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Idlewild at the Stiff Kitten, Belfast

The music of some bands tends to stick with you over the years, even if you don’t realise it. My (unexpected) expectancy at seeing Idlewild live and subsequently saturating car journeys, walks to work, and runs with their music brought this home to me.

It looks their career has petered out quite a bit. I was a relative latecomer to their music – only catching up when “The Remote Part” was released in 2002 to commercial acclaim and the seeing them supporting Coldplay on an arena tour that year. Now that was a great night at the Odyssey for a change – two young bands on an upward commercial and critical curve – very rare!

Now its a different scene – facebook diaries directly updated by the band, fan-financed albums, and touring via Ryanair and Travelodges. These are circumstances faced by many new touring bands, but still surprising for this group that seemed to be on such an upward trajectory. You’ll not even find their albums on sale in HMVs across Belfast.

Yet Wednesday night’s gig was triumphant. Roddy Woomble’s lyrics have progressed from “sixth form poetry” (which I think is often the BEST poetry) to enigmatic, cryptic wordplay drawing heavily on modern American and Scottish (sorry!) fiction. After progressing from their punky beginnings Idlewild were unfairly labelled as REM copyists but their last two albums have seen them break into a uniquely Scottish sounding band. Their melodies sound folkier but just as heavy. It’s difficult to describe – but I love it when a band tries to bring their own hometown influences into their music. You can inhabit your own places and history with just as much romance. Why does New Jersey sound so romantic when Bruce sings about it? Too often we end up having “contracted American dreams.” (from American English)

Every football supporter should have times like this

I’m talking about the moment when – after the lowest of the low defeats – then comes a sequence of results so unexpected and enjoyable, that it takes you back to why you started following this game in the first place. Followers of some teams experience these fantastic results more often than others, and I can’t help thinking that this dulls the experience and excitement.

Of course I’m talking about Tottenham’s march to fourth place – after inexplicably losing to Portsmouth in the FA Cup semi-final. Defeats of Arsenal and Chelsea within a week were unbelievable. I guess I am so ridden with bitterness as a supporter that I would have been happy with those two victories as the crowning glories of the season. To clinch a Champions League qualifying place with one game to spare was actually even sweeter and much more satisfying. This season offered the best opportunity for “the rest” to break the Sky Four monopoly and I’m glad Spurs did it!

Philadelphia 9 + 10 March

The early focus of this trip has been on youth provision in relation to addressing the city’s alarming drop-out rate (up to 50% apparently) and we had some great opportunities to meet with and hear from local young people about how their lives have been changed participating in alternative education programmes to receive their General Educational Diploma (the equivalent – at least – of high school graduation).

Youth Empowerment Services spoked directly about how they engage with young people caught up in gang culture, and use creative arts as an integrated part of their education package. Many YP communicate through violence so a lot of work is done to “change the language.” I was impressed by the E3 centre we visited (Education, Employment and Empowerment), which is funded by Philadelphia Youth Network. The young people were eloquent, humble and focussed on obtaining their GED as well as other life goals. Some of the guys weren’t that much younger than me and had faced so many barriers in their lives that they have reached their early twenties without being able to read or write. A 21 year old can technically still go back to high school but someone that age sitting in a class with 15 year olds raises all sorts of problems so the work of these centres are a necessary intervention. “Don’t fall down in the hood,” North Philadelphia project of the Institute for the Development of African-American Youth was an inspiring example of round-the-clock devotion to addressing real need.

some wise words

The drive of Josette Bonafino in her work with the Multicultural Youth Exchange challenged me about the suspicion we often have back home towards one person with a desire and heart to do something off their own bat. She was both a profit and not-for-profit entrepreneur (in NI people tend to be either one or the other) – using her private income to fund the Exchange’s work on a voluntary basis.

Congreso De Latinos Unidos seemed to be a major player in the city’s Latino community..and this visit raised some questions around receiving Government funding and also remaining in a position to critique Government. Their presentation contained many fine words which can often mask what real work is actually done..but then subsequently a number of groups we visited did refer to Congreso as being important to them. An associated programme called MIMIC (Men in motion in the Community) seeks to use adult males as role models to young men in the communities where such figures are often absent.

