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Mindfulness as self-care in professional practice

Each year during the summer months I have a practice of going on a silent retreat. When I tell people that I am heading away to sit and do nothing for 7 days as part of my annual leave – no writing, no reading, no talking – I get some wry looks indeed. But I also get some interested looks, and indeed some looks that I interpret as envious. It seems that the endless hurry that characterizes many people’s lives, the constant demand of work, social media, the on-duty and high alert nature of the social world, can wear out our resources without our full knowledge or consent.  

Not that a retreat is an easy thing to do. For my part I experience the removal of stimulation and demand as a challenge for sure. There is a true sense of disorientation when you don’t have phone, e mails, internet, constant distraction, or indeed the affirmation that often comes from work. Who am I if I don’t have those things in my psychic space?  

But, despite, or perhaps because of, the challenge, I keep going back.  It seems to me that the single most important resource that I draw on in my work as an adult educator, the thing that sustains me in my pedagogical life as well as my psychological life, is the practice I have had for over three decades of taking time each day to sit and to be, to allow for a short time the world to be the world and me to be me. In this space I detach from constant doing and come in to the realm of being. Doing this every day, supported by my annual retreat, together with a like-minded community of practitioners, seems to have the impact of refreshing, renewing and resourcing the core part of me that I draw on in my pedagogical life. 

I work in the Department of Adult and Community Education in Maynooth University in the contexts of both adult education and adult guidance counselling. I see these as rewarding and demanding vocational choices. We work to animate change in individual lives and in the wider society, enacting and embodying a commitment to values of equality and justice.  In our work lives we find ourselves in the midst of group participants’ challenging experiences and stories, and we extend our hearts and minds to support the people we work with, often at a cost to ourselves that our institutions don’t recognize, reward or support. There is a sense in which self-care can seem like another demand on our time and energy, another task on top of the stresses of our work, another. 

Mindfulness practice offers me something important that resources me in the face of the requirements of the neo-liberal world: it offers a set of formal and informal practices that can teach me how to ground myself in the present moment with curiosity and openness and to relate to myself and to my own experience with kindness and compassion (Kabat-Zinn 2005, 2013). This can nurture a freedom to be with whatever is, in a way that offers supports in the midst of the challenges and demands of daily living. Mindful practice can support us to be present to ourselves at one and the same time that we are present to others, and to the myriad demands on our time, attention and care throughout our days.   

It also offers something in addition, a philosophy of living that is congruent with my values as an adult educator. Though mindfulness has been correctly critiqued for its susceptibility to neo liberal discourse, at its best it brings with it a radical critique of power, greed and narcissism. It emphasizes holistic connection: between body, mind and emotion, between self and other, between the human community and the environment we are embedded in, and on which we depend for well-being (Kabat-Zinn, 2005, 2018; Bristow et al 2022). There is nothing like a retreat from the daily compulsive consumption – of news, of goods, of resources – to alert you to the core difference between what is needed and nourishing, and what is compulsively consumed at the expense of well-being. 

As another academic year begins, I have a practice of asking myself a core question that I take from Joanna Macy’s work on hope: what would I most like to do to contribute to healing our world? Or as the subtitle of her book asks: how do I face the mess without going crazy (Macy & Johnstone, 2012)?  A retreat is a good place to address this challenge and the answer emerges easily: I will continue to resource myself with a daily mindfulness practice, strengthen my learning about the contemplative origins of mindfulness and continue to teach the practices I have learned to others.  

David is hosting a CPD opportunity over 8 weeks on Zoom for adult educators and adult guidance counsellors who would like to learn about Mindfulness and develop their own contemplative practice. If you would like to further details, please see flyer at the end of this blog post, or contact: Ann Smith at Ann.smith@mu.ie  

Bristow, J., Bell, R., Wamsler, C. (2022). Reconnection: Meeting the Climate Crisis Inside Out. Research and policy report. The Mindfulness Initiative and LUCSUS. www.themindfulnessinitiative.org/reconnection 

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our senses: Healing ourselves and the World through mindfulness.  Piatkus. 

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living, revised edition: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation (Revised ed.). Piatkus. 

