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Growing Space

Recovery, Education and Capability

This was the first seminar to be held in Maynooth University since 2019, and I could certainly identify with and echo the words of Dr Derek Barter, that this event was an antidote to the fear we have been feeling over the last 2 years. The sense that some fragment of normalcy was returning was evident, the atmosphere outside the lecture hall beforehand was buzzing with relaxed chat. I must say it was nice to be at an event where the main topic was not Covid, no, today belonged to recovery. This ALL Institute and the Dept of Adult and Community Education (DACE), joint Addiction Studies/Psychology seminar did not disappoint as Dr Barter introduced Dr Mark Richardson from Growing Space.

The story that unfolded as Mark began his presentation was one of true humanity, inclusion, caring and respect. Dr Richardson was joined by co-worker Nicola Vaile, and two participants from Growing Space, Michele and Marette. It was obvious from the beginning that the relationship between all four people was very special, you could feel the deep connection between them. Marks passion for what he does, and for what he has helped create in Growing Space was evident in his presentation. It flowed from him naturally because he deeply believes in it. Growing Space has been providing a space in Wales since 1992, in a place called Nant Bran (such a lovely name), where they continue to approach mental health issues through transformational education, community engagement, situationist practice, and emancipatory participation. All of this in the hope that those who suffer mental health issues might find that spark that ignites their journey of recovery. In Mark Richardson’s own words, “education is the bedrock of recovery”.

Dr Richardson continued as he explained, in detail, the support they provide at Growing Space for the community. All the time connecting the theories and practices to the real-life experiences of Michele and Marette. This is not a medical, symptom management approach to mental health, although the medical approach is also important, as Dr Mary Ryan (Head of Dept of Adult and Community Education) alluded to. I found it refreshing to hear someone speak about people who can sometimes be forgotten about within society because of mental health issues and the stigma that surrounds it. One of the first things Mark done when he arrived at Growing Space was to paint the old building bright yellow, so as to let people know we are here and this is what we do, no more hiding. A simple but powerful statement, if we refuse to acknowledge or speak about serious social issues and the structures that support these beliefs, we give them the power to oppress. One of the first questions Mark asks anyone who comes to Growing Space is, what can you do, what do you want to do? Instead of, what’s wrong with you? Growing Space joins a person’s recovery journey and supports them by focusing on a person’s strengths. Mark goes on to tell us that Growing Space is there to “inspire learning”, and to “help people find their own recovery”.  

Dr Richardson kept referring back to both Michele and Marette’s stories throughout his presentation, so as to give the audience a sense of their mental health issues, their pathways to recovery and their experiences within Growing Space. I for one found this approach very inclusive, a clever way of keeping both Michele and Marette involved in the presentation, as there were some serious anxiety issues, in particular with Marette, as we were to find out later. Somehow they found the strength to stand up in front of a room full of strangers and tell their very personal stories. Upon reflection I can see that it was only because of the relationship that Mark Richardson and his team have with the participants at Growing Space, that Marette and Michele had the confidence to share with us their experiences.

Michele’s story was harrowing to hear at times, and by the end of it I had tears in my eyes, and I certainly wasn’t the only one. What Michele endured throughout her childhood was nothing short of horrific, at one point she did say, matter-of-factly, that she blamed her mother for her mental illness. When Michele first came to Growing Space she had literacy issues, but here Michele was, more than a stone’s throw away from home, standing in a very large lecture hall reading from her life story which she wrote herself – here was the power of adult education. This is what can happen when the barriers of stigma, language, and ignorance are removed, and replaced with humanity, cooperation, openness and exploration. The support from Nicola during the time Michele spent at the podium was visible, solid as a rock. The round of applause Michele received when she finished was emotional to say the least, it was in appreciation for her honesty and vulnerability; it’s true when Brene Brown says, there is power in vulnerability . It was not only for Michele’s honesty that such appreciation was shown, but the fact that she came through what she did, not unscathed by any means, but still standing none the less, how dare anyone stigmatise, exclude, or at the very least not strive to understand a powerful soul like Michele, is beyond me.

Left to right Derek Barter (Maynooth), Michele, Marette, Nic, Mark

When Marette made her way to the podium, the moral support of Nicola was ever present. Two very different stories in ways, but ultimately having similar outcomes, ill mental health. What did come through in Marette’s story was how important Growing Space and building a trusting relationship with Mark was in her journey of recovery. From speaking with Mark later in the day I can say that some of the obstacles that Marette has overcome is astonishing. I can only speculate that the occasion become too much for Marette during her talk and she couldn’t finish what she had written; without missing a beat in jumped Nicola to make sure that what Marette had written was heard. I can only liken it to a secret service agent jumping in front of a bullet for her president, marvellous. It was in this moment that I looked from Marette to Mark to Nicola, and what I saw will stay with me for a long time to come. What I saw was love, the type of love you see between a parent and a child or between siblings. They felt and acted with Marette in the moment, and I only hope that when they had time to reflect that they looked for the lesson in the experience.

