Young Advocates for real change in communities
by Ronan KIRBY
15 March 2021
As part of the PEACE IV programme, Belfast City Council have just recently released a progress report on a wide variety of peacebuilding initiatives that are being implemented within a number communities throughout Belfast. The PEACE IV Programme is managed and funded by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), with the overall goal of supporting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border region.
Councillor John Kyle, chair of the Shared City Partnership, mentions that this is the primary edition of Progressing Peace, a report that seeks to outline the progress of the PEACE IV local action plan in Belfast. The Shared City Partnership brings together a diverse group of people, ranging from elected members and statutory agencies to voluntary and community partners, to suggest ideas and lend advice on how to achieve good relations across Belfast. Councillor Kyle describes how although significant progress has been made in the last two decades, there remains legacy issues in communities throughout the city. This is in reference to levels of trust and various sectors, such as education and society, that are still firmly segregated. A number of projects, under the PEACE IV programme, have been implemented in several communities to promote cross border contact.
The local action plan consists of three main themes — Children and Young People, Shared Spaces and Services, and Building Positive Relations — all of which have collectively received £14 million of funding since 2018, £3 million of which has been allocated to the Children and Young People theme, with its goal to helping to create positive and effective relationships amongst young people with different backgrounds, and with the overall aim of building a cohesive society. For this article, Shared Future News chose to take a closer look at the Young Advocate initiative, under this theme.
Young Advocates is an important, forward-thinking initiative that is being carried out by Cooperation Ireland, a long-standing non-profit organisation. Through the Young Advocates programme, Cooperation Ireland works to promote interaction, dialogue, and practical collaboration between the people of Northern Ireland, and also between the North and the Republic. The initiative is geared towards young people, aged 16–24, with the hope of providing them an experience of personal growth, community relations, and an opportunity to make a lasting impact on their community.
Barry Fennell, facilitator and programme manager at Cooperation Ireland, provided us with a deeper insight into the overall challenges, successes and rewards that are involved with participating in, and implementing, an initiative such as Young Advocates.
Fennell told us how Young Advocates operate primarily in regions where there is a Protestant area and a Catholic area that are in close proximity with each other: “But quite often what you will find within those communities is that the opportunity for contact, and the opportunity for meeting someone from a different background is quite limited.” From our conversation, one could gather that the young people in these areas live a stone’s throw away from each other, but socially, they are worlds apart.
We asked Fennell about the motivations behind implementing an initiative such as Young Advocates:
“It’s all about building local relationships, about young people meeting each other and finding out a bit about each other, about bringing groups of people together to establish a contact and building that relationship.”
The participants’ personal development was the underlying theme. The basic idea is that these relationships can lead to friendship and trust, which eventually will enable these young people to become viable actors of change in their community.
The initiative is primarily a peace and reconciliation programme that, as well as facilitating a space for interaction amongst these youths, provides them with an OCN qualification, which is an accredited course in good relations and diversity.
Fennell described some of the challenges associated with implementing a programme such as Young Advocates:
“Lockdown has affected the process, as the main aim is to get these young people out of their communities and experience the other. We tried Zoom events, which worked to an extent, but it didn’t really achieve what you could do in a face-to-face situation.”
Fennell also mentioned how, unfortunately, digital poverty comes into the equation for these virtual events. Some of the kids that would normally be participants may not have a laptop or Wi-Fi in their households.
As you would expect when dealing with young people, parents can also pose a challenge, as they can be sceptical. As Fennell explained:
“Because there are many initiatives, you have to get across what you are doing, to develop relationships with the parents and partners. You’ll be asked what the intentions of the organisation are and you will always have resistance from parents, or people in the community, on what the initiative is trying to do. We are always as clear as possible on what we are trying to do, and I am more than happy to meet with people that have questions.”
The key point being conveyed was that these young people and their parents can at least give it a go and try it out, and if it’s not for them, Young Advocates can try and offer another pathway.
Is the level of participation from both communities, Protestant and Catholic, mutual? “We do ensure there is a community balance as it is a cross-community initiative”, Fennell replied. As with many aspects of society, it seems the successful implementation of a programme like Young Advocates is heavily contextual. One size does not fit all; each community differs on many aspects, and Fennell spoke of how vital it is to understand these differences.
As for positive outcomes of the initiative so far, Fennell told us about the element of social justice:
“[Young people] can change and influence decision making in their communities. We had calls from councillors from the Belfast City Council, and it was about the young people wanting to have a conversation, to just hold some individual responsible. ‘What can we do?’ ‘Why did you do this and that?’ ‘What can we do as a group?’”
The idea of these young people promoting real change in their communities is what Fennell spoke most enthusiastically about. He spoke of a survey that the Young Advocates did, where they asked young people about their lockdown experience. The findings were presented to the city council, with the aim of changing their thought process on what they should implement at a local level. For Fennell, this was certainly the highlight of being a part of the initiative — realising that the work they do is building confidence in young people and making them capable decision makers:
“In terms of Northern Ireland as a society coming out of a conflict and trying to build a peaceful society, I still think that work is ongoing, and it’s probably going to take a considerable amount of time before we become a normal, thriving community. If we continue to bring young people together it will help the situation.”
This may sum up the current situation with peacebuilding in Northern Ireland — there is no quick fix solution. Time, and initiatives such as Young Advocates that really operate at the grassroots of society, are of vital importance to the positive development of these communities. Fennell added, “The biggest barrier is in the minds and attitudes of the people. More of these initiatives are needed to change these minds and attitudes.”
Perhaps if these bottom-up initiatives can build relationships amongst young people and improve their capacity for critical thinking and decision making, then, in the future, they can initiate real change from the top-down in Northern Ireland.