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Lauren E. Turner and No Dream Deferred

Building Our Own Tables Episode #2

We dedicate this episode to the memory and legacy of the late and great New Orleans actress, Carol Sutton, who passed away on 10 December 2020 from complications of COVID-19.

Yura Sapi: Imanalla mashikuna. Hello, friends. How are you? Welcome to another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast, interviewing BIPOC visionaries, our arts organizations, institutions, collectives, and beyond. This podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, and in partnership with Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating liberated spaces that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world.

I'm your host Yura Sapi. Today I'm joined by Lauren Turner of No Dream Deferred.

[music]

What happens to a dream deferred? No Dream Deferred is a community-anchored theatre production company. No Dream Deferred prioritizes culturally relevant theatre and the work of historically marginalized playwrights for a New Orleans audience. They recognize the systemic nature of cultural marginalization in the arts and therefore fight to create. And to create as often as we please so that our stories are told and our dreams are never deferred. No Dream Deferred strives to be an artistic home to theatremakers of color in New Orleans, a place where our stories are authentically realized and wonderfully experienced.

Lauren E. Turner is a performer, director, producer, and community facilitator. She is driven by her interest in equitable, place-based, culturally relevant theatre, especially as it pertains to the global south. Her work lives where storytelling, community building, and politics intersect. Lauren is an artEquity-trained diversity and inclusion facilitator. Lauren received her Masters of Fine Arts and Performance from the University of Southern Mississippi and her Bachelors of Arts from North Carolina Central University. When not devising, directing, or producing, Lauren is the ringmaster of her very own home circus that she shares with her partner, Jason, and their three children, Austyn, Elijah, and Nia.

In this episode, Lauren shares offerings of what it means to be community-anchored, the importance of structure within shared leadership, preventing founder's syndrome, and so much more. I'm so excited for you to listen or be reading the transcript. So get comfy, get a notebook, take notes, get inspired, and enjoy today's episode.

Hi, Lauren. So grateful to be talking with you today. I'd love to start off by asking you about No Dream Deferred's origin story.

Lauren E. Turner: Thank you for having me. So, No Dream Deferred really started off as a series of conversations, between India Mack who is the co-founder, and myself. We live in New Orleans, Louisiana, though not necessarily a huge market for theatre making, but with a long history of storytelling and theatre making. This is a city that is predominantly Black, and yet there are very few spaces that center Black narratives that are owned by Black theatremakers, artists—other types of performing artists in general.

And we found ourselves as theatremakers, as managers, and directors, and performers, in a situation where there was a lot of gatekeeping. We're being ushered into predominantly white spaces when they are calling for us and then promptly ushered back out until the next time they determine there is a need. And we were looking for ways to just have more power and agency around how often we create, and the type of stories we tell and so we just started to literally dream out loud about what a space like that might look like for New Orleans. And we very quickly identified that to be that space in New Orleans, that it would have to hold special place for co-design with community.

Yura Sapi: Chapter three. Community-anchored. Can you speak more about directly responding to and with community and how that might differ from maybe what we're used to experiencing in the professional nonprofit theatre industrial complex?

Lauren: Yeah. I am a community member. I consider myself of community—my respective community. Here in New Orleans: Black community. We didn't really speak out to be representative because we felt like no one elected us to do this. So we're not representative, especially because we're of the community. We’re not holding up a mirror. It is us. We are it. We approached it from the standpoint that, we are not the artistic savior of this space. This community has everything that it needs to thrive. It is New Orleans, and so it already has a rich, artistic, legacy, history and reality and so, how can the art that is created serve as a further asset to the city. Who are the members of our community who may benefit from having other ways in which to share their own experiences?

As soon as we started to develop this idea amongst ourselves, we immediately started to have these open forums around the needs of artists and also Black artists, LGBTQIA+ artists in the city, who are also Black, Indigenous and people of color. And also audience members, what types of stories were they interested in seeing and hearing? No one really had asked. There was this dynamic of, what we're doing is artistically right. Either you understand that or you're kept out of these spaces. We developed this idea that if community doesn't feel like the material is assessable, it's not right for this space. Out of that, we developed this idea about being community-anchored. Think about an anchor.