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2018) The Healing Power of Mindfulness: A New Way of Being. Hachette. 

Macy, J. and Johnstone, C. (2012) Active Hope: How to face the mess without going crazy. New World Library.  

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The Adult Education Teachers Organisation (AETO) – the 5 Ws

Adult Education is the study of how we learn and develop as adults to collaborate in the creation of a just, equitable and sustainable society'. In the provision of education for adults who may not have been well served by the formal education system, adult education tutors provide a valuable service. The Department of Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University works closely with many professionals in adult education including with adult education tutors. The Department promotes a view of education which recognises the importance of learning which promotes justice and equality in society. The AETO shares these values and can support our department in promoting these values in education spaces in which their members work and to promote adult education in broader society

Who is in the AETO?

The AETO is a National Organisation of teachers in diverse roles in adult education. Adult Education involves teachers who work in Community Education, Literacy, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and other sectors. Membership of the AETO is open to any teacher working with adults in Ireland, be they working with an ETB or for an organisation funded by an ETB. There are about 3,000 adult education teachers nationally and the AETO has been able to engage 300 adult education teachers in its group so far. We expect that many more teachers will join as we raise our profile nationally. 

A committee has been set up to further the work of the organisation. The Chair of the Association is James O’Keeffe who works in CDETB, the treasurer is Lorcan McNamee from MSLETB, Sinéad Hyland from CDETB is the secretary of the organisation and Avril Tierney from CDETB is the PRO.

The organisation can be contacted by email at aeto2021@gmail.com

What are the aims of the AETO?

The AETO has various goals, all of which aim to improve the working lives of members and to help maintain a focus on learner centred education which will improve access, transfer and progression in the provision of adult education.

We believe that respect for adult learners involves respect for their teachers. The AETO provides a valuable network for teachers in adult education by providing support for them and in turn for the learners with whom they work.

Apart from those who have participated in adult education, there seems to be little public awareness of the work of Adult Education teachers. The AETO would like to inform the public of the work and practice of Adult Education Teachers and the life improvements that they help to bring about for students.  

The AETO would like the importance of our sector to be visible to the public and to the government. Our contribution to education for adults who are vulnerable and marginalised is specialised and of great value to the communities in which we work. We want to achieve working conditions that are merited by this contribution including:

  • a public service contract
  • recognition of prior service and a pay scale
  • recognition of teaching and other qualifications
  • terms and conditions that reflect these qualifications, service experience and status as teaching staff
  • a career path with progression pathways for teachers

We believe that this will encourage others to join us in the important work that we do and that will make our work sustainable.

Why?

Adult Education Teachers work in diverse roles and, so far, have had few opportunities to network. This national organisation provides a space for teachers to get to know and support one another and to share best practice in terms of their teaching.

There has been a realisation of late of the power of adult education and lifelong learning to address many of the issues that Ireland faces and to equip its population with the skills to survive and prosper in an ever-changing environment. Adult education teachers work with adults to develop skills which enable better communication. resilience and critical skills. 

The AETO recognises that, in the future, there will be a greater need for committed adult education tutors, to offer learning to adults who wish to re-engage or start out with their education. Many of the actions from the Learning for Life: The White Paper on Adult Education from July 2000 have not yet been put in place regarding adult education teachers. Since then, strategies have been published by various bodies including SOLAS (Future FET: Transforming Learning), Department of Further and Higher Education, Research Innovation and Science (Adult Literacy for Life- A 10 year strategy for literacy, numeracy and digital literacy) and Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI Strategy Statement 2022-2024) that depend on adult education teachers to deliver learning for adults to achieve the goals set out.

As a response to the fragmentation of the sector there is a need to engage colleagues who work in different areas. What is common to all adult education teachers is working with participants with various motivations, some of whom are returning to education having had negative experiences of education in the past. As such, their needs for support are complex. Adult education tutors are ready to provide those supports, allowing learners to develop whole person skills, as well as skills that can lead to work or further study.

Where?

There is representation on the group from all 16 ETBs.  There are also local groups based in ETBs who contribute to the national group and who organise locally.

Much of the communication is on the AETO WhatsApp group but we have had meetings face to face as well as online.

