In helping to assess entries to the CSJ Awards, our team members visit short-listed charities to learn more about their work. This year I visited Aspire NI, just outside Belfast, and managed to also catch-up with the team from one of last year’s winners, Vineyard Compassion.
Strong communities mitigate poverty and disadvantage across the UK. They tackle the pervasive issues caused by social isolation, division, and separation. The CSJ found this, in ‘Pillars of Community: Why communities matter and what matters to them’ (June 2021).
From the outset, I was struck by just how important Northern Ireland’s complex political, religious, and ethnographic backdrop is when appreciating the benefit brought by these two charities to their respective communities. 23 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, we can see from the discourse around the Protocol that the memory of those preceding lives on.
Personally, my time with these organisations underlined the fact that cohesive communities not only deliver social justice, but that the very process necessary for their creation – no matter how incipient that process – in and of itself can engender a more socially just life for their members.
‘Pillars of Community’ showed the concept of community to be a process, not a destination. The sooner we lay-down clear pathways to communitarian participation for our people, the sooner we can break the negative, cyclical, processes of poverty, and instead co-create more positive trajectories.
To this end, then, I was amazed when hearing of Vineyard’s work in setting-up a café in ‘no-man’s land’. The space so defined is a strand of shops sitting between two social housing estates in de-industrialising Coleraine – indeed, it’s worth mentioning that the need for investment through fair procurement sprung to mind, when speaking to Vineyard’s volunteers on the 30-acre site of a disused factory. Crucially, however, one estate is traditionally Protestant, the other, Catholic.
Vineyard described to me just how acutely faith marks the social division experienced by the poorest in Northern Ireland. Estates across the country fall into one of these two stated categories, which carry with them the associated, well-understood, conceptions of identity – loyalist/republican, British/Irish.
The work undertaken by the café hammered home the reasons as to why Vineyard were chosen as CSJ Award winners in 2020. It is having a marked effect on social cohesion. The initiative has caused the services offered by the charity – debt advice, men’s mental health sessions, community groups, and counselling – to be in receipt of 50/50, Catholic/Protestant, referee cohorts, who are now able to deal with addiction, financial problems, and family breakdown. It was moving to see ex-service users helping others in the healing of family relationships, drawing on their experience of trauma when leading the charity’s sessions. All a powerful reminder that the offering of stability, facility, and agency – the pathways to community participation – will kick-start those positive cycles.
I was also fortunate enough to experience first-hand Aspire NI’s work in one of Portadown’s integrated schools.
The town is one of the UK’s most deprived. Previously, Protestants and Catholics were educated separately. Though, Aspire’s in-school, small-group, homework programmes – delivered by local mentors – help pupils on FSM to reach their academic potential. Their 50/50 intakes’ GCSE attainment rates have improved. Despite Covid, attendance and engagement are up, and risk of exclusion is down. Speaking to the kids, it was fantastic to hear them say that they wanted to start local businesses, or continue their studies, paths they said that their parents wouldn’t have been able to tread.
Reflecting upon these humbling yet heartening experiences, it was clear to me that if we are to strengthen communities, overcome division, and take people away from the hardship that they are facing, then policymakers could learn much from these frontline organisations.
The visits left me incredibly grateful that we have the CSJ Foundation and our Alliance of Charities to help us inform policy work. Aspire NI and Vineyard Compassion are living proof that giving people meaningful opportunities to participate in the improvement of their community is one of the best ways to deliver social justice.