Episode 158: Refuge Outdoor Festival Founder Chevon Powell

Episode 158: Refuge Outdoor Festival

Interview with Founder Chevon Powell

Sponsored by Raycon and Peak Scents

Join us in our She Explores Podcast Facebook Group!

Chevon Powell founded Refuge Outdoor Festival in 2018 to provide joy, community, connection, and refuge in the outdoors for Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and allies. This year’s virtual festival will look a little different, but the same level of intention, care, and healing is imbued in each and every detail of the 3-day event.

In this episode, we’ll hear about the importance of community in Chevon’s life and how she’s cultivating it from a distance, her philosophy for event planning, and how she strives to create a safer space for festival-goers.

Full transcript available after the photos and resources.

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Featured in this episode: Chevon Powell

Hosted by Gale Straub

Ad music in this episode is by  Josh Woodward, Swelling & Lee Rosevere using a Creative Commons attribution license.

Music is also by Eric Kinny via MusicBed.

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Chevon Powell

Chevon’s on the left!

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TRANSCRIPT

Gale Straub – Narration

Hi everyone – before we jump in, I want to share an opportunity for you to submit your Appalachian Trail story for consideration a special upcoming episode in collaboration with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. We’d love to hear your memories from the A.T. and the significance of the trail – or a section of it – in your off-trail life. It could have happened a month ago or 40 years ago. Learn more and share a voice submission by heading to She-Explores.com/podcast.  Ok, on with the show.

I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Chevon Powell:

Refuge for me this summer, it continues to mean connection, that in the midst of everything going on, that we are still connected people and being in the outdoors is a form of connection. And I say connection to the people, but connection to the land in the, the more than human world, as some people refer to our animal family, non human animal family. So it’s really about connection. It’s all about connection.

Gale Straub – Narration:

This is Chevon Powell, founder of Refuge Outdoor Festival, a 3-day camping experience geared towards people of color. The inaugural festival took place outside Seattle in 2018. This isn’t your typical camping experience, there are guided outdoor activities, workshops, community talks, and live music. For Chevon, Refuge means connection and community. It means creating a safer space. Many of us, too, find refuge in the outdoors. Some of us take the freedom and the safety we feel on the trail, the water, and in the backcountry, for granted. Speaking for myself, as a white woman, I’ve never had to think about my safety in the outdoors in terms of the color of my skin. As an able-bodied person, I’ve never had to think about whether a trail is accessible to me. As a thin person, I’ve never been had someone assume I can’t reach a mountain top because of my body size. Chevon is creating an environment where it’s possible for more people of color to find refuge in the outdoors.

Gale Straub:

As refuge has evolved over the last two years, what is your answer to the who the festival is, is for?

Chevon Powell:

The festival is really for people of color, BIPOC, you know, Black, Indigenous, people of color, it’s really centering those folks. And then allies are welcome. As long as you kind of agree with our tenants and know that you might be called out on stuff, but it’s it’s for people that are already into the outdoors. Be it, if they work or just love the outdoors, or if you’ve never stepped foot on a trail before it’s for all of those people as well.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I asked Chevon how she’s been creating community in her life during the pandemic and the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement.

Chevon Powell:

I have a group of really amazing friends here in Seattle that we have been going on a camping trip together for almost nine years. And this is the first year that we’re unable to go together. Um, because there’s like 20 of that go on this camping trip. And for the last few years I’ve been bringing in making biscuits every summer, you know, biscuits and gravy, something, some variation of biscuits and something, but I usually burn them. So I made a joke that this year, instead of me burning biscuits, I’ll just make you some biscuits from scratch. So I may have been making a bunch of biscuits and scones and delivering them to friends as a way to stay connected and to stay in community. And it’s been fun. It’s also been, become a sort of exchange. I’ve gotten to people and they’re like, here’s this big pan. I won’t use it, but you do all this baking, maybe go use a pan for something. And it’s actually become this, the items then almost flat, big flat tray. People have gifted me food and other things. And it’s just been really just awesome to be connected with my friends and community in that way.

Gale Straub – Narration:

The back and forth of connection is integral to Chevon’s work and personal life. We’ll hear more on that, but first I had to know…

Gale Straub:

I like to bake and I definitely like eating baked goods. What kind of scones do you make?