How?

The AETO aims to unite adult education teachers in a safe and communicative space where we agree on actions together and can act as the voice for Adult Education Teachers in Ireland.

We are in contact with our members and are engaging in different ways to with Adult Education Teachers so we can ensure that we are representing the wishes of the group.

Without adult education teachers there is no adult education.

Sinéad Hyland is a Tutor and Researcher with Maynooth University Department of Adult and Community Education and City of Dublin Education and Training Board. Sinéad has worked on many projects in adult education and in her work on the Return to Learning Programme in MU has focussed on helping adults to make transitions to higher education.

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DIVERSITY

Including Migrants through Organisational Development and Programme Planning in Adult Education

Ireland is no stranger to waves of migration, spanning 5,000 years, from the first documented migrants arriving on the shores of the North Mayo Ceide Fields to the recent wave of Ukranian refugees. Following the second world war in 1946, Operation Shamrock, in the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, (then an Army barracks) supported 500 traumatised children arriving from war torn Germany who were then hosted by families in country Wicklow and beyond. We welcomed migrants from Vietnam in the 1970’s and in the early 2000s refugees and asylum seekers from the continent of Africa arrived in numbers previously unforeseen, the impact of the Direct Provision system has yet to be fully appreciated or resolved.

Internal displacement has also been a recurring them on the island of Ireland. Displacement of western farming communities occurred through the Land Commission from its establishment in 1881 throughout the 1900s, as well as displacement of communities fleeing conflict across the border in the 1970s.  Describing the impact of displacement in The ‘Emerald Curtain’, it is estimated that 11,000 people were internally displaced as a result of partition of the island. RTE Archives documented the arrival of displaced people from Belfast to Gormanstown Army barracks in the 1970’s.  Fifty years later, we are considering using the same army buildings in Gormanstown to host Ukranian refugees, that were  used to host families fleeing the troubles in Northern Ireland. Global flows of migration continue to be topical issues for us.

Europe is currently experiencing the greatest number of economic and conflict migrants since the second world war. Modern society knows of internal displacement and external migration from African countries for some years but set it aside as a problem to be dealt with by the European Union. Few of us have had to actively deal with the issue until migrants began to arrive in significant numbers from war-torn Syria and economically and ecologically depressed North Africa.

As the numbers grew, emergency responses were adopted. Dedicated budgets were set aside, and willing educators were allocated to migrant groups primarily to teach English and assist them in their integration process. In many cases, “adult education for migrants” was subdivided into “adult education for refugees” and “adult education for other migrants”. Thus, migrants are considered as a “special” target group of adult education, with specifically tailored solutions. This approach may be appropriate in emergency response to a sudden migrant inflow, but long term it leaves migrants outside the mainstream adult education provision and contributes to isolation and ghettoization.

Now every statutory adult learning provider is required to meet the needs of the newly arrived migrants and refugees to a greater or lesser extent. We now realise what we have been doing  is not an adequate or sustainable response.

DIVERSITY Partners Meeting

The Erasmus + funded DIVERSITY project seeks to facilitate a policy and practice shift across Europe from focusing on migrants as distinct group requiring preparation for integration into the society around them, to including migrants in adult learning providers’ regular programs as equals.  The adult education ethos, principles and practices can actively and directly fosters diversity and inclusion in society.

Diversity project logo composted of multipled blue, navy and pink rings
EU flag logo with text: Co-funded by the Erasmus + Programme of the European Union

The Diversity Project-Including Migrants through Organisational Development and Programme Planning in Adult Education, emerged from the desire of European Adult Education providers to welcome refugees, and provide needs based appropriate adult education. It aims to support adult education management, programme planning and executive staff to assess their current practices for implicit barriers and to develop appropriate modes of inclusion for migrants in adult education.

