UKCPN trip to Galway


Céad míle fáilte! In January of 2014, 3 members of the UK Community Partner Network (Jane Acton from Nature Workshops, Cornwall; Steve Pool, freelance Artist, Sheffield and Becci Feltham from the NCCPE, Bristol) travelled to Galway, Ireland to meet with staff from the Community Knowledge Initiative at the National University of Ireland, Galway and their community partners. The aim of the trip was to develop ways to move community-university partnership working forward in the UK, by linking up with others to broaden our context and outlook about ways to support community partners.

Jane's journal describes the trip.

  • Wednesday 29th January  
    • The plane is moving and one of the cabin crew is showing us what to do in case of an emergency, and in relation to this diary I am immediately reminded of the 'How to guide for communities entering a relationship with local universities'. I must check if we advise what to do if things go seriously wrong e.g. Legal or financial issues. I must also try hard not to make this journal simply full of silly analogies - I find that irritating. I plan simply to write down everything we do and everything this prompts me to think about and everything I find of interest that others say or do. This should be enough.
    • One note personally this is an auspicious time for me to be celebrating and recognising engagement in Higher Education (HE) as I have just sent the first draft of a piece of research done by my organisation to Plymouth University. Hopefully this will help society recognise the importance of using the natural for vulnerable people, how we do it and how we measure it.
    • It's also worth mentioning at this point dear reader that I will be looking for opportunities to develop our small social enterprise with this trip, in addition to fact finding and report making for the Engagement agenda in general for community in the UK. In permacultural style (are there other philosophical or sociology or ecological systems?) everything we do we try and have at least two aims, or purposes or outcomes.
    • We meet the CKI team and their colleagues for dinner and start to get to know one another. Everyone is incredibly welcoming and friendly and by the end of the evening, it’s like we’re all old friends.
  • Thursday 30th January
    • Today has been a long, delightfully packed day! In hindsight I realise that Ann Lyons from the Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI) team at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) has put together a programme of thought-provoking contrasts.
    • Met by Kate Morris from Campus Engage, we walked through the city along the banks of the fast and deep river to NUIG where we met with the whole CKI team. The CKI fosters community-university partnerships that aim to promote the principles & practices of civic engagement and democracy.
    • Their project has been established a long time, initially via a US philanthropic business and then mainstreamed via the university's internal funding. They run four distinct strands of an engagement curriculum based on community learning: with students working in the community or on an identified community need; a volunteering programme where students are rewarded for their hours of service; a youth academy where 208 high achievers from local primary schools come onto the campus at the weekends; and a community-based research programme which include seminars, workshops and study trips. One example of this work is the 'science shop' where students do dissertations on research questions set by the community. This participatory approach involves varying degrees of interaction for the 'co-creation of knowledge'.
    • The whole NUIG campus has grown from about 6,000 students to 17,000 students since the programme was started. Over this time the university has had to become much more business-like and its marketing department has had to grow as the Institution competes with all the other HE offers across the country. The CKI service is now embedded into the community in Galway but with reduced budgets, the community posts are ending. This will leave gaps in services but at least the service is established now.
    • Lorraine McIlrath (Head of the CKI) and the team were honest and welcoming and the building buzzing and bright with lots of glass and various modern colourful artwork. So out into the cold with a brisk walk back into the city centre, lots of chat, more gushing water and civic memorials (Columbus stopped off in the city on his voyage of discovery, who knew!).
    • The next stop was down a little side street and up a narrow wooden staircase to the office of Green Sod. Established in 2006 as a social enterprise and then a charity, their main aim is to preserve wild spaces simply for their intrinsic value. Having lost a battle to save a hazel coppice of 100 trees, this tiny group is now pro-active and countrywide in its aspirations. They are supported by the University with volunteer student placements helping out with administration, development of new projects and biodiversity assessments. They also worked in collaboration with the university hosting a visit from a Professor of Complexity Theory from LSE.
    • Having gone from large institutions to tiny organisations and round corners in our head, the afternoon brought us back into a reality rooted in social history and Irish current consciousness, meeting the people at COPE. The charity runs services for families escaping domestic abuse, homeless people and vulnerable elderly people. With 100 staff and 230 volunteers this Galway born and bred agency has a long and largely fruitful relationship with the university, drawing on all the services offered by the CKI team, benefitting individual students and staff, projects and the agency as a whole. Commitment and passion flows freely and again people are not afraid to talk about uncomfortable topics here.