[anchor dropping down sound]

It's definitely tied to a place, so we're tied to New Orleans. If you could envision going up to the top of the ocean, the buoy is using that anchor, circling that anchor. So everything we do, we're not screaming New Orleans from the mountain tops, but it's not going to go far from what's culturally relevant to the people who live here.

[music]

Cultural relevance is huge. Why does this matter? Why this story? Why now? There wasn't a lot of that going on. Right now, India and I have been shepherding the vision, but we always envisioned ways to embrace radical co-design and have tried to incorporate it as much as we felt we could as we've developed. We're three years old. And right now we're actually transitioning to a collective model, where India and I, will no longer—our hope is that we're no longer considered the face of No Dream Deferred, that instead when people think of who is making this work, they think of a group of people. And so we're calling that group the dream team. Incorporate into that are a lot of our plans and dreams around succession and legacy building around the next dream team, and the next dream team, and seven dream teams from now. But really the vision for this organization, for this company, belongs to New Orleans. What happens to it belongs to New Orleans. It's up to New Orleans.

Yura Sapi: Yes. Almost like this removing, almost, that ego as a leader, because the project is so much bigger than you.

Lauren: Yeah. It really is our love letter. I often say at a time like this is a love letter to this place. Also as two Black women, it's always another conversation about nonprofit work. We talk about our labor. Actually, encouraging and supporting a shared leadership model is probably one of the most self-loving things that I could do for myself as a leader, because there's this thing that happens in nonprofit or grassroots work where community can sometimes hold you accountable to the outcome for community, and it can burn you out. It can really burn you out.

Very quickly, I had a wonderful peer mentor who works in the art field. She's actually the chief curator at the local African American art museum, who told me that, she very quickly let community know that if this thing is going to happen for us, we're all going to make it happen for us. It's not going to be me and the moment it feels like just me or just Lauren pushing to make this thing happen, that immediately throws into play, is this the thing that the community wants? Is this something that's needed and wanted? I oftentimes tell folks when I'm at public events or at community events, what we want can change, it doesn't always have to be this. So if this is still what we want, that we all have to take a part in doing something to make it happen. This is for us by us.

I think that's the difference between a lot of service organizations that are white-led. It's literally a framework of white folk doing something for a community versus people of the community doing something for and with community. This is truly for us by us. I can't and won't do it alone. And it makes the celebration so much sweeter. You know what I mean? So when we do reach milestones or we do accomplish things, there is no faking it. It belongs to all of us. We did this.

Yura Sapi: Chapter four. Organizational structure. Something that I have learned for myself is the need for structure. Even though we're saying that there's no one face or one leader, that it's a group and it's a collective, there still needs to be a significant and strong structure in terms of how decisions are made and how things work, otherwise then it's just like this, there's nobody... And then... But there's not this energy in figuring out how to actually get things to happen so I would love to hear your thoughts on this idea of needing structure even though it's a non-hierarchical model.

Lauren: I think that the structure we are trying out is one in which there are very clearly defined roles within the dream team. And so everyone is very much aware of when we're making things what they come to the table with to make sure they happen. Also, we have a structure that is really built on our values. For example, we have to, because of who we are, model equitable pay for the artists that work with us. Even the dream team, even though we aren't at a place where we can have full salary positions, these aren't volunteer positions, these are paid positions.

Recently I just had someone tell me, "I can do that for y’all for free." And I said, "Actually, we can't." One of the dream team members was standing there and they're like, "Why would you turn down free… whatever?" And I was like, "We actually can’t." [laughter] Especially when it comes to paying Black, or Indigenous, or people of color. We have to actually model it, especially if we're demanding it of the world, we want to show people it's possible. We want to show people that this is a space where your worth is recognized at all times. Not saying that we don't have people who volunteer at certain things but there's a standard and our structure is held up by those standards and values.