The DIVERSITY Project is situated within the context of European emergency response mechanisms. It is focused primarily on supporting Adult Education managers, planners and providers to embrace and include migrants through organisational development and programme planning in Adult Education spaces. DIVERSITY project partners have developed several resources including country gap analysis reports, a training curriculum designed to address the specific requirements for this organisational shift and a policy recommendations and action plan report. To achieve good policy recommendations that reflect the needs of diverse migrant and refugee groups of adult learners, consultation with member organisations and representative groups is vital. Such an approach will ensure that policy is grounded in practice and is cognisant of experiential knowledge. The engagement of adult education actors in the Diversity Project to date suggests that having a genuine interest in people, their culture, traditions and language is important to facilitate inclusion. It is also important for adult education  organisations, staff and students to be aware of the semantics, the wording and labelling of people as ‘other’ creates barriers to integration and inclusion and can create miscommunication.

While most adult education providers would agree that a diverse learning community is a desirable goal, most are also less clear on how to create this respectful, caring, supportive, appreciative, mutually beneficial reality. Changing organisations is notoriously difficult and while agreement on the overall vision is crucial, identifying manageable, specific steps to take in the workplace can eventually make a bigger difference.  We have developed resources which we hope will be of use to adult education providers.

The Diversity Gap Analysis Report consolidates the current state of play in migrant related AE provision in each partner country and across Europe. The report profiles the readiness of adult education systems in Europe to develop more sustainable approaches towards managing diversity. It provides a review of relevant policy and practice documents along with interviews, surveys and focus groups involving managers, planners and learners (both migrants and non-migrants) as immediate target groups.

Cover of the diversity gap analysis report
Click on the image to open the report

The Diversity Curriculum is aimed at management, programme planning and executive staff with the modular curriculum allows providers to a) assess their current practices for implicit barriers to migrant participation, and to b) develop appropriate avenues of evolution to realise their full potential. The curriculum modules can be turned into tailor-made trainings.

Cover of the diversity curriculum
Click on the image to open the curriculum

The modules follow the mix-and-match approach – participants can pick only one, a couple or complete all of them, depending on their organisations’ needs. This offers the greatest possible degree of applicability. This curriculum is not a self-study course; it serves as the basis upon which trainers will build their trainings. The curriculum is available for free on https://www.aewb-nds.de/themen/eu-programme/diversity/and comes in five languages.

The Diversity Policy Recommendations and Action Plan recognises that the inclusion of migrants into the wider planning strategies of adult education requires European policymakers to align their regional AE strategies. Adult education providers are important stakeholders in facilitating these changes. Therefore the Diversity project prepared a set of policy recommendations aiming at enhancing inclusion in Adult Education.

Cover of the diversity policy recommendations and action plan
Click on the image to open the action plan

Michael Kenny is a lecturer in the Department  of Adult and Community Education. He is co director of the Higher Diploma in Further Education (HDFE), and the director of the post graduate Certificate in Programme Design and Validation (PCPDV). Michael is interested in formal and non-formal education in voluntary rural and urban organisations.  He is currently the Principal Investigator on 6 Erasmus+ Projects, including the Diversity project. 

Margaret Nugent is an associate academic,  researcher and lecturer with Department  of Adult and Community Education. Margaret is research associate on the Diversity and several European projects. She is a specialist in engaged methodologies, conflict intervention and peace pedagogies.

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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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Transformative Engagement Network: working together to create a sustainable future

Professor Anne Ryan writes about our involvement with colleagues in Malawi and Zambia since 2008 in the Transformative Engagement Network to address issues of climate justice from the standpoint of smallholder farmers.

I need to wind the clock back more than a few decades to set the scene for this project…

I first went to Zambia in 1974 when I was twenty-one.  I taught maths, history and English in a very rural secondary school in Chivuna. It was only when I returned to Ireland in 1977 that I fully realised the depth of the economic divide between rural Africa and the west. What shocked me most was not the poverty I’d witnessed but the affluence and waste I saw on my return. I’d grown up in rural Ireland. I was seventeen and in digs in Dublin before I experienced the luxury of having running water and all the amenities that go with that. Adjustment to living in Zambia was easy for me. I loved staying in the villages where my colleagues’ parents or grandparents lived. It was usual to leave the village laden with eggs, a chicken and whatever was in season. It reminded me of my childhood and how my father always farewelled visitors with whatever could be picked or dug up from the garden.  Zambia felt like home to me in the 1970s and has done ever since. Whenever I read or hear about subsistence farmers, I always recall particular individuals and families in Southern Province, Zambia. 

