Community relations and heritage work in a rural context
This blog is a guest blog written by Charmain Jones. Charmain is the Senior Officer for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration at Rural Community Network. Her role involves co-ordinating, designing, implementing and disseminating rural community development support initiatives to address social need, social exclusion, social cohesion and community capacity in rural communities at a regional level. She has had varied experience in the voluntary sector since 2000, as Project Co-ordinator for the PLACE initiative, Youth Leader in Charge of Goal Line Youth Centre, Community Development Officer for Carleton Street Community Development Association.
This series of guest blogs is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Fortunately, I have been involved in community relations and rural heritage work since 2010. My first introduction to the concept of “heritage” was through a Corrymeela project in partnership with Ulster University. I was totally unaware of what heritage meant other than in my mind, a national lottery sign on the side of a building. I had visited enough museums, centres and buildings to see those with my family and friends but through the work of Corrymeela I quickly understood that heritage meant people, not just buildings. Without people, heritage is meaningless no matter what the site looks like or what collection the building might be holding. A past director at Rural Community Network (RCN) always talked about “the invisible barrier in our minds” and when I engaged in the Corrymeela heritage project, I was able to see first-hand how heritage work can and does play a key role in breaking down barriers within and between communities.
Corrymeela asked me to bring rural people to their centre to engage in this work and for many, it was their very first introduction to heritage. Many did not know what it was, many did not think it was accessible to them, many did not have the money to travel or engage in heritage events or visit museums. More importantly, many didn’t think heritage was something they should even think about or relevant to them and their everyday lives. Through this project, the concept of heritage was explored, as well as heritage in contested space. When rural participants visited actual heritage sites, the connections were made not only between people but also within themselves. One lady who attended the project said to me “you do know if we go back far enough there is orange and green mixed in all our blood”. This was the comment that started my journey toward engaging rural communities in heritage work using a community relations lens.
This has not been easy work, it has been risky, it has been challenging, it has eaten up many of my hours and thoughts into the wee hours of the night but it has been so important and critical towards a path of reconciliation. It has become a critical piece of my work at RCN and with the support and advice of Community Relations Council I have been able to navigate my way through those muddy waters to some level of success engaging rural people with history and heritage. We are now part of the Decade of Centenary Roundtable and thanks to this forum, I have become more connected to the heritage sector than ever before. I have been able to link in and use the expertise in the forum to develop my own skills and capacity as a worker to bring others new to the concept into a space that makes them feel safe and secure.
The Decade of Centenary work covered the period of 1912 – 1922. Over the last 10 years, I have developed so many projects on community relations and heritage that I couldn’t even count them on my two hands. Rural people are always constantly crying out for more so I always have to think creatively and work in partnership with those more skilled than me to ensure the programme is not only attractive but is rural-proofed for their needs. Thankfully, what we have delivered to date, which covers site visits, residentials, time travel workshops, contested heritage workshops, training, history and much more, has helped break down barriers within and between communities as well as those from the BAME communities. Covering topics such as home rule, World War 1, Easter Rising 1916, Partition of Ireland and the formation of the state of NI has opened rural communities to different perspectives and different narratives that they might not have had the opportunity to hear or listen to had it not been for our programmes. All of these activities were delivered with the purpose of engaging individuals on a journey of learning, sharing, exploring and paving the way towards a more peaceful and stable society.
Then the challenge of the pandemic hit us all and I had to stop and think, how do I deliver this very important work when we weren’t allowed any human connections. I have to be honest and say I had to stop and think hard in April 2020 about how I could engage rural NI in my work when I couldn’t even meet or see people and I had to work out of my kitchen. Then we all found the wonder “at the time some might say and not so much now” of zoom. Rural people including myself had never used this platform before. It was a very steep learning curve for us all but thank goodness rural people were patient with us and went on a fact-finding mission themselves to keep engaged during this very turbulent time. Rural broadband is and does continue to be a challenge but we had to find different, creative ways to keep rural engaged, such as online sessions, booklets and books, history and heritage packs posted to people’s homes, use of other online platforms such as Youtube, Facebook and Twitter to try and engage a wider audience to our work.
February 2021, we were awarded £35,000 of National Lottery Heritage Fund money for a Shared History Fund project called “100 years of Change”. The first thought we had was how will we ever engage 100 rural people given the second lockdown was still underway. Again, we had to dig deep, connect with others and really think hard about all the different ways this project could be delivered that would not only achieve its outcomes but also ensure that rural people were getting nothing but the best experience. Using the skills and expertise from local historians and academia, The Nerve Centre, Quarto, The Junction, Northern Spring and many others we developed a very extensive online programme over the period of one year. The outcomes and evaluation feedback at the end of March 2022 have been a testimony to all those involved as well as the rural participants themselves. The concept of heritage was brought to life by online tours, books posted to participants, heritage training, community relations training, talks, storytelling and engagement in a digital archiving programme with an animation. To have our numbers tripled at the end of March 2022 shows that with the right focus, expertise, skills and passion you can make online work for rural and we did.
So what does this mean for the future of our heritage and community relations work? Well for me, it means I will never go back to direct face to face work all the time, nor will I ever just do online all the time. The hybrid model is how I will explore this field of work in the future. Where rural people need to engage on issues face to face then the opportunity will be given to them. We hope to start site in-person visits, heritage trials and residentials again to give that real-life lived experience but there will also be online formats for people to continue to engage regardless of disability, rural access, transport issues, caring responsibilities, family status or age. Having an online presence has been a positive outcome of the pandemic and whilst rural broadband does still present issues, having a regional spread of our work can only be a good thing going forward. The pandemic itself was a difficult challenging time but the learning from it in terms of actual engagement with rural is something that is worth its weight in gold.