Same thing within the way we respect and honor elders as it relates to our legacy building. We always address ourselves in relationship to those who came before us and many of those folks who are still in community with us making theatre. And so a lot of times before we even get to talk about who we are, we're talking about Junebug Productions and John O'Neal, we're talking about Dashiki Theatre Project, we're talking about Chakula Cha Jua. We're talking about people who have really laid the blueprint for us. They are seen as the original dream team, honestly. So structure for us looks like, clearly defined expectations and roles within the dream team collective. That's the way we share leadership. That's the way we show up for each other. By bringing our best to the table.

Now, what that looks like isn't predetermined by the group. Each member tells us what they feel like they could best bring to the group, which is really different, I think. A lot of times there's like, a job posting, or someone tells you what they want you to do, and it was really important for us to say, even though I may think you would be great at doing this with No Dream Deferred, what do you want to bring to this? What do you want to do? And I think that's the dreaming part of it too. Is that, there's so many things that, as Black folk and as people of color, get suppressed. So many skills and gifts that we never get to try out because people are constantly telling us, who we are and what we have to offer, and so wanting to really model in even the way we approach working with each other: what is it that you've always wanted to do? And how good you are at it actually—there’s room for you to grow. This idea about having to be perfect, doesn't exist here.

Yura Sapi: Chapter five. Avoiding toxic entrepreneurship and founder’s syndrome.

Are there any discoveries you've made about yourself throughout this process?

Lauren: Oh, my Lord. Yeah. I already know, that the key to this for me... I'm still working on some of the ways I've internalized white supremacy culture, as it relates to this field because I was trained here in America so there's no way that my interpretation of what theatre making looks like and is is not tainted by white supremacy culture. But one of the things that I already know that I'm having to monitor within myself is that if I'm going to embrace this collective and shared leadership model, that I also have to let go of—all of really—all of my ideas around what the aesthetic of the product. And that is an interesting negotiation with myself because in a lot of ways No Dream Deferred feels like my baby. And as a mother, you're raising a young child, you exert a lot of control over the way things are presented and the way things are done.

In a capitalistic society, I oftentimes feel very much aligned with an entrepreneur. And even in that I'm having to reject that. I'm not really an entrepreneur. I'm an art maker, and I'm a community facilitator. Because entrepreneur puts us in a frame of mind that welcomes a lot of white supremacy culture characteristics into the work. And so as an entrepreneur you know the ideals would be that you have to control the brand, you have to control the aesthetic. And I have to let go of that because I can't say, the goal is for this to be owned and embraced by community but yet it still has to meet an aesthetic that I've determined appropriate, based on my white supremacy culture-filled artistic theatre training. You know?

Yura Sapi: Yeah. I absolutely know. I think I was influenced early on because actually I wasn't in conversation with other BIPOC people who are doing the same things that I was doing. And I was super influenced by other types of people doing businesses that are just not the values that I'm actually interested in and being swayed to think that you need to have the control of your business, you know, be careful who you trust. All these things that came into my experience.

[music]

From dismantlingracism.org: What is white supremacy culture? White supremacy culture is the idea or ideology that white people, and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people, are superior to people of color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. White supremacy culture is reproduced by all the institutions of our society. The list of white supremacy characteristics include: perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, valuing quantity over quality, worship of the written word, belief in only one right way, paternalism, either or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflicts, individualism, belief that I'm the only one who can do this right, the belief that progress is bigger and more, a belief in objectivity, and claiming a right to comfort. Visit dismantlingracism.org to read Tema Okun's piece on the list of characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in our organizations.

[music fades out]

What do you think is the antidote?

Lauren: What I'm using as my antidote is the end result, and the end vision and goal which is very much connected to something that is truly belonging to New Orleans, not Lauren. This isn't a business that I'm going to pass on to my children. You know what I mean? This isn't a cultural asset, an artistic asset to the city. And just reminding myself of that. If that is to be the case, I actually have to get into the practice and habit of letting go more and more of what I think No Dream Deferred is every single day. Every single day.