In the intervening decades I never lost contact with Zambia and was very aware that climate change was exacerbating poverty and taking a very heavy toll on subsistence farmers right across Africa. Between 2012 and 2015 along with colleagues in Maynooth University I was fortunate enough to lead a project that linked us to small scale farmers in Zambia and Malawi.  The aim of the project called TEN – Transformative Engagement Network – was to model a process that would transform the nature of the engagement between the various stakeholders impacted by or concerned with climate change. Those of us involved in TEN believed that inequalities between and within countries was getting worse not better and therefore our thinking about development and our actions to promote development needed to change. We also believed that to make meaningful changes in our thinking and actions we needed to create opportunities that would allow information flows and dialogue between all the stakeholders.  These stakeholders included scientists, researchers, subsistence farmers and all the agencies that work with them. Four universities were involved – one in Ireland, two in Zambia and one in Malawi. Each university had an interdisciplinary project team, including climatologists, plant and animal scientists, and community educators. We wanted a two way exchanges between these stakeholders. Universities and other agencies would not just disseminate information but would also position themselves as learners. We wanted accountability to be two ways. Instead of only upward accountability whereby those who are funded account for their spending we also wanted those who fund to be accountable to meeting the most pressing needs / concerns of vulnerable communities.

The Zambian and Malawian Universities drew on their links to local and national government, local rural communities and agencies working in these communities. We knew that within the academic world scientists easily and effectively engage with each other. Within TEN we wanted to build a network that would allow scientists to also dialogue with those who are most effected by climate change in their everyday lives. For example traditionally research in universities tends to be driven by the concerns of the discipline. Within TEN we hoped that the concerns of communities and those who work directly with them would play a role in formulating each university’s research agenda. In doing this we also hoped that research findings would become available to communities.   We also wanted to enhance the capacity of universities and policymakers to recognize and make use of community knowledge. We wanted to combine the western scientific knowledge that dominates our education systems with the lived knowledge of subsistence farmers whose very existence is testimony to their resilience and capacity to adapt.

 The networking aspect of the project necessitated layers of collaboration between entities that are frequently separated by issues of power and status. We learned a lot over the lifetime of TEN. In particular we learned that power and status are everywhere – between the disciplines in universities, between agencies working in rural communities, between individuals, families and groups in communities, within national and local governments and of course between all these different stakeholders.  We learned that although disciplinary specialisation has led to great advances in the natural and social sciences, it alone is often not sufficient to address complex problems such as poverty and climate change. We learned that traditional structures within universities prefer discipline-bound knowledge making it difficult to bring together the expertise to address these complex challenges. We learned that the key to an inclusive participatory process is to acknowledge the existence of power and status even when that power and status is not immediately evident and or is not easy to address.

Perhaps most importantly of all we learned that when invited to participate small-holder farmers eagerly responded. They appreciated the reciprocity of knowledge flows between the stakeholders.  They were keen to know the findings of the research conducted in their communities and throughout the project they were as generous in sharing their knowledge, expertise, experiences and concerns as they had been in sharing their homes with me many decades ago.

TEN had many outputs. The most surprising is that it didn’t really end. Sure the funded aspects ended but many of the activities carried on and there are plans for the partner universities to work together on another venture where small-holders will again play a lead role.

Anne Ryan is Emeritus Professor at Maynooth University.  She was chair of the Department of Adult and Community Education from 2005 to 2018. Anne has worked in developing countries that experience extreme poverty (such as Bangladesh and Central Africa) and those that are war-torn (such as Afghanistan) and she has worked with disadvantaged communities in Australia and Ireland.  These experiences convince her of the potential of adult and community education to empower communities to respond to the critical challenges facing twenty-first century societies in ways that ensure their voice is heard by decision-makers. 

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Muscat, Maigh Mucreimhe, Mezirow and Maynooth

Mondays mean Maynooth and mine starts at 5.15 a.m.

I force myself out of bed and if my legs aren’t that inclined to work, I pull into my wheelchair and push myself down to the kitchen. I tell Sowdee to ‘get her thing’ namely the leash. She does her happy dance and we find ourselves outside. I love this. The cold, soft mist. It is Galway after all.