Chevon Powell:

I have been making chocolate chip scones and they’re not too sweet and they’re pretty there. It’s the recipe I really liked now. So I’ve made one small tweak in the cinnamon out of it. But other than that, it’s just a really good scone recipe.

Gale Straub:

Oh, that’s great. Yeah. I definitely gravitate towards the chocolate as well.

Chevon Powell:

Mmhmm, mmhmm.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Another point of connection for Chevon is a weekly series called “Sundae Sermon.”

Gale Straub:

Could you describe the Sundae sermon and also maybe want to spell out ‘sundae’ for this? Cause…

Chevon Powell:

Yeah, that’s another way that I feel like I’ve been making connections is, um, last year I created in partnership with Washington State Parks, Sundae sermon, a celebration of black folks. And Sunday is actually S U N D A E, like ice cream. And we had ice cream vendor or actually donated someone, donated ice cream to the event. We want us to keep the name, even though we’re not outside together, eating ice cream, I’m encouraging people to grab their ice cream and come and celebrate black folks. And it’s, um, it’s turned it from a one day event to a online series. So every other Sunday, pretty much we are curating events, um, centering on different things of celebrating within the black community. So we celebrated joy for the first event and we’re going to be celebrating women and activism and all these sorts of things. And we bring in art, uh, folks that are in nature.

Chevon Powell:

I actually am going out to record our women’s events on Wednesday. So we do a mix of prerecorded and live content. Um, and I’m meeting, uh, electric cellist she she’s going to be performing in the woods for us. Uh, uh, some black women that are birdwatchers. We’re gonna do a bird walk and, um, also some basics of birdwatching and a few ladies from Girl Trek, um, which is the nation’s largest movement for black women’s health and they’ll be doing a virtual walk and having a trail talk as well. And then we’ll be sharing all that content and some other live pieces online.

Gale Straub:

Where do you find people for, for these? Like how, what does your process look like in terms of like, thinking about the mix of, of people that you bring together along a theme?

Chevon Powell:

A lot of it has been just the community that I’ve made here in Seattle, the last three or four years, um, between refuge and I’ve been walking with GirlTrek for three or four years. So before refuge, I was already a Girl Trek. I’m a GirlTrek member that is one of the communities I’m already involved in. And then just like trying to do a deep dive into the internet and find, you know, different folks that are doing amazing things out there. Or, you know, I know this one person and they know this other person because we were in a conversation and they’re like, Chevon, you might want to connect with this person. Um, so it’s a lot of personal connections really, and just searching people out and reaching out and saying like, I’m doing this thing. Would you be interested in participating?

Gale Straub – Narration:

Chevon is energized by creating new experiences for people. And that excitement is multiplied when she’s creating special spaces for her Black community and people of color.

Chevon Powell:

My background is in corporate events. Um, but on a side of corporate events where none look the same because I’ve worked for so many different clients and I get extremely bored if something is the same after two years, I’m like, and I would like to toss this all up and rework it. So like the fact that I’m able to do that with Sunday sermon every week and just like, you know, mixing it up differently. But also with refuge, they are worth a number of things. We were going to change with refuge this year. I’m not going from our core of what we actually do, but just creating a different experience and building on the things that we’ve learned over the last two years. So even though I’m sad that it won’t happen in person, I am excited to mix it up by bringing it online and my brain, that’s where I go. I actually weirdly don’t like logistics. I know that a lot of people think, Oh, event planner, she loves logistics. I kinda don’t like the details I do them because that’s part of what, what an event planner does, but I liked the strategy and the building of community, the building of it, the experience more so than the details of like how it actually has to have, but I do them all.

Gale Straub:

Do you, do you think a lot about how people are gonna feel when they’re there?

Chevon Powell:

Mostly, how do, how do people feel? How will they engage with something? How will they find those? The people that they want to engage with after an event, just all those little connection, that connection pieces is always big for me. So that’s that like, how will you feel, how are you safe? You know, refuge is all about safer spaces. Um, because those have not been prioritized when it comes to especially things like festivals and nature. So that’s, that’s where my mind is always is like, how are we safe and protected? How are we feeling supported? How we feel connected, peeled. And in whole, you know, refuge got started from a source, a place of healing first and foremost. And, um, so I just, that’s how I take on creating refuge is, is that healing, that connection.

