Joseph “Joe” Smith an International Fellow at PeacePlayers International- Northern Ireland shares a recent experience working with a group of young leaders in Northern Ireland.
When I started working with PeacePlayers a short 8 months ago, I was looking forward to helping us achieve our mission statement – to bridge divides, develop leaders, and change perceptions. The first two phrases really spoke to me. The areas we are working are divided communities; 95% of the schools in Belfast are still segregated by religion, so bridging divides was simple to see. As a cross-community charity working with young people, I could certainly see the need for developing leaders to be a part of our mission. But how was I going to help change perceptions? Having never been to Northern Ireland before, how can I come to this part of the world where discrimination, sectarianism, and disagreement is palpable, and terror, bombings and death are in the not to distant past and help move the society forward. One conclusion I have come to; most times (like mom says) the solution does not lie with what I can say, but instead what I can listen to.
We walked into the Greenhill YMCA conference room in Newcastle excited to meet the 20 young people participating in our Open College Network (OCN) course “Promoting Diversity Through Sport.” Though I had never met this group, I had delivered this OCN course to a similar aged group before, and was looking forward to judging how well they were able to engage in our materials. They all walked in and sat down, looking at each other a bit of nervousness and curiosity, waiting for myself and the other facilitators to get started. We began by playing a few icebreaker games, learned participant’s names, where they are from, and a bit about each other, our standard procedure at the beginning of such courses. As I scanned the room I began to do what we preach in the course not to. I began looking at what each of them was wearing. What colours did they have on? What was their surname? Did they call one of the city’s up north “Derry” or “London-Derry” It was during my time categorising and stereotyping that I was thrown off by one of the more excitable members of the group. The young man was wearing a Celtic Football top (traditionally associated with the Catholic community). I immediately began to question his motives for his outfit. I came up with possible comebacks for comments, and ways I was going to prevent this young man from becoming a “problem” in our group. It was at that moment that I was drawn from my thoughts back to the room where he was explaining his reasons for joining our OCN. He was a protestant, who was living in a predominately protestant community. He had thought provoking questions regarding his own community and Northern Ireland as a whole. Throughout the weekend activities, the topics of diversity, stereotyping, pre-judgment and ones “way of being” were discussed, and I discovered just how much these young people wanted to see change. They acknowledged that though the road to a shared society will not be easy, it was a necessary one to take.
This same group of young leaders helped PPI-NI facilitate a 5 week programme in their community which culminated a few weeks ago with the Larne YMCA Game of 3 Halves, during which they took on the task of facilitating one of PPI-NI’s classic games about perception change and stereotyping, “not on my team”. It was incredible to watch them relaying what they had learned during the OCN course to a younger generation.
This story is one of many that I have been lucky enough to be a part of during my time so far in Northern Ireland. It is one I tell not to highlight how great PeacePlayers is, or to pat our self on the back, but one that I hope encourages you to think about how you see and perceive people in your own life. Instead of trying to “change” others, try to get to know them, understand them, and care for them. It is after this process that the space can be created for change, in some cases (as shown above), your own rather than another.
In the attached video, participants from our Open College Network course “Promoting Diversity Through Sport” take some young people through a popular PPI-NI community relations activity “Not On My Team.” At the beginning of this activity, the participants are asked to arrange 8 cards from most important to least important player they believe would help their hypothetical basketball team be successful. The participants are given no more information than what the person on the card looks like. Once arranged in order, the participants are then given a bit more background about each player. Once they hear the background, they are asked if they still believe their order is correct. The activity is a fun and engaging way to discuss stereotypes and challenge our perceptions of how we see people. We enter the video after the participants have arranged their cards based on look, and are learning a bit more about each player…Enjoy!!