Home.

I can’t walk that well, so we’ve successfully adapted a system from our days in Muscat involving a long lead out the car window. Sometimes, she misses the hot sand and trots along our boithrín until she is ready to run. It is her favourite thing, so we go faster and faster as the sky, anticipating dawn, turns a lighter shade of dark. Close by, the early birds sing their sweet-sounding threats, and a lonesome fox lets out a shrill imploration to a hidden suitor.

Nonetheless, it remains a time for reflective contemplation.

I park up and Sowdee sniffs the air catching strains of the amorous fox. I call her name and she looks to me with her big chocolate eyes as I say ‘epistemological’ three times and ‘ontology’ twice, practicing the language of Maynooth. She blinks back quizzically. From this height we look across fields to the half ringfort and the almost imperceptible fall and rise of Ériu in slumber, a slight swaying of the tall grass. Other worlds meet as the dark cobalt turns a grey silver, the best we can hope for mid-February under Galway skies. We take all this in.

I think of where we are and where we were. I think of my own journey that includes Muscat, Maigh Mucreimhe, Mezirow and Maynooth. ‘What am I doing Sowdee.’ I ask, ‘nearly fifty, and pursuing a masters?’  Madness.  What brought me here? I am reminded on coming home to Ireland of the advice of wiser, better people, educators that I admire and aspire to emulate, of the erudite Bern from GRETB who suggested that I obtain literacy teaching qualifications from WIT. And once there coming under the tutelage of Sarah Bates Evoy, the single most encouraging and motivating lecturer of my long, learning ‘career.’ It was Sarah who pushed me to reach for more, towards Maslow’s zenith. Later, telling her that I had three offers including Maynooth and was unable to decide, she replied, ‘choose Maynooth. You will see why.’

So, I did, and I do.

I think of this new ‘language’ that has given form to old thoughts creating a window of opportunity, not necessarily in the material but in terms of self-acceptance. From this, I equate Maynooth with my wheelchair. Both are agents of liberation. Both allow me to go further. Both have the capacity to free perspective from distress. The brisk air affords clarification and I think of my journey from callipers, to crutches and a more recent embrace of the wheelchair. Those few years of almost independent walking have drifted away from me now. Water under the bridge.  I am reminded then of the dilemmata of disability, my faulty frames of reference and the need for transformation. Uh-oh, the inevitable prompt, my Mezirow assignment is due!

Windows come to mind, the windows of our classroom and the architecture of Maynooth, beyond them, the heavenly inspired, spire, reaching skywards and the juxtaposition of the wings of a colossal, fallen angel within its shadow. The dichotomous struggle within us all. This speaks to a growing self-awareness, of being and I say to myself ‘all human beings desire knowledge.’

Sowdee isn’t impressed with my Aristotelian quotes.

Despite my shortcomings, I remind her, ‘I am fully human, and I desire knowledge.’

And breakfast.

I reflect on my ‘truths.’ Challenged and transformed as they are through discourse within the Department of Adult and Community Education and I say out loud, “no one is born fully-formed; it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.”

‘Freire said that,’ I brag but my companion ignores me busily scratching her ear. 

Despite this slight, I remain enraptured with the scholarship, with Freire, Foucault, Butler, and Goffman and am thankful to the Department of Adult and Community Education for the exposure to them. I reflect on new ways of thinking and not just of thinking but of understanding that thinking. I think therefore I am.

I think I am still hungry.

As is the suddenly affectionate dog.

She reminds me of our journey, her wild, precarious hold to life on the streets and beaches of Muscat, our coming together and eventual journey home. We are all wanderers to some extent. Looking to find our way. Looking to leave our mark. I think then of the diversity within the Department of Adult and Community Education and how it informs and enriches us. I think of the journeys of my fellow ‘Maynoovians,’ those diurnal and life journeys, Kilkenny, Kenya, Botswana, Newbridge and from Banja Luka to the banks of the Liffey.

These important people, my classmates, my friends.

The Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth and the MEd are part of us now. We are in a privileged place, refuelling epistemologically, gathering thoughts, appreciating understanding, and pondering the next step.