Gale Straub:

And when you think about it, like, what do you specifically love about bringing people and especially people of color together in the outdoors?

Chevon Powell:

Joy, there’s just a different sense of joy that you see on people’s face, right? Like right from the moment that people get on site, people are just smiling and happy and just elated to be in a space that’s centering them. Like a lot of us that have been in the outdoors, either working in the outdoors or just engaging in the outdoors, have heard so many negative things. So many things that are contrary to who we are and how we live in the world. So to come into a space that is centering and uplifting you, there’s just a completely different feeling. And you see that on people’s face and you see that in the connections and the conversations and the meal sharing and the dancing with the Native American group or dancing to the, you know, the band that’s playing, you just see it in all interactions.

Gale Straub:

Do you, and I know you’re probably really busy, you know, when you are in person at the past Refuge Outdoor Festival, but do you get chance to experience some of that joy too?

Chevon Powell:

I’m saying that I’m working on getting to experience some of that joy, but the funny thing is every, for the last two years, we’ve had silent discos every night. And so literally it’s the one place I’m able to let my hair down and grab the headphones and dance for a bit and just be in community and connected on the dance floor with people. The team knows my goal is to get to a place that I am not doing all of that stuff so that I can create a moment of refuge for myself during the events. And, you know, that could be like, just like being able to have an hour to go to a workshop that I thought was really cool or go hang out by the water. Um, and not just have those moments in the evening when I’m already extremely exhausted, but I might as well dance it out.

Gale Straub:

That sounds like a very good goal or kind of, I mean, I’m like skipping way ahead, but would you like there to be more than one Refuge Outdoor Festival in a year or is, is the one flagship event the kind of right number for you and like what feels possible?

Chevon Powell:

Yeah. Um, being that we are getting, I am in, you know, I talk about the team, um, the team consists of a community advisory board, which is comprised of some amazing folks that have participated in the festival in some capacity for the last two years. Um, and they help, um, lead some of the more strategic pieces. Um, and then I like, there’s a virtual assistant that works with me on, on all of my things. So as the team expands, we are looking to bring this to other folks, backyard, essentially refuge has never meant to be this one thing. This you have to fly to Seattle to attend. The first two years were really a testing ground to see if people were even interested in refuge. And then last year we had like 20 people fly in from California and people fly from Texas and DC and all these places.

Chevon Powell:

So this year 2020 was supposed to be our expansion here to new market, to Oakland area and Atlanta area. Um, because we want it to be one, not everybody has the resources to get on applying. Not everybody has the resources to have all the gear to get on the plane. So, all of those things, we wanted to make it more accessible for more people. And because refuge is about engagement and, and ongoing engagement, we want you to be in your own area so that it’s not just a one weekend and you make friends and then you never see them again until next year. It’s like, how do you make connections in your own community? So it’s not another year till you get out again, it’s the next weekend because you have that community that you’re connected to and you can feel safe going out with other people if that’s what you need, but also you just have that community.

Chevon Powell:

I think it’s amazing that people fly in for the festival and I’m grateful. And I think is really cool that one of the attendees here told me that she wants to Oakland for a work trip and ran into a girl that she met at refuge out of coffee shop. I’m like, yeah, I ran and said, I can’t remember her name, their names right now, but, um, she’s like our brand into her at a coffee shop when I was there for work. I was like, that’s amazing. But that also shows how small the world is. And that’s the beautiful piece about refuge that you are connected in that way that you can run into someone randomly. That’s true.

Gale Straub:

Yeah. That’s a really, really cool. And those two cities sound like perfect locations for the future. So that’s really exciting.

Chevon Powell:

Yeah. I can’t wait till we can get out together again and make it happen in those cities as well. And I think that the fun thing about it is refuge is about community. How those will look different than the one that’s here.

Gale Straub – Narration:

We’ll talk about how Refuge Outdoor Festival looks different this year – and how you can attend from anywhere – after this.

AD BREAK

Gale Straub – Narration:

We’re back.

Gale Straub:

Where, where were you when you realized that… And I’m sure it wasn’t, uh, an exact, like it happened in a moment realization, but when you settled on the fact that you probably weren’t going to be able to create the kind of in person festival that you’d hope to create this year?

Chevon Powell:

It’s really been a process. I think we’ve lived so many different areas of this pandemic. I say, the interesting thing is like the tiger King error of pandemic was so much easier times. And I was still thinking, you know, that was probably March or so. I’m still thinking that we could potentially be outside together again. So it’s like me all the way until realistically last month to be like, it’s not actually going to be feasible because if refuge is about safer experiences, I can’t put anyone in danger of catching COVID. Um, especially that we know that it’s disproportionately affecting people of color. Um, and it was, you know, it was like a little bit of a grief process to let that go. And I will say, I think, uh, the community advisory board, um, for helping me get there, um, because this is essentially, uh, my baby and I was like, but my baby happens together.

Chevon Powell:

But knowing that, you know, at refuge, you see people hugging and you see people high fiving and all these things, we basically can’t touch each other that isn’t in your, your circle. And so I didn’t want to put the distance that you have to have four socially distant gatherings on something like refuge. And so to bring that, to bring it online is also of many, many benefits. We can do some, we can reach people that won’t, wouldn’t ever be able to go to a refuge here in Seattle. So, um, there’s benefits and there’s a beauty in that as well also, but it was, it was, it was sad. I actually, um, I think it was the weekend that I decided that it wasn’t happening. Um, self care for me has been, uh, sleeping in my tent inside or on my little patio. And I think I put my tent up that weekend to get some self care and some, some support from my tent. It’s, it’s my happy place. Yeah.

Gale Straub:

Some refuge there, too.

Chevon Powell:

Yeah.

Gale Straub:

Did you know that it was going to go virtual? Was there any thought of like, maybe not do anything this year?

Chevon Powell:

We thought about that, but it just, that did not feel, it didn’t feel right to be like, we’re not going to do anything. You know, I think that it’s right for some people and I’m in full supportive taking the break, but I felt like we had an opportunity to do something different. So we said we were gonna pull together a digital version and just create some community space online for a weekend. We pushed it back to September and said, instead of we’re originally doing refuge here in August, but we said, let’s push it to September because if it’s August the nice we’d rather people go outside, but you know, in September we will come together and, and just have a little camp-in for the weekend at home and with community,

Gale Straub – Narration:

When Chevon says it didn’t feel right to not do anything, she underlines that she wants to serve and show up for the Black community right now.

Chevon Powell:

You know, I will say that right now is a, it can be a hard time for people of color. And that’s why I’m excited to do this, um, because of the awakening that’s happening. Uh, another time that I popped up my tent was when George Floyd and the Cooper situation in central park. And then people saying, Oh, Oh, this is what you say has been happening for the last couple of hundred years. And that is just such a draining and painful experience for some, for a lot. Um, and so to be able to do something like refuge, that is just the space of healing in a ma for anybody, but particularly for people of color while this awakening in America is happening, um, is so important because it’s been a stressful, stressful, what, for four or five months now, between people realizing that their health disparities people realizing police brutality for people of color, particularly Black people, men, women, trans folks, the safety, that’s not there for trans women, specifically Black trans woman. The fact that people are waking up to the everyday situation that we’ve been living for so long is exhausting. So if we can do anything that creates even a moment of healing, I want to be able to do that.

Gale Straub – Narration:

The themes for this year’s Refuge Outdoor Festival – Adventure, Healing, and Boldness, feel almost like they were meant to be.

Chevon Powell:

I had decided on the theme for this year’s festival. It had to be back in January or February. It was right at the beginning of the year, I did a retreat for myself and it out of that retreat, thinking about the festival and the other things that I had ahead for this year, that’s what came out in the end since pandemic hit. And since the uprising has started, I won’t say it’s ended. Cause it’s still very much still going. It feels very, very relevant to focus on adventure, healing and boldness because we need all of those things right now. I knew we would need, we need them at any point, but right now, even more so.

Gale Straub:

Yeah. And it’s even like, look at those three words and think about them and how they do you talk about within the festival, like how they overlap too. Cause I feel like there’s like healing that can happen through boldness, you know, through taking action there’s, um, healing that happens on adventure. It’s, uh, there’s so much potential on all three of those words and interaction.

Chevon Powell:

Yeah. We hope to, you know, we hope to have some conversations, some like community conversations around that, like how they can overlap and also like how they play out differently for people of color. So yeah, it’ll be, it’ll be fun to see how that all comes about. And I’m asking a lot of presenters and speakers and folks said to tell us, um, what does that mean to you? You know, to get that personal, what does adventure hailing boldness when you hear those three words, what does that speak to you? And I think that that’s, that’s inspirational to hear and also challenging to hear

Gale Straub:

What are some of the workshops or the activities that festival goers can look forward to at refuge this year?

Chevon Powell:

Online, we’re going to have concerts. So we’ll have some musical performances. Some that we are actually pre recording and some that’ll will be live in the moment. Uh, we’ll also have, um, workshops like wilderness outdoors one-on-one um, so some of those basic features, and then we, for the last few years, we’ve had this experience called the tea house, which was literally a tent that people held space and make tea for people. And we’re trying to figure out the details of how do we do that sort of thing in, in this virtual world. Um, so, you know, having a room where you can literally just go and hang out with people, um, and chat and have conversations, that sort of thing. And we’re playing with the concept of a virtual dinner, uh, for one of the nights. So a lot of different, different things, just trying to be creative and how we do it and how we do it safely with people’s security and mine. But yeah, it’ll be different. And, you know, some community talks, uh, with different groups and just different individuals. So just the plethora of things, some bird walks, uh, we’re trying to figure out if we can do a bird walk in two different locations and have it live strain, and then just switch from one computer to the arguing, you know, one person’s screen if, when they have something to the next. So just trying to be really creative with, with what we put out there.

Gale Straub:

Yeah. I love that. How, you know, the first, first two years you said there were not necessarily tests, but a little bit tests and learning through getting feedback from people, figuring out how everything works together, all of the, all the different puzzle pieces that go into events, like a big event like this, and then to add in this whole new layer. And I just love that you see it as an opportunity, you know, an opportunity for more connection and opportunity for more community and for more access, like it’s, it’s really lovely and really speaks to your values.

Chevon Powell:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. I, yeah, it’s probably, it’s totally, I didn’t even think of it that way. I’m just like, well, I think it’s so rooted in what we do. It’s like, yeah, it’s an opportunity to just make it better and make it more accessible. You know, the disparities that we have in this country are extremely evident right now and looking at what I’m doing is it was creating another disparity. And so if there are ways we can change and shift that in this moment and moving forward, then we just need to be bold and do it.

Gale Straub:

How does the community advisory board play in and like help you, you know, cause we all have blind spots. So how does working with the board help you think differently and, and make changes that make the event more accessible for more people?

Chevon Powell:

The big thing about the community advisory board and we’ve been, we’ve been digging into this recently is if we don’t have community on the community advisory board, I can’t create a community on-site or with refuge. And so everyone comes with their own perspective. And also, you know, we’ve been doing a little bit of practicing of, okay, well, who is not in this space, what is not represented in this space and what are we doing wrong that, that we are not making ourselves or this opportunity or this space, um, open to those folks, um, and not just wanting to extract their, their knowledge and their experience, but how do we be, how are we in community with more than just the people in our network? Um, and so like having a lot of deep conversations around community access where our blind, literally just talking about where our blind spots are and what have we done or are continuing to do that, continue to allow us to have blind spots.

Chevon Powell:

So it’s a lot, we just, a few of us just finished reading care work and just like we have to be even more intentional. Uh, we have to be even more, I don’t know if I want to say radical, but we have to be more open and accepting of we’ve created these from our perspectives and there are a million other perspectives out there. And we haven’t gotten to all of those blind spots and those opportunities to connect with people, but we will continue to forge ahead and create space for those, those things. And I tell people, the community advisory board is, is amazing and they call me out on my stuff and I’m just like, I appreciate I’d tell them, I appreciate it. Cause I, I want to continue to grow refuge and to create change in the outdoors as we live in it in the us. And I have to learn to learn publicly. And instead of just piecemealing things together publicly, like how do we learn publicly and be vulnerable and say, I don’t have it all, but I’m working towards bettering myself so that I can be in better community and relationship with you.

Gale Straub:

I’m sure that’s, that’s humbling at times.