    • The CEO from COPE had a few useful tips for community partners:
    • 1) COPE initiated their relationship with the university with a meeting with one of their Directors, the CEO and the Principal. This resulted in a single Memorandum of Understanding. This has given them confidence over the years.
    • 2) COPE conducted their own needs analysis about what and how HE might be useful for them and their clients. They review this regularly and a spreadsheet is maintained recording all the various interactions e.g. student placements, reports, meetings and outputs.
    • 3) One piece of learning used by the COPE staff team on a regular basis was participatory learning techniques. The University had delivered this training to some of the COPE staff and now all the staff want this training because it has been so useful in working with clients.
    • 4) Organising meetings to 'get the word out' regarding issues or useful ideas are much more successful when done in collaboration with the University. (I can vouch for this locally in Cornwall with some recent success we have had in screening Project Wild Thing in collaboration with Falmouth University).
    • The biggest contrast was so deeply felt by all of us, I'm not sure yet how to write about it. I'll try and just state the facts. COPE are moving. They currently have a refuge and offices in the centre of Galway and are in the process of negotiating and moving into a much bigger building, still central with its own gardens and huge secure walls.
    • It was built as a convent and its last occupants were 6 nuns. It was also one of the Magdalene Laundries. According to Wikipedia 'the Magdalene Laundries were institutions to be found throughout Europe and N. America throughout 19th and 20th centuries, founded in Ireland in 1758, the last one closed in 1996. Over 30,000 innocent women and girls were incarcerated like slaves because they were sexually active, unmarried mothers, victims of abuse, too simple or too attractive. Though they were not criminals the cruelty with which they were treated methodically stripped away their sanity, agency, and identity; inhumane treatment, such as physical/emotional abuse and shaming techniques, was used to demean and dehumanize them. Parrot and Cummings wrote that “The cost of violence, oppression and brutalization of women is enormous” and in their struggle to survive, the inmates suffered not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally.'
    • The building is large and cold and has mostly high ceilinged rooms, with lots of bleeding heart pictures and odd remnants such as wheelchairs, laundry baskets and tiled floors. The plan is to raise the capital to create self-contained units. We talked about having the community acknowledge the past; having joyful and fun arts based activities as an interim before the healing can start for future families. This transformative stage could be a project the University could help with in the future. I rang the bell, which hung down between the bannisters, and hope there will be beautiful music in the future.
    • The final contrast to this was music. Glorious music tangentially linked with the University, a consummate fiddle player from Ennis has helped a PhD musician study the history and archiving of Irish music. Coupled with a drop of the queer stuff and the craic it was the perfect end.
  • Friday 31st January
    • So now I'm on the bus back to Dublin and want to draw some meaning and final thoughts. As a measure of impact, taking my initial aspirations as I listed them at the beginning, I think a written agreement between communities and HE institutions as COPE have might help in the worst-case scenarios.
    • There is certainly much more we could make of online presence in this agenda, as individual agencies and in the UK Community Partner Network. Kate from Campus Engage is working on having an interactive online platform for skill sharing and problem solving for example. From my organisation’s point of view I have picked up all sorts of ideas for projects and contacts. We may or may not see them all to fruition but I'm definitely going to find time to investigate EU partnership funding, for the work we do in nature for vulnerable families.
    • From the point of view of UK Community Partner Network and the future drivers for this, I think we need to show the human and ecological impacts. A programme of quantifying impacts in well-being for individuals and agencies (economic value) and in development of environmental sustainability and awareness raising and consideration. Proving the impact is possible and imperative.
    • For me personally dear reader I have been made to remember how powerful we are and how important learning and development is for us all in our lives. We had céad míle fáilte ('hundred thousand welcomes') everywhere we went, despite our massive history between nations. We were given the privilege of witnessing how people begin to overcome hard and dark history and how music can help to heal. I’m sure we will continue to reflect on our time in Galway when we get home. The trip has helped me see perspective and potential for the engagement agenda I have never seen before.
    • A massive thank you to Ann Lyons and the whole CKI team at NUI Galway, Kate Morris from Campus Engage, Green Sod and COPE.

A film of the trip by Steve Pool

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