I’ve been asked by many this week what’s the plan? what can we do? what happens next? and I have responded with a few more stories and some wishes…
We did an art project once that the young people were really proud of, got right into, got their hands and clothes covered in paint but we were told by ‘community leaders’ that we had used the wrong community artists and so the right ‘community artists’ painted out our young people’s work.
We worked really hard on a film project with a young guy playing the starring role, a guy that one of my volunteers had to hold back from punching his sister several times one night for making faces at him, he was so emotional during the filming, it was cathartic, he was so proud of himself and wanted his mum to see it. A few days later the family were told to leave the area because the mum was dating the wrong guy. He was gone, and so was the time and exhaustion that had been put into him over weeks and months.
We took the young people to the Abbey Centre for a shopping outing – they said it was crap, because it wasn’t their own shopping centre. We took them to an ice cream shop and they laughed because all the flavour names were so weird or stupid. We took them to the Silent Valley and they kept asking where the shops were.
We knew that the young people appreciated our presence; we and our place were something to do and see, but that didn’t ease the discomfort of being small influences in a community where bigger influences carried more weight, force and strength than anything our creativity or good intention could or would capture.
The years of my early working life showed me what I had in terms of a stable family background, some education and some skills in stark comparison to others, but it also showed me the assumptions I made, the ignorance I had and the pity I carried that took me somewhere that it wasn’t wanted.
I learned in the Lower Newtownards Road about justice, not a justice that is doled out, given to the poor and bestowed upon the weak, but a justice that teaches the powerful about their strength, the educated about their privilege and the stable about their safety. I learnt that real transformation would only work if some of this strength, privilege, stability and safety was shared and/or given away. I felt then as I feel now, listening to helicopters overhead and driving through scorch marks on the road, that there are not many leaders in that community who understand, share that vision or have an understanding of what that really looks like. More importantly, and I say this to those who number the silent majority, the peace protestors, the social justice activists up the road feeling helpless, that there are leaders in a similar position in the ‘peaceful’ communities too. When I say leaders of course I mean politicians, community leaders and workers, clergy and police, but more importantly and more significantly I mean role models in our families, our schools and youth centres and our health services too.
For too long in my view, when violence bubbles and erupts, when protest occurs, when there are threats and murders this small corner of the world is forced (by what I am not sure) to turn to its politicians, ex-prisoners and police in positions of leadership who carry a burden and narrative of the past and often have no empathetic insight into the social needs and requirements for whole communities to flourish regardless of flag colours.
We will not flourish if we seek to maintain our strength, we will not flourish if we seek to hold our privilege and we will not flourish if we seek to protect our own safety to the detriment of others.
We must use our strength, privilege and safety to help others become strong, privileged and safe.
When political and community leaders use the language of persecution, loss, corrosion and trampling when it comes to culture and identity, this will translate as a threat to communities who have been taught to respond to this threat with violence. I found that this was the only dominant language and response passed down, taught, incentivised and sustained by symbol, ritual and fear in communities where physical and destructive violence manifests itself. When political and community leaders use the language of class, shame, disgust and peace versus violence, those who are driving around the violence, complaining about it, worrying and/or judging it are caught between feeling helpless and unsure what to do and/or fuelling prejudice, stigma and even greater division between those who can manage their own violence (of which every person is capable) and those who cannot.
I walked away and signed up to be a foster carer, I couldn’t bear the two hour slots with the unsettled, unknown and chaotic children and young people any more. On the one hand I left something destructive and on the other hand I invited destruction (or the potential for it) into my home and my family. However, I found all those poverty and violence issues were redundant with the small child who needs a regular bedtime, stories read, songs sang, nutritious food, hands held and three layers of clothing. With the teenager who is told to stay in and not walk the streets to see/find friends or the eight year old who needs a blast of fresh air to resolve his ‘ADHD’ problems. Fostering isn’t for everyone, but it’s the perfect fit for us. It is these therapeutic and attaching activities and relationships that I find to be missing in the peace building discussions we are hearing in the media over these past days and weeks, I wince when I hear that all these matters can only be resolved through ‘democracy’ and the ‘political process’. This is a community that struggles to listen, to communicate without getting angry, that is being told it is under threat, that has been taught what to do when threatened, that has experienced not only the trauma of community violence but also the multiple traumas of family breakdown, mental ill health and personal bullying (to name a few), multi-generational unemployment, low educational achievement and physical illness and malnutrition.
How does this community relate to, let alone engage with ‘democracy’ and the ‘political process’?
I’d like to take the politicans away on a listening course, I’d like to see them signing children and young people into a youth club each week, sitting in their jeans reading stories to families, supporting couples at domestic violence mediation sessions. I’d like the community leaders and ex-prisoners to do an intensive attachment and loss course, I’d like to put a pin in words like ‘culture’ ‘war’ ‘violence’ ‘flag’ and ‘loyalism’, acknowledging them as a backdrop but have them sit with someone who has a mental illness as they rummage through their one hundred pieces of paper to find their address. I’d like to see them cooking meals and making conversations with their families and neighbours. I’d like to see teachers, counsellors and social workers being consulted on the ‘peace process’ and I’d like youth workers to be enabled and empowered to work with families over the long term and to inform and train leaders in the community about self- esteem and talking about their feelings. I’d like the strong and amazing families within these communities to be identified and praised, and asked for their wisdom and advice in building people and communities that flourish and I reckon they would say nothing about culture, national identity or flag colours.
For those on the outside, those who are judging, who are angry, who are upset or feeling powerless? The last thing we want, as my favourite Magee wrote earlier today is for communities whose violence is on the surface to interpret these questions as an attitude of ‘We are not like you. We are not the problem. We have nothing to learn from you. You’re the problem and you can fix it by being like us.’ What the ‘peaceful’ can and should learn from violence and fires on the streets of Belfast is that where there is poverty and violence then it is a mirror showing us our ugliness as a broader community, if one is hurting amongst us then we all are. In years to come our children and grandchildren will look to us and ask us what we did. It may not be Burma, it may not be India, it may not be the Civil Rights movement in the US but something is making it possible for violence to be prepared and executed on the street a mile from our houses and we are linked into the systems and structures that sustain this possibility. Is it the people we have voted for? The schools we have sent our children to? The sectarian/class prejudice/division that goes unchallenged? The laws and policies we wrote that defend/promote division? Leaving poverty behind? Judging it to be about money when really it’s about time?
I know a lot of people commented about the hopelessness articulated in my last essay – and whilst I’ve dreamed up the things I think might work I am not very hopeful. What I can hope for is that those with a voice will use it, those with hands, feet, family stability and education will use them and find ways to give that stuff away to those who don’t.
It’s really isn’t money that will make us flourish here, it is relationships. It really isn’t politics or dare I say democracy that will bring peace here – it is the quiet dignity that should be bestowed on every single human being around us – regardless of flag colour.
What happens next…?
I’ve been collecting some stories from people within the community and will continue to post them here – they are always the views of the storyteller, not my own.