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The Story Exchange Project

To get to the chapel in Mountjoy prison you first go through a corridor. This leads into a semi-circular cage-like structure with two upper floors. Through the metal grilles you can see the corridors or wings leading off to the left and right. The corridors are painted yellow, the bars white, and the metal cell doors lining either side are grey. Depending on the time of day, the doors may be open, and prisoners could be congregated in the corridors and landings. The prison at these times is a noisy hub of activity. At other times, the cell doors may all be shut, and the only sound is that of officers marching back and forth, keys rattling.

You cross the circle to a narrow stair well, climb the stairs to the first floor, and then turn back on yourself to go around the barred landing in a semicircle, back in the direction from which you came. It is disorientating. The far-side steps up to the chapel have double doors made of wood, a change from all the metal, and when you enter the room with its high ceilings, split levels and huge stained-glass windows, the effect is breath taking.

There are a group of ‘lads’ in their late teens or early twenties seated to the right as we enter, and Niall and Marc, the two young facilitators from Gaisce aren’t instantly discernible. We however, as two female, middle-aged, and middle-class university staff members are. We join the circle and awkward introductions are made. There is some shuffling and nervous sniggering before Niall and Marc take hold of the situation and set us to work. I’m paired with the only young man not wearing sports-clothes. ‘I’ve just come from the kitchen’ he explains, as I pull up my chair. Our topic for conversation is ‘the first time I did something’, and I experience a moment of panic as I wonder what on earth I am going to share with this complete stranger.

‘I’m Darren’ my partner offers politely, ‘what’s your name again?’ Darren (pseudonym) thankfully agrees to go first and tells me about the first time he played for his school in Croke Park, and it doesn’t take long before I am with him. I am with him as he describes the feeling of coming onto the pitch through the tunnel, and of scoring for his team. I am with him as he speaks of his pride at being celebrated by the whole school and the school principal at the after-party, and I understand why to this day he keeps a small piece of turf from the field as a souvenir of a special day. And throughout his story, I am wondering how this boy with the long eyelashes, whose eyes are full of light at his childhood memory, has ended up in Dublin’s largest prison.

When it comes to sharing our stories back to the main group, I go first. I introduce myself as Darren, 20 years old, and recount the first time I played in Croke Park for my primary school. I strive to retell the experience with all the details that matter to Darren because I am responsible for his story. It is like I have been entrusted with this very precious memory and I want to do it justice. When it is Darren’s turn to speak, he introduces himself as Sarah, 45 years old. He tells the story of the first time I went skiing and nearly killed myself, making my way down a mountain Mr Bean style, using trees and barriers to slow my descent, while children, mini-pro ski champions, screeched with laughter as they sailed overhead on ski lifts. I notice how Darren’s rendition of my story is a kinder version. While the story gets some laughs, he omits some of my details and retells it from a perspective that garners empathy towards my plight as opposed to ridicule.

A group enter the chapel sheepishly, and the conversations in the circle come to a halt. A huddle of terrified looking girls and guys are marshalled over to our space by the Progression Unit Governor, and I remember that they will have just walked through the cage. They are introduced as the Maynooth University students who will be joining the Mountjoy Progression Unit prisoners every Friday for 13 weeks to take part in the Story Exchange Project. There is a self-conscious round of names and timid hand waves before the group is shepherded back out the doors for the rest of their prison tour. They will be starting next week.

Meaney, S. (2020). Evaluating the Story Exchange Project – A participatory arts-based research project with inmates and university students. Maynooth University: Ireland. Available at: https://educationmatters.ie/launch-of-publication-examining/

The Story Exchange Project will feature on the IUA documentary series ‘Changemakers’ airing on RTE1 in January 2022. 