I really enjoyed the couple of hours I spent in the company of Mark, Nicola, Michele and Marette. It was a privilege to hear their stories and I hope I have done them justice in this piece. There is so much more to Dr Mark Richardson’s work and Growing Space. I was glad to have the chance to talk with Mark afterwards, and I asked him how he would approach stigma within people who were in recovery from addiction. His reply was, change the language you use. Now, I have to say, I was expecting more but, what I wasn’t expecting was that I would be still thinking about his answer a week later. I have been engaged in those five words ever since and thinking of different ways to put them into action. Mark didn’t give me the answer I was looking for, he joined me on my journey to finding the answer for myself. Thank you Mark.

Glen.

Glen Patrick Smith began his journey through Maynooth University in 2018, when he completed the certificate in Addictions Studies. From there he progressed on to the part-time evening degree in Community Studies, which he will complete in the summer of 2023. Returning to education, in particular the Adult and Community Education Department in Maynooth, has been the most important decision of his life thus far. It has given him a confidence to express himself, and it has afforded him opportunities he never though possible. As a result of his studies and the passion it has instilled in him for adult and community education, Glen has recently been employed by the local Family Resource Centre in Newbridge as a family support/community development worker. Glen intends to continue his studies in the near future.

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Adult Learning, Inequality and Covid-19

Since 2006 I have been working as a part-time tutor teaching literacy and ICT in an Adult Education Centre in Tallaght. Four years ago, I decided to enhance my personal learning journey by beginning the BA in Community Studies in Maynooth University. My journey so far has been transformational as I have grown in my understanding of the assumptions that underlie my practice and the philosophies of education, which have fostered in me a new appreciation for adult education principles.  In 2020 for my thesis, I decided to use my experiences within adult education to investigate ways in which the pandemic has affected the learning opportunities of adults.

Even before the pandemic, there has been a shift over the years in promoting economic growth by raising market-driven needs above the needs of individuals. This has had a significant impact on many sectors of society such as adult education. The implications of this have been that when we try to fit the students’ needs into the system rather than the other way around, it is the needs of the students that get lost within this process. I do appreciate that there is a need to reduce unemployment and to equip learners to compete in the job market, but what is equally necessary is an understanding of the conditions that make some groups more at risk to unemployment than others and it is in times like the current pandemic that these groups will be hit the hardest.  

My research was carried out using a qualitative case study analysis, interviewing students, tutors and coordinators to hear their experiences of adult learning during the pandemic. Throughout these discussions key themes emerged such as; the isolating experience of online learning, lack of motivation, access to IT devices and an increase in the digital divide. Most students agreed that they found the online learning experience an isolating one. The prime focus throughout this year has been on providing the necessary devices to work online and while this has been important, what has been overlooked are the holistic values that are core to adult education principles. As stated by AONTAS (2020b) at the heart of learning is not technology, it is pedagogy. The term pedagogy means the art of teaching and covers so much more of the learning experience. Emotions and feelings are difficult to quantify, but they play a vital role within the learning experience that cannot afford to be discounted. The dynamic of the group is significant in providing support to enable learning from each other’s experiences. Within this research, the students who participated all recognised the knowledge within the group and placed value on one another in order to learn. Many adult learners felt that these aspects of group learning and engagements were missing now and were difficult to replicate through online platforms. In short, remote learning has provided a narrow-standardised medium for learning using ‘human capital’ to serve the needs of the workforce. Based on my research, the findings showed that this approach was only favoured by some while further marginalising many others. 

Prior to the pandemic, a shift towards digitisation was already underway (DAE, 2015). Covid-19 has accelerated this paradigm, and it looks like this is set to continue. How much the pandemic has reshaped the way we live, learn and work; only time will tell. When it comes to adult learning some of the changes experienced may be lasting fixtures and part of the ‘new normal’ in a post-pandemic world. The impact of this will deepen the existing divide of inequality (AONTAS, 2020a). If we consider that this will be our future, then a critical awareness and deep understanding of inequality is more necessary now than ever.  

Maria-Ana Kelly will complete her BA (Hons) in Community Studies from Maynooth University in January 2022. This degree consisted of modules from departments in Applied Social Studies, Anthropology, Sociology and Adult and Community Education. Maria-Ana’s main objective has been to develop a deeper understanding on issues of social justice and recognizes that it is possible to bridge the gap of inequality, through the approaches and methodologies used in the classroom. For her research thesis, she chose to examine in what way the pandemic has exacerbated inequality and has excluded certain students from the learning experience. Following on from the degree, Maria-Ana would like to begin the Master’s in Adult and Community Education next year.

