The early 90s in Northern Ireland was a period that saw the start of many initiatives in what was called community relations (later good relations). The general aims were to facilitate discussion, explore and build understanding of differences to improve relationships between the conflicting communities. This was also the start of decades of EU investment in peace building. In 1991 I was appointed by the Workers' Educational Association Northern Ireland to set up an anti-sectarian education project. I've continued to work in this area for the last 25 years.
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Initially the learning that I both organised and facilitated took the form of one-day workshops looking at topics such as prejudice awareness, basic mediation skills, understanding our history, facilitating political discussion and anti-sectarianism. After a few years I decided to develop a course that would be delivered more in line with the other adult learning of the WEA - 2 hours by 10 weeks - and so Us and Them was born. Over the weeks learners explored different elements of their own identity and those of others. They began by looking at identity labels - those that come at birth, those we acquire or reject, those that unite and those that separate. This later developed into discussion on the role of culture and the media on our identities.
Then the learners moved to unpack the tripartite identifiers of divided Northern Irish society - British/Protestant/Unionist and Irish/Catholic/Republican. A few years after its creation Us and Them became the first accredited course in community relations and went on to become a core part of WEA curriculum for the next 20 years.
The course's popularity and the evolution of community relations to look at other forms of prejudice and discrimination than just sectarianism, led to the writing of a companion course, Us and Them Too. This course also opened with a general introductory journey looking at labels and where our prejudices and stereotypes come from covering a range of minority identities. It then moved to systematically look at gender, age, race, disability and sexuality. The final portion of the course opened the debate about rights and responsibilities and asked how groups and organisations could make themselves more welcoming of difference.
I had originally thought that Us and Them Too would be a follow-on course, but in practice many learners preferred to work through it before moving on to address core conflict issues in the N.I. context - those being perceived to evoke greater sensitivity and division.
We developed other courses and resources to help learners understand themselves and others better and acquire skills to engage in hard conversations, build relationships and lead change. These included courses on history, conflict management and principled negotiation skills.
Courses were not always delivered in cross-community contexts. Many groups needed to do some initial exploration within their own identity settings first before having the confidence to enter into conversations with 'the other'. Often they could be surprised to discover the diversity that existed within their own group - challenging the perception of community uniformity.
At the core of all the courses was the goal to facilitate new conversations, the telling of stories and reflective learning. The key resource was the input of the learners and their diverse experiences. The role of the tutor was to create a learning environment where sensitive subject matter could be safely opened up, where active listening was encouraged, where there was respect for differing beliefs and opinions and where journeys of learning could begin.
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Adult learning definitely has a powerful role to play in helping individuals and groups explore ways of living together peacefully. Some of this can happen incidentally purely by the mix of people who turn up to adult classes, but adult learning should also provide more overt opportunities where difficult, divisive issues can be safely aired and worked through. It's not a quick fix, but every opportunity where someone's stereotypes and misconceptions of 'the other' are challenged is a step forward.
Colin Neilands has worked in adult learning for the past 25 years. Most of that time was with the WEA in Northern Ireland where he specialised in community relations and leadership work before becoming its Director. He now works freelance (www.communitus.co.uk) and has contracts with EPALE UK and EAAL UK. He founded and is Chair of the Forum for Adult Learning NI and on its behalf manages the NI Impact Forum on Adult Learning, part of EAAL UK's programme.