Schools as a unique space for peacebuilding: GRACE conference

Lisa DIETRICH (CRIS Director), Harry GREER (CRIS Chairperson), Donna BLANEY (The Executive Office), and Peter OSBORNE (Community Relations Council Chairperson). GRACE conference. Community Relations in Schools (CRIS)

Schools as a unique space for peacebuilding:
GRACE conference @_CRIS_NI
by Raquel GOMEZ for Shared Future News
22 March 2018

Girdwood Community Hub welcomed the GRACE conference, organised by CRIS (Community Relations In Schools), an organisation that works to promote the role of the school, and its community, as a grassroots agent of peacebuilding and community development.

The conference introduced and launched the GRACE model (Good Relations and Collaborative Education), which engages all school stakeholders with the aim of building a shared and inclusive society in Northern Ireland.

David Price, development officer at CRIS, welcomed everyone to the Girdwood Community Hub and introduced the opening remarks by Harry Greer, chairman of the executive board of CRIS. Greer reflected upon some positive steps forward in the educational system in Northern Ireland during the past few years. He remarked on the importance of cooperation and collaboration not just between institutions, but also between people: “I think we should very proud of the education system. We should very proud of our schools, our school leaders and our teachers. Collaboration is essential and cooperation is essential. We really believe that benefits from peacebuilding and education are there, through collaboration and evidence in the GRACE model.”

Chair of the Community Relations Council, Peter Osborne, talked about his childhood memories in a very different city of Belfast that it is today, remarking with positivism for the future: “When we talk about peacebuilding and where we are as a society, it is easy tell how far we come. This society has already been transformed and we always need to understand where we are now. In terms of peacebuilding, it is not about politicians. It is not about institutions. We have to build relationships, that is what peacebuilding is about. It is about relationships.”

Director of CRIS, Lisa Dietrich, explained: “The GRACE model is based on building relationships, collaboration, sustainable sharing in education and mutual understanding … Schools are the unique space for peacebuilding, where children (the community’s future) and parents (the community’s present) converge. Schools support a great potential as elements of transformation within the community. Children are the peacebuilders of the future.”

The GRACE model works through five different stages: from stage one (based on engagement with a single school community), through stages two, three and four (where inter-school staff, parents and children create and strengthen relationships ); and finally, at stage five (with a focus on the formalisation of a multi-sector collaborative education partnership). Here, Dietrich highlighted the importance of trust, as a fundamental tool to create peace and bridges within communities.

Several successful collaborative practices were demonstrated during the conference, through case studies (such as “Buddy Up!”) and through different workshops.

“Buddy Up!” was explained by the voices of some of their participants: parents, school leaders and some members from CRIS. They explained their experience with the model and how the model helps the community. This is a collaborative project between CRIS, Edenderry Nursery School, and Holy Cross Nursery School, in North Belfast. This project is based on “everyday peacebuilding”, with parents, families, children, and school leaders participating in several activities to change the paradigm of division. They meet up a couple of times per month and do an activity together.

“Small steps have an impact in the community. Children growing up together is a way to finish the hate and the segregation,” said Elaine Gormley, one of the Holy Cross parents. Through this model, an inter-generational family framework can build relationships and friendship for reconciliation.

Dr Rupert Higham, Institute of Education Programme Manager from University College of London, highlighted the meaning and the importance of values, especially in the context of education and in a post-conflict society. Values are learned. We learn to respect others. In this vein, the school has a crucial role to play and shape values. In Higham’s opinion, “Northern Ireland has the chance to create its own middle tier from the bottom up, through collaboration across the many divides.”

Hedley Abernethy, the conference rapporteur, closed the conference by highlighting the importance of working together, creating dynamism in our communities to build a better place. Abernethy said: “When parents, teachers, and head teachers work together, something happens. There is a dynamism there.” He also cited the role and the potential of the teachers to change the environment. Abernethy finished with a call to action: “Whatever you do it, do it something. No matter how small it is, everything can have a value. Whatever you do, you have to do something.”

The spirit of the event was encapsulated in the following quotation of Nel Noddings, which appeared during the presentation:

“My contention is, first, that we should want more from our educational efforts than adequate academic achievement and, second, that we will not achieve even that meagre success unless our children believe that they themselves are cared for and learn to care for others.”


Photo source: CRIS

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