Bibliography 

AONTAS (2020a). Growing evidence base on widening inequalities during Covid-19 for learners across Ireland. Retrieved from: https://www.aontas.com/knowledge/blog/growing-evidence-base-of-widening-inequalities-during-covid-19-for-learners-across-ireland [Accessed on 17th August 2021]. 

AONTAS (2020b). Mitigating educational disadvantage (including Community Education issues) working group: Digital learning and disadvantage across tertiary education – a discussion paper. Retrieved from:  https://www.aontas.com/assets/resources/AONTASResearch/Digital%20Learning%20and%20Disadvantage%20across%20Tertiary%20Education.pdf [Accessed on 17th August 2021]. 

DAE European Commission (2015). Digital agenda for Europe: Digital economy and society index 2015: Country profile: Ireland. Brussels. Retrieved from: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/scoreboard/ireland [Accessed on 17th August 2021].

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Community Education: So Much More than a Course

On a bright summer’s day in 2017, around 8 of us gathered in an upstairs room over a busy community centre on the outskirts of Limerick city. All of us had been working in community education in some shape or form for several decades. Some of us were on the front-line, organising and sometimes delivering community education, others worked in advocacy organisations whose role it was to create networks for practitioners and promote the work. The rest were academics who in a previous life had worked in community education and were still connected to the sector. Had we done the maths, there was probably around 100 years’ experience in the room if not more. I won’t name the people there as I’m bound to forget someone, what matters more is the reason we were there. You see we were each passionate about a particular version of community education; one that is about people’s needs, about democracy, participation, equality, social change. We were worried this was being erased by government policies that viewed the work as not about needs but about outputs. And only outputs that could be measured.  This was a ‘bums on seats’ approach that was drowning in the language of work-readiness and up-skilling for employment.  Where did it all go wrong? Vocational education is important, but it’s not the only factor. 

We knew that we were not the only ones feeling this way in fact many people working in community education were just as fed up as we were. Certainly, many practitioners enjoy aspects of their work but they can also feel trapped in roles where they are not able to exercise the freedoms to work to well-established Freirean principles of community education (Fitzsimons 2017). People felt paralysed by previous brutal cuts that have been inflected on the community and voluntary sector as recently as the 2010s. Nobody wants to jeopardise funding to their project.  At that meeting in Limerick we gave ourselves a name ‘The 3-Pillars Group’.  One of the first things we did was to reach out to the two largest national community education provider networks in Ireland; The AONTAS Community Education Network (CEN) which is a network of over 100 independently managed community education providers; and Community Education Facilitator’s Association (CEFA) which connects public-sector employees who work as Community Education Facilitators (CEFs). It did not surprise us that these networks were having the same sorts of conversations as we were. So, the 3-Pillars group decided it was time to reassert the principles and values that underpin our collective understanding of community education. We did this by drawing from facilitated conversations within CEN and CEFA and came up with the following:   

Community education……  

Is rooted in equality, justice and empowerment. 

Creates a voice for those who are furthest from the education system.   

Is about social inclusion in its broadest sense.    

Is needs based, driven by the community and reflective of lived experiences.   

Recognises the value of accredited and non-accredited learning        

Promotes critical thinking 

Is learner centred, flexible, supportive, and developmental.   

Is facilitative, group focused and open to new things.   

Centres on relationship building.   

The charter was launched at a hugely successful webinar on the 29th of April called Reasserting the Politics of Community Education.  

A charter for Community Education

Mae Shaw and I (the speakers) took the title to heart and did not hold back on asking critical questions about whose side we are on. Do we, as practitioners want to be accountable to students, communities and social movements, or to neoliberal governments whose policies re-enforce a model of capitalism that allows a small number of people to get extremely wealthy while things get worse for millions of people. We encouraged people to make strange the familiar, to question such stalwarts as ‘community’ and even ‘education’. As Mae Shaw reminded us, community and community development have its origins in colonial policies that were put in place to create compliant citizens. Education is also worthy of interrogation as something that successfully   corrals people into very particular jobs and life-chances depending on your socio-economic background.  But the event was hopeful too, not least because the Charter is a wonderful celebration of the values held dear by community educators, but because of the work that is still being done that asks critical questions about the sort of world that we want to live in.  

