The 26th annual TABU Exchange with the Rotary Club of Highland Park / Highwood with 6 students (in years 2 & 3 of their 4 years at Highland Park High School), 2 Rotarians and 1 teacher from the school took place over the 10 days 22-30 March 2017. The group (as shown from left) were: Highland Park High School teacher Colette Pretet, Highland Park/Highwood Club President Cynthia Plouché, students Felicity Hector-Bruder, Hannah Seinfeld, Stephanie Lee, Nya Liverpool, Mark Plonsker, Nate Ellis and Highland Park/Highwood Rtn. Phil Lazarus.
President Ivan McMinn, Past President David Boyd and the rest of the TABU team, together with all the members of the Rotary Club of Belfast appreciate the time they spent with us.
The programme followed its similar pattern but as usual the students gave each element a different slant. This report is based on their comments in their daily blog which begins with:
"Let the journey begin! Though the weather may not have given us the warmest welcome, the people of Belfast surely did!" and a quote from the American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Mya Angelou: "Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends."
Having arrived at Belfast City Airport they headed straight to a luncheon meeting with the chaplains at Queens University which they found very interesting and educational and all appreciated the time they took out of their day to talk to discuss the similarities and differences of their religious denominations and how they manifest themselves at Queen's. They discussed ways in which the Northern Irish have mediated their issues and shared stories of conflict that exist at their school and were particularly struck with the comment: "If you want to take down a wall, remove one brick at a time and begin to build a bridge."
They were particularly struck by the difference in schooling from the visit to BRA where they shadowed students particularly highlighting smaller class sizes, uniforms, marks for an 'A' grade were 10% less than in Highland Park and that students had to choose what 3 subjects they were going to pursue for the rest of their academic career at the age of 16 years old which they couldn't imagine being able to do.
As always the Titanic Museum was great fun added to this year by a visit to the neighbouring S.S. Nomadic but Thursday's highlight was the presentation and discussion with the Rev. Dr. Harold Good. They were amazed to hear about the role he played in the peace process and in the decommissioning of weapons from both sides. Discussions following his presentation highlighted that the repercussions of the violent times are still felt very strongly by members in this community who had personal connections to those injured and/or killed. Through this experience, they realised why Reverend Good has been involved in so many peace-keeping missions noting "he really stressed trying to understand another person's point of view based on their situation and that 'both sides must face reality before they can move forward' ".
Perhaps one of the biggest differences they discovered was in the youth court and prison systems. They found in the discussions with Judges Ken Nixon and George Connor that the Youth Court System was very different to the USA as it was set up in a conference style and that the perpetrator was not "looked down on" by the judge; at the Youth Justice Agency the youth conference process was explained which helps the individual take steps to understand the consequences of their actions and to prevent it from happening again. This system they found "absolutely amazing and truly inspiring" realising "how much they understand, that as teenagers, people are going to make mistakes and through this program, by helping individuals take responsibility for their actions, people are forced to confront their behavior and learn from it - in the hopes of not making the same mistake in the future". Compared to the "traditional system" in America, they found this very progressive. Not prosecuting children as adults but rather trying to teach them that their actions have consequences, understanding the power of the situation, and trusting and believing in the betterment of people.
They were highly struck by the "impressive" Hydebank Wood College, a prison that takes in young men, aged 18-24 for crimes that range from shoplifting to murder, and women of ages 18+ for the same range of crimes which they found to be so very different to prison in America - a grey slate box with cells for the criminals and very little individuality or mobility. In particular they were impressed that the prison offers classes such as art, plumbing, hair dressing, and literacy to give the prisoners opportunities to increase their level of education and learn important skills. By giving these individuals who may have grown up with little opportunity or education a chance to improve themselves they felt that when released these individuals will possess skills necessary to become productive citizens. Realising that the restorative justice system and the rehabilitation of individuals in prison can work to prevent continued crime they strongly felt that these systems should be installed into their American justice system. One student was so impressed that she has decided to now forge a career in the social justice area.