Letting go is antithetical to how we're taught to make theatre institutions or make theatre companies in America. We're taught there's a single artistic vision that's supposed to guide the company. That folks are supposed to stay in positions for their whole entire careers. Once you reach the pinnacle of artistic director, you might stay there for thirty years. I think that's crazy. [laughter]

Especially in the nonprofit sector, in the service organization sector. I think to say that my single artistic vision is going to be the vision for this company for my whole entire thirty-year span of a career—it keeps you from ever having a conversation with community. It's impossible. How is that possible? As an organization to be in conversation with community if you've got one single artistic vision of one person, reigning supreme for twenty-eight, thirty years. So I just stay focused on what is the real vision and goal for No Dream Deferred.

Yura Sapi: Yeah!

Lauren: There's a separation too. And that's how I also try to keep myself from having founder’s syndrome is the separation of self from No Dream Deferred. It has its own life.

Yura Sapi: Can you talk more about founder’s syndrome and what that means?

Lauren: Yeah. I think that the ways in which I've experienced it, are when the person or persons who found an organization, there's no separation between those persons and the organization. Those people are the organization, the organization is them. Everything about the organization's branding, marketing, voice, is catered to their aesthetic. I one time worked for someone who wasn't the founder but had a lot of founder syndrome symptoms because they had been with the organization for so long and had been there to relaunch the company out of disaster. The new colors for the theatre company were that person's favorite colors. It was like everything about the company was very much attached to that person's personal everything.

You also buy into the belief that only you know what's best for the organization. There's a sense of that you own it. You own its successes but you also own all the failures and all of the times that things don't work, which is not a healthy dynamic. And decision-making is completely held by that one individual or those two individuals. So there's no power sharing going on, there's no shared decision-making. And usually there is no legacy building. So usually when these people leave, one sign that you're dealing with someone who was probably suffering from founder’s syndrome, is that the organization crumbles. Relationships go away. Institutional relationships cease to exist because the relationships were never institutional, they were always personal relationships.

Yura Sapi: Yeah.

[music]

Chapter six. Divestment from predominantly white institutions.

Connected to the vision for No Dream Deferred but also what you see for the field, arts and performing arts and storytelling in general as professions, and the difference between working within the system at existing organizations, helping them reform—predominantly white supremacy culture-based institutions who've been around for a long time, potentially meaning that they have a lot of resources, a lot of funders even—versus carving out and creating your own space from scratch. And I also think that this is a microcosm of what I would say is thinking about the country, the United States in terms of working within the system or starting over and starting fresh and starting in a way that isn't rooted in the same oppressive foundations.

Lauren: No, absolutely. I am a firm believer that in this moment, and definitely prior to this moment, but this is the moment when the call should be for complete divestment from predominantly white art institutions. I actually don't believe that predominantly white art institutions should exist. I also am a firm believer in nonprofit theatre organizations or art organizations actually being in service to community and so therefore, there should be resources and support for that. And so we're talking about this decentralizing of commercial art spaces and more of a shifting of resource, and credibility, and respect for community art organizations. Organizations that are centering where they are, even if they're not on Broadway.

And so we're talking about reparations, we're talking about divestment, we're talking about the ceding of resource, the ceding of space, by predominantly white institutions. If you're a person of color in a predominantly white space, there are so many harmful impacts of being in that space and I don't think any of it's worth it. If I were to find myself in a predominantly white space, in a whole other planet or universe, because I don't think I would ever go back, but if I were, my whole mission would be to speed up the ceding of those resources to BIPOC-led community art organizations.

[music]

Yura Sapi: When I was in grad school getting my MFA in performing arts management, I remember learning about nonprofit structure for the first time, and also the theory, the idea behind why nonprofit 501(c)(3) as a status exists with the government. I learned that nonprofits and the tax status connected to it were about the government letting other groups be able to serve community. The government acknowledging that separate groups can serve community perhaps more directly and better, and so giving resources to these groups, giving a tax exempt status to these groups, is a way of being able to serve the people and purposes in ways that the government directly can't. I learned that nonprofits— you need a mission to register, and the mission is directly related to serving a community purpose. Also there is the pathway for a nonprofit to end, to close, to finish, and that the nonprofit gives the assets, the resources, that it has at the time of its close, of its end, to another group that has a similar mission. And I remember thinking, this needs to happen for a lot of organizations that exist.

