March 2008 Reflection

Over the past few months, I’ve traveled to Morocco for a vacation, worked briefly on a presidential campaign in Ohio, continued my work researching and organizing in Belfast, and had an unintended, quasi-Mitchell reunion in Dublin. Each of these experiences has been extraordinary in ways I could never have expected. Yet, for this post, I want to highlight a relatively unexceptional meeting on the Shankill Road in west Belfast. A meeting that became exceptional because it underlines – in two short hours – how my perception has changed significantly over the past two months.

As part of my work with the PPR Project, I have started to help organize a group of residents on the lower Shankill Road. We’ve begun creating a DVD of residents’ experiences and started identifying human rights violations around which to pursue change.

First meetings for me are often awkward, but Stephanie – a local development worker at the project – immediately began introducing me to the residents she had been working with for months. We talked for a few minutes before the meeting started, but someone asked a question as we sat down that caught me off-guard.

“So, Frank, what’s your surname?”
“That’s a good Ulster Scots name, isn’t it? You said you’re from Georgia, right?”
“Yes Sir.”
“Well, welcome. It’s good to have you.”
It was an odd moment of belonging. But it was one that affected me in ways I wasn’t prepared for. I felt much more angry about the injustices on the Shankill than I had been before – about the health, education, and employment statistics that make it one of the most deprived electoral wards in Northern Ireland. I felt the emotion of it much more strongly because of the connections we had drawn between us.

On that night, the difficulties faced by all communities took on a different tone. In addition to being American, I saw myself as Northern Irish. The desire to see things change – to work for a brighter future for those who have been here for years and for many residents who have just arrived – became all the more important. It’s made the sense of urgency with which I work all the more palpable.

I hope everyone reading had a Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and that the soon-to-come spring weather treats you all well! Thank you again – and as always – to the US-Ireland Alliance and all the supporters. The experience deepens with each day I am here.

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