Bringing the Changes in Belfast to Taos!

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!

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The Politics of Image

As mentioned before I have been walking by and through the Sandy Row neighborhood throughout the last ten days taking stock, exploring and pondering. The streets, like all Protestant Unionist neighborhoods, are decked with Union Jacks and the three colors of loyalism bunting crossing the sky. Sandy Row is infamous for its balaclava-donned UVF gunman solemnly welcoming you to the neighborhood. The wording is very much like the commemorative wall in the Bogside. Welcome to Free Derry.

The push is on all over Belfast to remake the terrorist imagery on the broadsides of buildings in a less villianistic proportion. The Catholic neighborhoods have been effective in this process. They have turned their messages to acknowledge similar leftist social justice causes around the globe. Guernica. The politically disenfranchised Cuban population. Palestine. Global warming in the developing world.

When communicating their own history, murals have turned into their story of struggle or celebrating their cause for political standing in the North. The potato famine. The Falls Curfew in 1970. Gaelic sports like hurling and football.

I have noticed the political cohesion in Catholic Republican neighborhoods. Most people have told me I am spot on. Historically Sinn Fein and the IRA have had a cozy relationship. In most cases during the Troubles, the IRA simply carried out the guerilla war agenda of the Republican ideal. Sinn Fein worked the on the political side of things. Once seen as a radical left political party, Sinn Fein has gained seats in Stormont and momentum as the party of the people in Northern Ireland ever since Hunger Striker Bobby Sands won an election while in prison. Almost every neighborhood in Belfast has a Sinn Fein office. The tie between the people and the party is apparent and this has helped Sinn Fein establish itself the voice of the working class and poor.

Not long ago the murals in Catholic neighborhoods were also branded with a terrorist feel. Gunmen peering through balaclavas was not unique to Sandy Row or the Shankill. But the face of this public artwork has changed to reflect the people, not the war. It is a manner of distancing themselves politically and morally from an ugly conflict with its impossible victories. This push has been made easier as the IRA has lost its grip of violence on the neighborhoods and Sinn Fein can act as the moral safeguard.

In Protestant Unionist communities, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have existed since the beginning of political separation of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1921. Politically, these two parties have shared votes, voices and neighborhoods in these areas. Coincidentally, the Ulster Defense Alliance (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Fighters (UVF) took up arms as neighborhood defense regiments during the Troubles. So politically and militarily, neighborhoods like the Shankill have been divided along these lines. And in the choppy wake of the Troubles, the political mouthpieces advocating for these areas have not been as effective in galvanizing a community wide vision for these areas in the way Sinn Fein has. Especially when it comes to the artwork.

On Monday though, a major hurdle had been cleared for the Sandy Row. At the community unveiling one speaker noted that tourists would walk across the Boyne Bridge to snap a photo of the mural’s sinister welcome and turn away from the shops lining Sandy Row. This is an opportunity to regenerate the mural itself but also the community in connecting the history of King Billy to the present. It is noted in history that King Billy marched with his troops through Sandy Row on his way to the Battle of the Boyne. Therefore the image of their beloved King is not just an artistic gesture. It is the story of the neighborhood.

The mural captures the famous quote King Billy had for his young troops that day. “Let ambition fire thy mind.” For the Sandy Row, this ambition is to cling onto the caboose of the financial train Belfast is becoming. The city is attracting tourists like never before. Well, because no one had ever come to Belfast aside from war correspondents from 1970-1998. So in the last fifteen years, along with the cherished peace money flooding war ravaged neighborhoods, the financial impact of touring these notoriously paramilitary-haunted neighborhoods has regenerated places tourists had never been even before the Troubles.

The press was there to see it. The community celebrated with tea and scones. And at 10 AM on a Monday teenagers were nowhere to be found.

The North Coast

Not much to say at the moment aside from letting you bask in the beauty Mike and I witnessed on the Antrim Coast. Pretty spectacular. I’ll try to write more at some point about the history, the scenery and the power. But for now, just enjoy the pictures! Incredible day. Notice how wonderfully blue the sky can be in Ireland. It didn’t happen much while I was here. But when it did, man was it spectacular.