[music fades out]

Lauren: That's the conversation, for me. That is the conversation. Miss me with statements, and trainings, and all this stuff. If the end result is not the ceding of space and resource to Black, Indigenous, people of color-led arts organizations working in communities across this country, then I don't know what we're talking about. That's the shift for me. And even if we're talking about outside of the arts world, outside of theatre, we're talking about the United States. I think all these conversations have to be rooted in talks about reparation, talks about the ceding of resources. Justice. Justice conversations. But those are the conversations that white supremacy culture, in general—it enables those conversations to never happen. These are the conversations that those in power—they know that's the conversation. I believe they're fully aware of that and they're throwing everything into the mix to avoid having that conversation.

Because, when you start talking justice, that is the path towards justice. We, I think as BIPOC community members, have to start to really break down and examine our own worth. The worth of our labor and our relationship to this country especially our relationship to capitalism, and we have to start assessing what risks and sacrifices we are willing to take.

A lot of these conversations around equity and diversity and inclusion, and all these conversations, there's been a narrative of white folk, allies, what are you willing to sacrifice? And that's very well and true, but that's rooted in the fact that we are sacrificing something and not just the fact that we are sacrificing our bodies by being in predominantly white spaces or being in relationship with white supremacy culture, but also, what are we sacrificing in order to serve and honor ourselves as worthy of value, and honor our assets, honor our spiritual being, and knowing and inner knowing that we are worth more and that we are capable of and should have more.

Honoring our ancestral fight. What our ancestors dreamed of and fought for and honor that. I can't speak for nobody else but my ancestors did not live through, endure, survive, and fight, so that I can work up in an organization and be depressed and sobbing every day because the microaggressions won't stop. People won't stop touching my hair. Someone's making a derogatory comment towards me, and I just keep showing up every day and allowing it to wear my spirit down to the point where I don't even recognize who I am anymore. I want to live at the highest level of vibration that I possibly can. I'm living my best life when I'm making things, when I'm making art, and when I'm doing it in community with people who understand the narrative because it's their own as well. I would like to have that world. I do. I believe that world exists and that I can create it.

I've actually had glimpses of it and experienced it at several points throughout my life. I've just never experienced it in a sustained way. I can pinpoint it. There was a time in the early 90s, when my parents, my parents' friends—they were very much invested in, this collective sense of self-sufficiency, connecting to our ancestral wisdom, legacy, and art making was a really big part of it and I came up in that time as a kid feeling that and so that's a memory for me.

So I know it can happen. I know that that world exists. It went away. It went away and I'm not sure why. But because I've had a taste of it it's almost like I keep trying to recapture that high. [laughter] I keep trying to run after it to bring it back again. Oftentimes I feel most confident in my efforts surrounded by elders because they remember it too, because they were the ones who were creating it for me. And sometimes with my own peers who may have had different experiences growing up or folks who are younger than me, I oftentimes feel isolated because I feel like I'm not truly articulating what the vision is, what that feeling was like. They don't know. They have no frame of reference for what I'm talking about sometimes.

Yura Sapi: Yeah. My dad used to organize protests at CUNY for the university he was at when he was younger. But I think my parents and my family with that history have become jaded over the years and believe that it's not possible and then, seeing me... At least this was a couple of years ago, I think now they see that it's actually possible and that things are happening.

[music]

What is next for you and for No Dream Deferred? Especially considering being in this digital COVID age.