There has been a lot to take in and reflect about on the trip so far – from the people and projects we’ve met but also from the other participants. Some thoughts I’m kicking about:

  • the attention to personal detail in the youth projects – in one visit the facilitator made a real effort with our names despite us appearing for a few hours. Going round the room for introductions seems much like a formality but here it was reall valued.
  • the importance of language – both in how YP are taught to value appropriate language, and also how the organisations seem to use words and phrases perhaps we can shy away from, like “love” – not a funder-friendly word but surely an underlying motive. Is their language underpinning our work which we are afraid of using?
  • Much has been said about the broken school system (and how we in NI aren’t far behind)..but I wondered if there were any urban schools which were “working” or trying to?
  • You don’t need to be from an area to make a difference within it, just as long as you are committed and in it for the long haul. I was reminded of this by the number of white (and interestingly, Jewish) workers involved in projects based in African-American or Latino communities

Off to Newark tomorrow!

Philadelphia 8 March

“How do you get from here to the rest of the world?”

This was a question asked by Dukie, a young character from The Wire, to the gangster-turned-youth worker/boxing coach Cutty, during an attempt to toughen himself up at the gym for life on the streets of West Baltimore. How to engage with young people in communities where there are other alternative, potentially lucrative, but life-threatening opportunities open to them? I was thinking of that line, and those characters, while visiting the Philadelphia Youth Network – an umbrella organisation seeking to address the city’s alarming school drop-out rate and prepare young people for employment and the mainstream economy.

Hearing their story I was impressed at how the Mayor’s education priorities galvanised their project, and the work the Network has done to ensure the work lives beyond the lifespan of the Mayor’s administration. The different speakers’ presentations all harked back to the Network’s simple vision. It got me thinking about how easy it can be be avoid spending time on developing a vision – perhaps an over-emphasis on good “process” without  strong vision (particularly in community development orgs) is in the end no better than a enforcing a top-down approach.

In the afternoon there was a tour of some of Philadelphia’s murals – the nation’s largest public arts initiative. The Mural Arts programme has produced over 3000 murals – educating over 20,000 young people, raising the desirability of neighbourhoods, and providing income for local artists. The indirect benefits of these murals were impressive – increased tourism; creating an opportunity for neighbourhoods to address community relations issues; positive relationships with Government; providing equal access to art. I could see the potential of how art can be the intersection for all these worlds.

The breadth of subject matter and styles in the small number of murals we visited were breathtaking. Many communities in Northern Ireland seem to shackled creatively in comparison..whether by local gatekeepers (ie. you can have either a Somme, Titanic or George Best mural anyone?), or simply being denied the opportunity to think and imagine for themselves. The joined-up thinking in terms of working with local government and the importance of justifying this public expense would be real lessons for back home too.

The weather here has been brilliant also! Philadelphia central where we are based feels vibrant and quite small town-ish in part. Looking forward to the next few days – in Philadelphia until Saturday then down to DC.

Travelling again

It’s been a crazy month. Tomorrow morning I’m flying to New York with 15 community leaders from across Northern ireland for a 12 day study visit as part of the AMBIT programme – organised by the US Consulate and funded by IFI.

We’ll be visiting a range of community organisations and initiatives in Washington DC, Philadelphia, Newark and Baltimore from 7 – 19 March. I’m taking part in the programme in my job capacity as I work for East Belfast Community Development Agency, although any blog updates I add here will be from my own personal perspective.

Arrival in Cape Town

Most airport arrivals look pretty generic and Cape Town’s was no exception. Got a photo of the World Cup mascot..is it a lion?

Spending the night at the sustainability institute, linked to Stellenbosch university. It’s a school, guesthouse and encompasses a range of environmentally sustainable projects. I’ll find out more tomorrow. Meanwhile some are trying to find an Internet stream of the Man United Champions League game on the centre’s dodgy wi-fi. Flip I’ve mentioned football twice in this post already.

Met Michaela Strachan at a wine-growing centre. That was very random.