Can a community move from being one caricatured by complaints, victimhood and demands to one which is thriving, collaborative and positive? This is an inspiring story of one community who have done just that.
It is not an inner city area or a post industrial town. It is an island, Rathlin Island, the only inhabited island off the coast of Northern Ireland, with a population of roughly 150 people. I talked with David Quinney Mee, the island’s community development worker, about their journey.
Twenty years ago, the population was dwindling and getting near the point where it may not be sustainable to have a community living there. The islanders felt forgotten and passed over. They felt they had to lobby hard and shout loudly to get heard. For all their infrastructure and services, they had to talk to different departments for different things. It was not joined up.
It is telling that that Rathlin Island only got mains electricity in 2007 when a 6 mile underwater sea cable was laid from the mainland. They had survived before on generators and wind turbines that were frequently damaged as the wind was too strong.
In 2009, grants to convert a small building to a Resource Centre and then appoint a community development worker helped the community to push for a Rathlin Island Policy. A Rathlin Island Ministerial Forum was set up. Twice a year a range of Council and government departmental representatives would come to the island for a meeting with Rathlin representatives, chaired by the Minister for Regional Development.
The first action plan which was developed was complex and wordy, typically bureaucratic. At each meeting different people would be ‘sent’ by departments. Their reports were invariably limited; the actions of their department had not been completed or the representatives did not know enough about the details. For their part, the Rathlin Island community carried on in the same vein of dissatisfaction and confrontation.
And yet here was a small community who had special attention from government. A ministerial meeting twice a year just for them. How many other communities would get that? More than that, it was a time when siloed government departments came together to see how their individual policies and developments impacted at a community level. It was a gift, an opportunity for all concerned.
As the incoming community development worker, David saw the potential. He saw that it should not be seen as a negative for the representatives to come to the island. It should be fun. Then there might be consistency in who came and the chance to build human relationships. He saw the benefit of collaboration not confrontation.
Together with the Rathlin Development and Community Association (RDCA) committee and in particular Michael Cecil, the RDCA Chair, they started to help make the changes. Instead of relying only on the visiting departmental representatives, they talked with different departments and agencies, going to see them on the mainland or inviting them to the island to hear about what is going on and to build interest and relationships. This helped start things moving. Then came a big opportunity.
A new approach
The island’s Action Plan was up for review in 2013 and David introduced the idea of doing something different. He introduced a family contact who is a trainer in Appreciative Inquiry, leaving it to the island’s RDCA committee to decide if it was something they wished to pursue. They did.
Training events were held which focused on: what we like about the island and the community, what we are proud of, what is working, what do we enjoy and what can we share. Those who attended then interviewed others with a set of questions they developed together and a day of coming together to develop ‘Rathlin 2020’ was planned.
That day was a turning point.
Islanders were given permission to be positive in the conversations and the effect was encouraging for all. For a community who had felt they had to be negative and confrontational, they could talk about the future, their aspirations and how to build a sustainable community on the island from a stronger positive perspective.
Throughout the day people realised that everyone was saying the same things about what mattered to them, what they cared about. Even the more cautious and cynical began to give their tacit acceptance and support. Visual minutes ably captured the day’s conversations.
A similar type of meeting was later used with civil servants to further develop the Rathlin Policy. Over two days, the formality of the past was turned in to conversations, chat, buzz, ideas. Visual minutes were again taken and these have become key in telling the island’s story. Every image in them is an icon for what people want to do for Rathlin. These are the maps that guide all development discussions.
Undoubtedly things are different, more positive. Relationships with other organisations are hugely improved and even within and on the island there is, as some islanders would gently put it, “more civility”.
The island had almost 50,000 visitors last year. The community created a social enterprise to refurbish and run Manor House as a guest house with the Lighthouse Café and Island Restaurant. There are plans for partnering with the commissioners of Irish Lights to develop one of the island’s three lighthouses which has spectacular views and historical and geographical importance.
The ferry service is more frequent and reliable, the school with its 9 pupils remains open, there is 24 hour, 7 day nursing cover and volunteer Coastguard and Fire Service. The population is not just stabilised but increasing. Ten new social housing units were opened in August 2013 and a further ten are now urgently needed to meet the increasing demand.
There is also an impact on government officials who are taking the Rathlin model as something for other places and other areas of their work.
It hasn’t happened overnight and, of course, not everything is perfect but it is a big difference from 10 years ago.
Advice to others
David is reluctant to be drawn on the advice he would give others. He emphasises that every context is different and each community or group needs to find its own way from the inside. Every community holds its own resources and they need to be seen and acknowledged. Awareness, appreciation and gratitude of these are immensely important so the community can build on its own strengths.
David has a strong conviction about the power of stories drawn from his own background in post war El Salvador and with the Corrymeela Community’s work as part of the Northern Ireland Peace and Reconciliation process. He talks passionately about the gift of listening to someone’s story, about the respect this gives to someone telling their own story in their own words.
As the Rathlin islanders showed, resentment, conflict and defensiveness can be transformed into a feeling of release and pride when someone genuinely wants to hear your story.
His advice comes down to one word.
For more information contact: David Quinney Mee at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos