Alan Waite is a youth worker in the Shankill, where the parade took place last Saturday and the ominous mural of the gunman pointing his rifle right into your grill never sleeps.
He is a lifelong resident of the Shankill and knows the ins and outs of his community. The lies. The power structure. The reality for the youth. I learned of his work from the Interface Diaries, but his reach in the community does not stop there. The scope of his work is impressive and inspiring. What was meant to be a brief meeting at a coffee shop ended up as a three hour sharing of ideas, project models and curricular ideas to connect our students and augment each other’s work with young people.
I wanted to know about what the youth see as their future. He says it is bleak. Very much like my students, they react to their boredom with anti-social behavior. I love that phrase: anti-social behavior. The savvy and debate prone students of mine would argue that this type of behavior is quite social. Drugs and alcohol. Teen pregnancies. Paramilitary organizations (think the UVF and UDA) operating like street gangs. Sounds like a party atmosphere to most bored teens. And even if they can navigate this minefield, there are few long term employment opportunities for Belfast youth in any neighborhood. Alan’s mission, along the rest of the dedicated staff at Glencairn Youth Initiative, is to create opportunities for these young people to serve their community.
They have developed YWIC. Youth Workers in Communities. This initiative is made up of a three year cycle for young recruits. In year one, young people with leadership potential have been identified. In Alan’s eyes this doesn’t mean straight As, straight faced or straight laced. He’s actively seeking young people that are street savvy and hold sway with their peers. Most people call them rabble-rousers. Alan likes their moxie. So does Vista Grande!
These identified youth take part in a 5 day residential experience with 40 peers. They learn about the different types of leadership the program offers. Leadership during these types of experiences. Sports leadership in the community. And peer mentoring leadership. The youth have a chance to plug right in upon returning to their neighborhoods.
In year two, these leaders do more street based work. Interaction with their community. Hands on. Map work and statistics. Identifying needs and strategies. They run the night programs for the year ones after their residential experience.
At year three of this cycle, these leaders are ready to work alongside Alan and the team for an 8 week work cycle. And with the mix of skills they have from throughout the previous two years they are true assets to their community. Also these young people are certified youth workers. But the job opportunities are still few in this field. So Alan sees the issue of training and cranking out twenty people are years as this program gains traction with nowhere for them to work. But at least it has instilled the tradition of community volunteerism. The peace process had changed that as now there was money for jobs and people in the Shankill know they can get paid for certain work. Volunteerism is so pre-peace process.
Another challenge to this type of work in the Shankill is generational and community perceptions. Alan sees most young people as having zero cultural awareness. Why do you have parades and bonfires on July 12th? To have a party in the summertime! Why do you hate people in the Ardoyne? I don’t know! Like most people finding their way in a complex world, they simply celebrate and regurgitate. Alan remembers his grandmother singing UDA songs to him and his siblings. Often referring to the people in the Falls as Feinian bastards.
The community perception of life in the Shankill is a bit more dear. These areas are governed, still, by the paramilitaries. This links back to my piece on the Politics of Image. The UVF and UDA have been trying to elbow their way into the youth work money game. The peace process, as also noted previously, has infused monies into hungry communities. Instead of these funds heading towards proper organizations, the paramilitaries are getting the money. Restorative Justice is one such opportunity to force kids into the process and then use this platform to ‘take care’ of them after the fact. This also is an indicator as to why the violent murals are maintained in the Shankill. Everyone knows who is still in charge.
Nevertheless, Alan and I are conjuring up ways to get our students and youth workers together. Much like the Interface Diaries or something akin, via Skype, my students can interact with these youth workers when they meet for their night groups as our time is seven hours behind. They meet at half six and we are just beginning lunch. This is the opportunity I’ve been looking for.
Using their resources, like Shakespeare Unplugged which pits that age old tale in the heart of the Shankill to illuminate intra-community divides, I think my students will be inspired and challenged to see themselves in the midst of community divisions and generational prejudice. More to come with this development. But today’s meeting will have the most profound impact on my borders curriculum. And an enormous influence on my students. It’s grand, isn’t it!