Fitzsimons, C. (2017) Community Education and Neoliberalism, philosophies, policies and practices in Ireland. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319459363  

Camilla Fitzsimons is a Lecturer in the Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University. She hails from Dublin and has been working in adult and community education since the 1990s. She has worked with women’s groups, residents groups and campaign groups all as part of wider community development and leadership initiatives. Camilla’s practice is influenced by feminist critical pedagogy and her research influence extends across the breadth of adult and community education where the emphasis is on equality, social justice and dialogic, democratic learning. Camilla has published extensively in adult and community education, with an emphasis on the neoliberalisation of grassroots community education. She has also researched and written about broader feminist issues relating to equality, health and reproductive justice. All of Camilla’s work seeks to uncover asymmetries in power and privilege. At Maynooth she works across a range of programmes at under-graduate and post-graduate level. Camilla is currently the Course Coordinator of the Higher Diploma in Further Education.

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Migrant to Teacher, Writer and Doctoral Student

How Adult Education can Change Your Life

I am Oleg Chupryna, an economic migrant from Ukraine. I am delighted to be able to contribute to the exciting blog from the Maynooth University Department of Adult and Community Education. I believe that my story may help others to start a journey which brings meaningful changes and satisfaction to one’s life. By sharing my experience, I hope to help adults who are undecided, or even desperate, to see that there is always a light at the end of a tunnel; and that light is Education – no matter how old you are. One just needs to be determined and keep going despite any obstacles they may come across with. That is my firm belief, and as a famous quote goes:

The world is one great battlefield,

With forces all arrayed;

If in my heart I do not yield,

I’ll overcome some day.

[Charles Albert Tindley]

I am a Higher Diploma in Further Education (HDFE) graduate of the Department of Adult and Further Education (DACE), and I am currently enrolled in the PhD programme (part-time) in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University. I also teach in a Secondary School in Dublin and am a guest lecturer at Maynooth University. But my journey to where I am now, began a long time ago in Ukraine, where I was born into a working-class family. After a Secondary School, which I did not like at all, I worked in a factory for a couple of years as a general operative until I was called to military duty where I spent another two years as a soldier. I still did not know what I wanted in life, but on returning home from the military, I knew what I did not want. I wanted neither to return to a factory or continue military service.

Although nobody in my extended family ever went to university before, my parents convinced me to get into the University access scheme for working-class people. I became a student of the Kharkiv State University, in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine.

Five years later, I became a proud graduate with a 1st class degree in History and Social Sciences.

Consequently, I was offered a teaching job in one of the Universities where I was happy to work for several years, until the country’s and the family circumstances made me emigrate to South America first, and then to Ireland. People in Ukraine who lived through 1990s still call them the ‘merciless nineties’ as most of the people in the country were severely affected, many became unemployed, and many emigrated looking for a better life elsewhere. My own experience in this regard helped me better understand Irish people who, for generations, were looking for better life chances overseas.

Since I left my home I’ve had to work elsewhere to make a living. A salesman, construction worker, motorbike mechanic, gym instructor, bodyguard, and private tutor are just a few of many jobs I have done. But I always had a dream to work in Education, because teaching is what I am really passionate about and I was told I was good at it. However, during those years in emigration, I lost confidence in my ability to be a teacher again until one day a casual talk with an Irish person opened my eyes. She convinced me to go back to education and apply to the Higher Diploma in Further Education (HDFE) in Maynooth University, which I did and am very happy about it now.

However, during the HDFE, I came across a very stressful situation and a potential barrier to my future progress, which thanks to my determination and perhaps stubbornness, I eventually overcame. Almost at the end of the course, I discovered that I owed the University over five thousand euro. It happened because, as a foreigner, I was not aware of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the Irish higher education funding processes. As a result, I did not apply for the SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland) grant in time. When I found about how it worked, SUSI refused my application, saying it was too late. Despite all my efforts, such as appealing their decision and looking for help from my local TD (member of parliament), I was not able to overcome the bureaucratic ‘red tape’. Eventually, I borrowed money and repaid my debt to the University and happily received my parchment a year after graduation.   

The HDFE course was crucial for my further career development and most importantly in restoring my confidence in my ability to be a teacher again, especially in English language environment which is not my mother tongue. While doing my Higher Diploma, I was also encouraged by my sociology lecturer to do a PhD as he believed in my great potential.  He also helped me to refine the topic for my research and recommended a potential PhD supervisor. Another staff member encouraged me to start my blog where I could share ideas and knowledge in my field of expertise; international relations, Eastern European politics and Ukraine’s politics in particular. Since then I have started the blog and I have written a number of published articles in RTE Brainstorm, the London School of Economics and Politics website, the Eurasia Review, and the Maynooth University Department of Sociology website. I am very grateful for their encouragement and the DACE contribution to my professional and personal progress.

I hope my story helps others find their professional development and personal satisfaction path.

Oleg Chupryna is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, Maynooth University.