Shopping at the Victoria centre and visits to the Giant's Causeway and Londonderry brought a less formal and intense aspect to the programme. In Londonderry they were met by President Sabine Le Brizoual and members of the Rotary Club of Londonderry one of whom PP John McCrossan gave an extremely interesting and informative tour of the city and its walls visiting churches from both religious spectrums and walking across the Peace Bridge which was built in 2011 connecting traditionally Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods and was the first stepping stone to the journey of resolving the conflict there. They were particularly struck that the walls and some of the gravestones in the churches were older than their country! Sunday was spent with the host families.
The programme re-commenced on Monday morning with a visit to the City Hall and a meeting with the Lord Mayor, Brian Kingston who spoke about the "thriving business and tourist economy in Belfast"; this was followed by an in-depth tour of the beautiful different rooms and chambers, given the opportunity to wear the Council's robes and see in the ballroom an actual piece of furniture that would have been on the Titanic, had it been finished before the ship set sail.
Their insight and enthusiasm was inspiring, they were learning about not only new places and things but also each other and their hosts. They were extremely grateful for the generosity and hospitality of their hosts and the Club.
To close the afternoon, the group listened to Sean O'Baoill from Mediation NI about the different processes that countries and ordinary people go through to reach peace and reconciliation on a given topic and the different types of mediation that can be used to come to an agreement in the end. He stressed the idea of having different perspectives on people and not to see themselves with labels but rather human beings with different characteristics and personalities that should not be glossed over to fit their own assumptions and common stereotypes. They enjoyed his presentation and now realise "to better understand conflict and come to a resolution, the first step is to look at who you are talking to and talk. That's all you can really do. Talking is an absolute necessity in our community and world at this moment, and keeping in mind that your perceptions on different cultures and outside environments are not always true".
Tuesday brought an absorbing morning special session at Our Lady and St Patrick's School where they experienced a history class, learning Irish (which they found very difficult) and in the politics class the teacher focused on the main four conflicts that are "sticking points" in forming a new government between the DUP and Sinn Fein (which they found really helped them understand why these two political parties were unable to reach an agreement yesterday). They ended up at one of the outdoor fields where they were able to see one of the teams practice a sport - Gaelic football - that to them "seemed like a combination of volleyball, soccer, and football".
In the afternoon they had a visit to the NI Assembly in Stormont and although it is not sitting due to the recent election and talks impasse they met Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, who kindly stopped to talk to them. They were amazed by its beauty and particularly enjoyed their mock debate in the Chamber on "whether or not the driving age should be raised to 18"; even pretending that they were MLAs themselves and "voting as if we were in the actual process". They were able to sit on the same chairs as Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster and thoroughly enjoyed their visit.
Wednesday brought a trip to Dublin visiting Trinity College and the Book of Kells and the Long Room Library and after lunch a visit and tour of Leinster House including hearing snatches of the debates in the Dail and Senate Chambers.
At Strandtown Police Station on Thursday they heard how the police system works together with police/community relations at a visit to two interface community centres passing on that journey many of the protestant murals and also had an opportunity to try on the vests and helmets and sit in the police vans.
The final official event was at the US Consulate and as a reflection of the group and his interest in them had a much longer than usual meeting with Consul Dan Lawton.
At TABU Coordinator Past President David & Jenny's house presentations of a certificate and mementos were made to each participant and they each spoke eloquently, giving warm thanks to their hosts and the Club. President Cynthia Plouché and Rtn. Phil Lazarus articulated about the wealth of experience and the hospitality received and their admiration for the programme.
PP David thanked them all noting that wherever they went they displayed searching and knowledgeable questions of all they encountered and impressed all those who met them.
They were excellent ambassadors for the school and the Rotary Club and we trust that they have taken away a set of experiences and hope these will stay with them for a long time, together with a soft spot for this small corner of the world. They leave long lasting friends behind and we wish them all well in all their future endeavours.
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