Conflict Resolution in Northern Ireland
Interview with Bridget Brownlow (Conflict Resolution Advisor and Program Coordinator); Emily Anderson (Project Manager); and Ryan Morrision (Fourth-year SMU student who travelled to Northern Ireland in 2014)
Many universities offer international exchange programs. But how many schools do you know that offer the opportunity for undergraduates to gain international experience teaching conflict resolution strategies? Each year at SMU, members of the Conflict Resolution Society — in partnership with Peaceful Schools International — travel to elementary schools throughout Northern Ireland to participate in the facilitation of conflict resolution workshops.
Program Coordinator and Conflict Resolution Advisor, Bridget Brownlow and Project Manager, Emily Anderson spoke with us about the origins of this incredible initiative, and how it has evolved over the years. We also heard from Ryan Morris, a student who took part in the 2014 trip.
The Northern Ireland program has been running at SMU for over 10 years now. How did it get started?
BB: The program is run in conjunction with a nonprofit called Peaceful Schools International, which was started here in Halifax by a woman named Hetty van Gurp. In 1991, Hetty’s son Ben was being bullied at school and tragically he lost his life as a result of an act of violence in school. Following this tragedy, Hetty has dedicated the rest of her life to the promotion of peace education in schools. Fast forward to 2001. I was watching CNN and I saw a protest in Northern Ireland. There had been some particularly violent and sectarian attacks where Primary School girls were being prevented from attending their local school. It turned out that Hetty had also witnessed this same event and had a plan to go to Northern Ireland with Peaceful Schools International. So eventually, I asked her if there was any opportunity for SMU students to join the group.
What was the response like from Saint Mary’s when you proposed the idea of a Northern Ireland trip?
BB: See, this is where SMU is amazing: I asked, and I was supported. It seemed like an interesting and educational opportunity, which the university saw as important and beneficial to the value of experiential learning. So we organized, fundraised and away we went. That was 11 years ago.
What type of students are you looking for [to participate in the program]?
BB: Students need to have an acceptable GPA, of course. They don’t need to have top marks, but they need to be on solid ground academically. It also helps if the program connects with their future academic or career plans. So, for example, we had a student who was studying biology and was planning on going to medical school, and she was interested in pediatric trauma. This was a great connection to Northern Ireland as there has been substantial research in this area over the past three decades. We are also looking for students who are effective facilitators in the classroom - students who are fun and can be engaging.
RM: As soon as I heard about the program I was like “Where can I sign up?” It sounded like such an incredible thing to be a part of. The application process for me involved writing a letter of intent to Peaceful Schools International. Then, a panel of three people interviewed me. They got in touch with me about a week later to let me know that I had been accepted.
Do students have to pay their own way, or is the cost of the program covered by your fundraising efforts?
BB: Students have to provide an initial minimum deposit. But our goal is always to ensure that between fundraising and donor support, participation in the program shouldn’t cost the students anything beyond spending money. It’s important to us that the program is accessible in all respects and is not cost prohibitive. We want it to be an opportunity for students to gain international experience and to do so in an affordable manner.
What is nice about the fundraising aspect however, is that it helps the students build a lot of team spirit and cohesion well before the actual trip abroad.
How many students per year go on the trip?
BB: We’ve had anywhere from 12 to 17. And we’ve seen increased numbers over the past few years.
Once you’re in Northern Ireland, what types of activities do the students facilitate in classrooms?
BB: Each year it changes. We try to focus on a relevant theme every year: such as, empathy, acceptance, de-escalation of conflict. The students create the specific curriculum and activities that are relevant to the theme.
EA: An example of one activity we’ve had a lot of success with is something called the Conflict Escalator. We select two students from the larger group to act out a skit where they are in a disagreement. The remaining students have to yell out “Stop!” when they feel like the conflict is getting worse. Then they’re asked to explain why they yelled stop. It’s an exercise that breaks down conflict to its most basic level. It shows the kids what they can do to stop it from getting worse. How their actions can prevent or change it.
RM: It was so nice to see how excited the kids were to have us in the classroom. How eager they were to participate. Seeing them put the concepts of peace and empathy into action was really amazing. On the last day of the class visits, an 8-year-old boy actually jumped into my arms and said, “I’m going to cherish this moment forever. When are you coming back?”
Given the complex nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland, I’m sure the program has a variety of different goals that you’re hoping to achieve. But if you had to distill it down, what is the primary purpose of the trip?
BB: To help both SMU and Northern Irish students share their experiences and strengths in order to better understand peace education and practice conflict resolution. From the SMU perspective it also provides an international component that allows students to see some of the very real political and societal challenges within the Western world. When students first arrive in Belfast, they are in awe of the hardships faced by a post-conflict society. The program illuminates students’ worldview and their compassion for those who have suffered through countless years of violent conflict. It is also our intention to tailor the program in specific ways to help students learn even more deeply about areas they’re interested in as they relate to Northern Ireland.