Chevon Powell:

Yeah it’s definitely.

Gale Straub:

What a great precedent to set as a leader too, because you know, I know you said you don’t necessarily consider yourself… You’re not like the center of attention, but to, to be leading with that like type of openness and that type of like, it’s okay to, to have a conversation about our blind spots, you know, like to, to lead that way is only going to accelerate, creating the kind of place that, that you want to create with Refuge.

Chevon Powell:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s, it’s hard. It’s really hard. And you know, I will say I own it. And I doing this work is messy and it’ll never be perfect, but I’m here for the challenge and I’m here for the, the, the hard moments and the tough conversations and, and all of that.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Another way Chevon is looking out for festival goers, especially those in the BIPOC community, is thinking about online safety. It’s an increasingly important conversation to have.

Gale Straub:

It’s very, very important to create a safer space through, through Fefuge Outdoor Festival. And you’re always looking to create safer spaces through everything that you do. And I love too that you use, you call them safer spaces and not safe spaces, because like you said earlier, like the work isn’t done, you know, and there’s always more that you can do to make a space safer for people. What kind of considerations do you have when it is a virtual event? When you think about how you want to make it safer for everyone who’s included?

Chevon Powell:

Yeah. That’s a good question. And I will say I have a person on my community advisory board that really challenged the first year of refuge. I called it a safe space and they challenged me on that notion. And I was like, yep. Yep. You are correct. So I will say that that’s how the community advisory board shows up, but I’m thinking of this in this virtual space. Zoom bombing is real. Even if it’s not on zoom, it can be on whatever platform. So we kind of a we’re setting up the team that we have volunteers and other folks that are just there in the comments and in certain areas where if we see someone saying anything, we are able to remove and block them immediately. Also there are going to be workshops and things that are not, not open in a way that you can comment or that you can say anything or jump into the space.

Chevon Powell:

So it’ll be a closed platform and looking into technology that allows you to text in a question. So that’s another safety element. Um, so looking at different ways that we can do that and make sure that that part is safe. You know, safety takes on another nother bit where we’re actually like providing some resource area that as, especially for our white folks that are participating, that you have some base level of information coming into this space around harm and intent versus impact and ramifications of that, if you don’t follow like our community guidelines and things like that. So we’re, we’re really trying to think through all of those. And if it’s a hotline or if it’s a Slack channel, when things come up that you can go to a place and kind of be able to, to connect with someone to deal with what’s whatever’s coming up. Um, cause that’s what the tea house was essentially back when we were in physical proximity to each other. So just looking at different ways to be like, to take care of the community and to react when things actually do take place. We won’t say that nothing will happen because we just, you know, this is our first go at this and this format. And so we just have to be prepared with the team and, and with the, the action plan.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Chevon and I wrapped up our conversation, talking about the cumulative impact of community.

Gale Straub:

Refuge lives on after the, after the festival and people keep making connections, there’s just going to be this huge web of, of, of, of people, which is sometimes in life, you don’t see impact or you don’t see the impact that you’re making. But I mean over time, you’re just going to continue seeing the impact of Refuge.

Chevon Powell:

Yeah. I’m, you know, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to see so much of it already, even, you know, in just like these small moments, I was in a pitch contest and a woman that was the MC it was right at the beginning of the pandemic. And so it wasn’t able to be live. So I had to give a recorded pitch and she was insane, the virtual event. And after I finished my pitch, um, she was like, Chevon you don’t me, but I know you, and I know the work you’re doing and just seeing what you do, she started crying. And she said, just seeing what you do has inspired me to get my kids outside. And literally I’d never, like I got emotional. I was like, Oh my God, I would give you a hug if we, we could do that. But just knowing that even people that I don’t know, or that I don’t have a connection to have seen what refuge is and insane like that we are all, we all can be outdoors.

Chevon Powell:

We all can access this stuff is monumental. So now her kids are getting outside and may, you know, have a love for the outdoors may go into something with the sciences may become the next, you know, bird watching expert or whatever they do. Or they might just be the kid that knows how to do the things outside. That’s going to be a ripple effect because then someone else is going to see them in 10, 20 years. So it’s, it’s, it’s awesome to just be this, this person that said, I’m going to do this thing cause I need it. And that it’s impacting so many people.

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