Lauren: At the top of the pandemic, we were not... India and I were like, I don't know. We don't know... Nothing's really popping up right now. For us we both felt like at the end of the day, first and foremost, how are we doing? That needs to be our focus right now as Black women navigating all these changes. And then once that passed, we identified some key areas that moving forward, how do we stay true to our mission, because our mission wasn't necessarily tied to being able to always be able to gather in person. So we were like, right now, what's most important is supporting community because that's our mission, it's community. Making sure that BIPOC artists of all disciplines in the city of New Orleans are fully supported so we launched an Even Now Fund. So like, even now we're still dreaming, even now.

It's twofold. We are doing $500 micro-grants to BIPOC women makers. The idea is like, maybe you couldn't keep your studio rental because you had to pay that light bill during the pandemic. This is a way for you to continue to make art even now, if we can give you this. We've partnered with other, what we call sister organizations, in the city. Because we're a small organization so our capacity is somewhat limited. We do the most with what we have. Once we finish our portion, we're going to pass on to another organization and the organization we're passing it on to is a political organization and they are going to do the same thing but with Black women law students, because a lot of students were left out of the aid that was available during coronavirus, the pandemic, at the beginning as well. We're hoping to connect with more and more organizations, all supporting Black folk who identify as women financially so their work can continue even now.

The other part of the Even Now Fund is an emergency rapid relief fund. It's small. It's like $200, but it could put food in your refrigerator, it could help you keep your lights on. It can do a lot of those things. That's first come first serve as we have the funds. We're just trying to help artists stay afloat. Right now, New Orleans is interesting because the hospitality industry sector consists of a lot of performing artists, as you can imagine. So when that fell apart and collapsed, you have artists who have no resource to support themselves anymore at all. And unemployment now has been reduced back to its original which is the lowest in the country. We have the potential to be in a really dire situation, so as much as we can possibly do for that.

We also just recently, out of conversations following the aftermath of the Breonna Taylor decision and murder, we created an experience called one woman one show, where we just ask Black folks who identify as women to show up in space and to share stories, that really showcase the full spectrum of our emotional realities in ways that we're not always allowed to express freely. That is available to watch right now on our YouTube channel which is, No Dream Deferred NOLA.

And so we're thinking, moving into the spring, that we are going to push further into offering a lot more digital content. Content for families, conversations, storytelling from our elders, spotlighting those stories. There's such good stories. [laughter] Such good stories. And really giving them a platform to be seen for what they are. And that honestly, just the real stories that exist here from people that live here, could take us into the next two, three years. It's such a rich, a rich culture of storytelling.

And then lastly, we are working on a radio play, that’s kind of like this futuristic, in the near future conversation about Black folk and Indigenous people in the Gulf south and reckoning with climate change, this idea of reparations through the ceding of the land, specifically the land of the Gulf south, and sovereignty. What would it look like for Black and Indigenous folks to have sovereignty over the Gulf south in the near future, while reckoning with climate changes.

Essentially, we want to support our art makers, especially BIPOC art makers in our city. We want to continue to share and center the stories about this place that matters to the people who live here. And we want to be an asset to youth and families by sharing all of that with them so that we can start to build a legacy, where we can look down the road seven generations from now, and know that No Dream Deferred is that space for folks. That storytelling and sharing space. That's what we're doing.

Yura Sapi: Yes. I’m so with all of that. It's all my vibe, especially the dreaming and envisioning the future. I love being able to see and encourage others and artists to create visions of the future that are things that we actually want, we do want to be manifesting and putting out into the world, because I think that that is the energy that, if we put it out there, we're attracting it as well.

Lauren: Absolutely.

Yura Sapi: Thank you again so much. Thanks for all the work you do. Thanks for dreaming and helping create these dreams into reality because I think it's one thing to say we want to do things and see things and it's another to actually be doing the work and making it happen. So thank you.

Lauren: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

[music]

Yura Sapi: You're listening to original music by Julian Vargas. You can find and follow them on SoundCloud. This has been another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast. I'm your host Yura Sapi. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts on our feed in iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms, it helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

[music]

Thanks everyone. Yupaychani. Catch you next time!

Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

Building Our Own Tables

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