Sarah Meaney Sartori completed her PhD with the Department of Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University. Funded by the Irish Research Council, her research was a creative exploration of the experience of educational exclusion from the perspective of prisoners and youth. Currently, Sarah is the research manager for College Connect, a programme aimed at widening educational diversity, and focussed on the educational inclusion for refugees, people with convictions and Travellers. She has worked as an adult educator for over 15 years, developing and delivering modules and programmes to a wide variety of groups. Sarah is trained and experienced in using arts-based methodologies, which involves taking research outside the academy and into the public sphere for engagement and to inspire social change. Sarah is on the MU Sanctuary Committee, the steering group of the Mountjoy Prison and Maynooth University Partnership, the National Traveller Mental Health Network Allies Forum and has acted as a consultant for a variety of organisations including the Traveller Counselling Service and LGTBI Ireland.

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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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My Doctorate; An Insider-Outsider Viewpoint

Giving voice to Black and Middle Eastern student experiences of inclusion and belonging on campus

My name is Fionnuala Darby and I have been working in higher education for over twenty years. One of the best decisions I ever made professionally and personally was to embrace the Doctorate in Higher and Adult Education at Maynooth University (2016-2020). It is my pleasure to contribute to this blog on my experiences of returning to formal education as a student, while simultaneously working in education as a lecturer, and the insider-outsider viewpoint that these dual roles bestowed on me as a result.

I had reached a stage in my career where I felt that I was revolving instead of evolving as an educator. Taking on doctoral studies was the accelerator that I needed, while also being a natural step in my career progression. All the people that I encountered during the EdD  handed me a torch to reveal and challenge my meaning making systems. Our learning on the programme was social, participatory and involved mutual engagement with others in negotiating meaning. I devoured and savoured this pedagogical approach, a perfect fit for me and my personality.

For most of my life in a formal education setting, I have believed that knowledge is located in books and in more recent decades, knowledge has become more accessible to me through advances in the Internet. What I have come to realise is how important it is to unearth what constitutes knowledge with regard to how I learn, teach and research. I will never think the same again about who authorises knowing and dominant knowledge claims in the curriculum.

I undertook research at TU Dublin, my place of employment, on the experiences of our Black and Minority Ethnic students on campus. Many people have asked me why I chose to research this topic. In reality I found that the topic picked me!

Reflected on our campus is the ethnic and cultural diversity of the students that I encountered over the years because of the shifting demographics and patterns in our society and communities.

Limited research exists documenting the experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic students in Irish higher education. I wanted to give voice to these students and to hear about their experiences of inclusion and belonging on campus. The research was underpinned by developing a race consciousness from critical race theory.

From the research participants I learned the most and I continue to use my research to make our campus more inclusive. I am currently working on an initiative through the IMPACT Project at TU Dublin to diversify the curriculum by ‘building multistories’. Dr. Ebun Joseph, was the external examiner for my research. Ebun provided me with valuable insights for my work and engaged in a public conversation with me on her recent publication and how it integrates with my work. This event was hosted by the EDI Directorate at TU Dublin.

It takes courage and a change of mindset to unlearn-learn-relearn, but the rewards for me have been numerous. In cultivating my intellect, the doctorate studies keep me young and curious, rather than jaded and cynical as I endeavor to continue research on this topic.

In particular I would like to express my deep gratitude to many colleagues at TU Dublin for their support and encouragement. Reflecting on my career trajectory for this blog, with over two decades of experience, and having encountered thousands of learners along the way there is still much to learn, and that excites me.

TU Dublin Blanchardstown Campus

Biography of the author, Dr. Fionnuala Darby

As a Senior Lecturer with the School of Business, TU Dublin (Blanchardstown Campus), projects that I am currently involved with include the Campus Champion for unconscious bias, Team Lead on the IMPACT University wide project on the celebration of teaching and learning for student success, Team Member on the University’s Athena Swan Working Group and Research Champion for the School of Business at TU Dublin Blanchardstown Campus. I teach modules on Diversity in the Workplace, HRM and Organisational Behaviour. My recent doctorate research (EdD 2016-2020) focuses on inclusion and belonging in higher education for BME students. My ORCID is 0000-0002-5296-5416.

Enquiries to:

Fionnuala.Darby@tudublin.ie

Dr Fionnuala Darby (@DarbyFionnuala) / Twitter

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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.