was thought to be the largest human-made structure in the world. Over 20 years ago, Fresh Kills became the symbol of a waste management crisis that lead to the start of mandatory recycling in New York. When we compost, we keep waste out of landfills by utilizing systems which replenish, rather than contaminate, the environment.

So what is “extreme” about Union’s composting efforts? In a word: bokashi. Bokashi composting is extreme for two reasons: first, it only takes two weeks for compost prepared using the bokashi method to become usable, as opposed to the weeks and even months for other methods. Some other composting techniques can take up to a year to produce a usable soil-additive. Second, with bokashi, you can compost nearly everything—including pits and corn cobs, meat, dairy, and shredded paper. What is the source of this magic? Fermentation. In essence, bokashi is pickled food waste. Bokashi is a Japanese method, and, in Japanese, the word simply means organic, fermented waste. In addition, a substance called EM-1 Microbial Inoculant, a solution of microbes that speeds up the process of fermentation, also separates bokashi composting from other forms of composting. The same processes that are used in pickling and beer are at work in Bokashi.

Microbes are our Friends!
One of the chief benefits that compost can provide, besides putting nutrients back into soil and reducing landfills, is bio-remediation. Through bio-remediation, depleted or toxic soil with large amounts of lead, arsenic, and other toxic by-products of industry can be made usable again. This is a boon particularly in urban areas where soil toxicity is a pernicious and pervasive concern. Bokashi, once it has reached its final stage, is then “trenched” into the planting area. We are currently working with a consultant through the Horticultural Society of New York to begin a program of monitoring and analyzing the changes in soil composition and toxicity using this affordable and accessible method of bioremediation. While remediating the soil, it also puts organic matter into the soil, improving its quality and efficacy for gardening. The Edible Churchyard’s Cooking and Consciousness Intern, Kristen Psaki, told me that the local Harlem Truce Garden uses their bokashi to great effect. “Within a matter of weeks, they told me that previously unproductive soil was showing signs of life, such as earth worms. That is always a good sign that soil is on its way back.”

Overall, bokashi is particularly simple. It is also well-suited to an urban environment as it uses little space. In fact, you can easily create a small, odorless composting system under your sink, and then bring it to a garden site to contribute to the soil.

Compost technology has come a long way. When I was a child working on my family’s tiny “hobby” farm in New Jersey, the labor involved in my father’s compost project was cumbersome— my father would turn layers of field clippings with a pitchfork until the compost practically boiled in the sun. Our compost pile was open air—giving off steam and stink to such a degree that I didn’t want to come near it with a ten-foot pole! This made a big impression on me. Thankfully, bokashi and other composting methods have made it easier for even the average New Yorker to deal with their waste conscientiously. By being just a little bit more aware of where you place your food waste, you can participate in reducing pollution and replenishing the earth at the same time.

For more info on composting, drop us a line or speak to Kristen at Community Lunch! She will be taking your food scraps until our bin is full.

Yours in microbial togetherness,

Valerie Freseman
Education and Outreach Intern

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