Mainer seeks to erase bias among kids in Northern Ireland

SOURCE: Portland Press Herald 3/20/11

By Bill Nemitz
Portland Press-Herald

So what did you do for St. Patrick’s Day? Wear something green? Dance a jig? Down a pint or three of Guiness?

Steve Wessler prepared for a trip to Northern Ireland.

“It’s funny going to a place where being Jewish gets you out of trouble,” Wessler, executive director of the Portland-based Center for the Prevention of Hate, said with a smile last week.

That place is Belfast. On Tuesday, Wessler will fly to Northern Ireland’s capital to spend a week sitting down with kids on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide and talking about the not-so-simple art of getting along.

What’s that? You thought that stuff was all resolved?

You’re partially right.

Thirteen years ago next month, Maine’s own former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell achieved what many considered the impossible by persuading all sides in Northern Ireland’s decades-old sectarian conflict to sign onto the Good Friday Agreement.

Ratified overwhelmingly a few weeks later by voters weary of the bombings, the killings and the parades that more often than not exploded into full-scale riots, the accord is viewed by many as the end to a 30-year scourge of violence simply (and aptly) referred to as The Troubles.

Since then, the violence has become the exception, not the rule. And a power-sharing agreement between Catholics and Protestants has slowly but surely taken root — just last year, the British government relinquished control over the province’s police and justice system to the Northern Ireland Executive.

But the breathtaking murals of past hostilities remain, as do the walls separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. And the vast majority of the schools are still segregated along religious lines.

Which is where Wessler comes in.

Four years ago, the Center for the Prevention of Hate was invited to Londonderry in northwest Northern Ireland to do what it’s successfully done in Maine and throughout the United States since its creation in 1999 as an arm of the University of Southern Maine. (For the past six years, the center has operated as an independent nonprofit.)

The center’s model, which starts with the creation of student-run “unity teams” in each participating school, hinges on the premise that the more kids talk about bias, the less it will dominate their lives.

It’s worked in central Maine, where an influx of immigrant students from Somalia spawned sometimes bloody violence seven years ago in the hallways of Edward Little High School in Auburn.

It’s worked in Jerusalem, where Wessler’s center partnered with Maine-based Seeds of Peace to bring Palestinian and Israeli teens together in, of all places, an ancient Catholic monastery.

And it’s worked in Northern Ireland, where the echoes from The Troubles can still be heard in the occasional sectarian murder, the continually defaced road signs leading to Londonderry (Catholics persistently cross out the “London”) and the schools where stereotypes — Protestant means wealthy and uppity, Catholic means ignorant and crude — still foster tension and fear among teens too young to remember how bad it all can really get.

“A lot of the adults, they want so much to say this is over,” Wessler said. But at the same time, “you’ve got this generation of kids facing conflict that their parents are not facing.”

An example: When he was first invited into Londonderry’s schools four years ago, one hot spot was a bus stop where Catholic and Protestant students all congregated at the same time each day to transfer from their school buses to a city bus home.

“Tension was mounting and the police had information that the kids were starting to bring knives,” Wessler said. “And in the U.K., that’s a big deal.”

Wessler’s request to school officials: “Bring us 12 kids from each school — and we want two-thirds of those from each school to be your angriest Catholic kids or your angriest Protestant kids.”

The schools officials were aghast. But eventually, they agreed to give it a try.


“In the first session, the tension was unbelievable,” Wessler said. “For a lot of these kids, it was the first time they had ever had almost any discussion across religious lines — and clearly the first time they ever had any discussion across religious lines about sectarian issues.”

But by the time the sessions ended, with only a few exceptions, the battle lines had vanished. Still, some of the kids asked Wessler, what were they supposed to do the next time they all found themselves rubbing elbows at the bus stop?

“Just call each other by your first names,” suggested Wessler.

It was that simple. When Wessler returned two months later, “the tension and the risk of violence had stopped immediately. Because they knew each other.”

Now, as Londonderry sings the center’s praises for helping kids tread where most of their parents still don’t dare go, the city of Belfast beckons.

Over the coming week, in cooperation with Northern Ireland’s Community Relations in Schools program, Wessler will gather with unity teams from eight Belfast high schools — one integrated, the rest either Catholic or Protestant.

They’ll talk about many forms of bias — resentment toward immigrants from Eastern Europe is running strong in Northern Ireland these days — but Wessler expects it will only be a matter of time before The Troubles, the “elephant in the room” that is gone but by no means forgotten, takes center stage.

Once again, he said, “we’re looking for kids who have social influence, which includes kids who are harboring a lot of anger and bias. We want those kids in this.”

Following the launch of the program, the teams will return to their schools and complete “unity projects” tailored to their particular schools or neighborhoods.

Then in May, Wessler will return for a student-run conference at which the kids will report back on how far they’ve come — and how far they still have to go.

Difficult? As someone who went to Belfast in 1998 to cover the vote on the Good Friday Agreement, I can still remember talking to two young women, both in their early 20s, who’d grown up 100 yards from each other but had never met.

One was Protestant, the other Catholic — and a towering brick wall separated their two homes. A wall that in all likelihood has yet to come down.

That begins, Wessler believes, with a new generation — and a simple conversation.

Noted Wessler, “It’s much harder to be angry at somebody who has ceased to be a stereotype.”

Smiling, he added, “Every once in a while I think the center ought to be named ‘The Center for Talking About Everything That Nobody Wants to Talk About.'”