I breathe in deeply, filling my lungs with morning air. 

‘Come on Sowdee,’ I say looking eastwards at the semblance of a rising sun, ‘we have to go…’ I pause to add, ‘because immobility represents a fatal threat.’

I sense her rolling her eyes, ‘Freire again!?’

As I look forward to the road and the journey to Maynooth.

Niall Dempsey is an educator from Athenry currently studying the MEd in Adult and Community Education at Maynooth. His interests are in Adult Literacy, Autoethnography, and Disability Identity. He taught for a decade in the Sultanate of Oman where he met his two Omani hounds, Jojo and Sowdee. While travel remains a passion, they live together now ‘at home’ near a haunted castle, surrounded by forest and family. “Life is good!”

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SMILE: Social Meaning Impact through Lifelong Learning

Our team in the Department of Adult Education are involved in a European Commission funded project called SMILE which we’d like to give you an overview.  It is building on previous work that we’ve been involved in to support greater diversity and inclusion in education across Europe.

The project is led by eucen, the European Universities Continuing Education Network with university-based partners include European Students Union (EU), Johannes Gutenberg University (Germany), Maynooth University (Ireland), University of Turku (Finland), University of Malta (Malta), Università degli Studi di Cagliari (Italy), Gheorghe Asachi Technical University of Iaşi (Bulgaria) and civil society partners including Fundació Solidaritat (Spain), NOTUS (Spain) and Solidar (Belgium).

SMILE is a network of European universities and partners working together to promote inclusive learning across higher education.  Our collective aim in this project is to co-develop, test and implement innovative tools that improve the way education institutions deal with diversity and social inclusion. We work across three areas: migration, socio-economic background and gender.

Maynooth University’s role is to manage one strand of the overall project which focuses on the gender equality and inclusion of women in leadership positions in higher education.  We are aware there is a lot of work being done regarding women and leadership within higher education, and because of this, our focus is on women employed on non-permanent contracts who are often invisible or excluded from institutional gender equality processes.

We are designing our tools with other adult education settings in mind; such as colleges of further education, community and adult education centres.  We are developing three tools:

1. Giving voice to Women in Leadership report which researching experiences of women in education and reviews current literature and research

2. Designing, delivering and evaluating continuous professional development training to staff, both teaching and non-teaching, that promotes women in leadership.

3. Developing and testing a diversity audit tool to support organisations to assess diversity across all aspects of their organisations.

We will be developing three continuous professional development (CPD) courses for university staff (academic and non-academic) so that they are better trained to support inclusion in their work. The CPD courses will be developed using a bottom up approach that will involve representatives of the education institutions, NGOs and community groups, with the aim to give voice to the diverse experiences of staff and students.

The Diversity Audit will be tested and continuously improved through a peer-audit process that will involve a total of 20 universities. At the end of the process, the Diversity Audit Tool will be finalised and made available for any institution interested in using it. A policy operational action plan with recommendations will also be produced, to guide and support universities fulfilling and realising their commitment to diversity and social inclusion.

We are guided in this work by a research advisory group, comprised of women in key positions in different education and women’s groups, who will share their insights and guidance with us. We will be engaging in public communications and activities on a local, national and transnational level during 2022 and 2023, including national colloquiums with key institutional and national decision-makers and a European round-table in Brussels and a final symposium in Barcelona.

We hope that the activities of this project will develop education resources that will be made available across Europe to address concerns about the opportunities for women to take up senior leadership roles within higher and further education providers as well as policy making organisations.  We will be inviting interested people to participate in, or nominate people to participate in, the continuous professional development programme which we will pilot later this year. 

The project hopes to strengthen relationships within Ireland and with the activities conducted by our partners across Europe.  As part of SMILE’s ambition is to shape European Commission policy, participants will also benefit from the opportunity to make direct recommendations to the EC on these issues and shape an education system that is more inclusive of the experiences of people from diverse gender, migrant and socio-economic backgrounds.

We’d love to hear from you in relation to the themes of this project.

Bernie, Camilla, Angela and Sinead

Department of Adult and Community Education

More information about the project is at The SMILE website 

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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