How can we build a better future? We ask three leaders

For Impact Journalism Day, three social leaders get together to talk about solutions

Illustration: Mustafa Hacalaki/Getty

Illustration: Mustafa Hacalaki/Getty

 

Impact Journalism Day (June 25th, 2016) focuses on solutions-based journalism. Fifty-five leading media organisations from 50 countries, including The Irish Times, are sharing stories of innovative solutions to social issues around the world, in an initiative developed by Sparknews. Read our articles here: irishtimes.com/news/impact-journalism-day and follow the conversation on Twitter through #ImpactJournalism and #StoryOfChange

Three leaders of three very different organisations are getting together at the Irish Times office for Impact Journalism Day. The day is about solutions-based journalism – reporting that doesn’t simply identify problems in society but also focuses on solutions. The task of the gathering is to discuss the challenges the organisations face and what they hope to achieve.

All three are committed to helping people make positive changes in their personal lives and to building social cohesion. Whether helping those struggling with addiction and homelessness, promoting health and physical fitness through swimming, or building a platform to share information and ideas for social and community projects, they’re all seeking to make a tangible contribution to a better future.

What’s the mission?

 

Tony Geoghegan Merchants Quay Ireland “We’re a drugs and homelessness service,” says Tony Geoghegan, chief executive of Merchants Quay Ireland in Dublin. “We were founded about 40 years ago, when the issues started coming to the fore. It was obvious there was a deficit in access to services for that group. Our mission is to try to provide accessible services that help drug users reduce the harm that they might cause to themselves, to their families and to the wider community and society, and to try to provide pathways out of drugs and out of homelessness. Our secondary mission, which is closely linked, is challenging negative stereotypes of drug use and homelessness.” Sarah Keane Swim Ireland Swim Ireland has been around for more than 100 years, says Sarah Keane. “It’s the national governing body for the sport, recognised by the national government and international bodies, and it’s about trying to get people involved in the sport of swimming and other aquatic disciplines.

“We cater for those who participate generally and also for those involved at a more elite performance level, so the spectrum is quite wide. Our mission generally is getting people involved and trying to get them to embrace a healthy lifestyle, and then helping those who want to pursue it as a career.

Keane believes that swimming is unique because it covers all ages and abilities. “Some of our age structures go as far as 90-plus. There’s a lot of opportunities to do swimming at different stages of your life. The research shows that, after gym exercise, it’s the highest participation sport for adults across the whole country, and it’s in the top three for children. Paul O’Hara ChangeX This organisation was founded only 18 months ago. But it’s growing quickly, at a rate of 67 per cent a month over the past year, according to Paul O’Hara. “It’s driven by teachers, healthcare workers and concerned citizens in communities, who are coming on to the platform and taking ideas that they think are important and getting them started,” he says. “The background for ChangeX was recognising there were great ideas for improving communities.”

O’Hara cites CoderDojo as a good example of an Irish-originated concept that has spread very effectively. “But these ideas are often hard to find and hard to start. What ChangeX does is take all the proven ideas that have improved communities around the world. We’re packaging them up and putting them on one technology platform, so that it’s easy for people to find them and start them if they think that idea’s relevant for their own community.”

What’s your work environment?

Tony Geoghegan Merchants Quay Ireland “It’s fair to say the problem is bigger than it was in the past,” says Geoghegan. “You had the heroin epidemic of the early 1980s, which was related to international politics, the fall of the shah of Iran and a huge movement of heroin right into Europe. Ireland wasn’t the only country, obviously, to be affected. But since then we’ve had a steady increase. What we’ve learned is that the key thing is one’s attitude to drug use.”

You can make very important interventions all the way along the spectrum, he believes. “If people are just recreationally using drugs you can give them information so they can protect themselves, protect their families and the people around them and, hopefully, prevent them moving further into a cycle of addiction.”

Traditionally, he says, the response to the drug problem was moralistic, “that people who take drugs are bad or are weak. That shaped the response for a very long time but has become eroded.”

Geoghegan believes that this is because of international experience and new approaches in other jurisdictions. But he also thinks there’s been a reality check along the way. “Drugs had been viewed as ‘out there’, as someone else’s problem, but over time it became our problem. Most people will know somebody who has a drug or alcohol problem, or has a mental-health problem, either in their direct family or in their circle of friends. That has made a difference, because it brings a more human face to it. People have started to realise that addiction is part of the human condition.” Sarah Keane Swim Ireland Keane points out there’s a growing appetite for exercise. “Running and cycling are also popular,” she says. “People are going for sports that you can do early in the morning, in the middle of the day or late into the evening, and you don’t have to have a group of people around you to do it.”

What works best, she believes, is an individual sport within a team environment. “From a social-capital perspective you’re encouraging people to team up with other people, whether it’s just a group of women who join up to go down early in the morning to swim or it’s part of a club environment.”

People are now more aware of the health and psychological benefits of sport, she says. “And they’re more generally aware of health and wellbeing. But I think what we take for granted a lot of the time is the fact that sport brings collective identity. It brings people together, whether as spectators, as volunteers in a community or on a committee. Whether you’re trying to fundraise or whether you’re participating, you become part of something that’s bigger than yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re good at it or not.

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“Coaches in sport have a huge impact on the lives of the people they’re involved in, and once that relationship is positive it can also have a huge influence.”

It may come as a surprise, but Keane says that a lack of facilities isn’t a barrier to swimming in Ireland. “I know if you’re down the country, and there isn’t a pool for 30 miles, you might question that.” But she is more concerned that young people won’t swim in the sea in the way that older generations have. “That’s a really important part of our heritage as an island nation, but I don’t think young people are doing it as much.”

She also points out that swimming is one of the few activities where you can get away from technology. “You dive in and you disconnect. Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, it’s all very complicated, and you’ve got to take off your clothes,’ but you take off your clothes and you shed the day. You come out reinvigorated and refreshed.”

Not every solution has to have a problem. Many social initiatives improve our world without addressing a major social fault. PaulO’Hara ChangeX “The social-connection thing is really interesting,” says O’Hara, citing a study in Boston that followed the lives of men from different backgrounds, from childhood to old age. “The thing that was most important to their ultimate wellbeing was social connection, more than the money they were earning or the jobs they had. So social connection is critically important.”

The themes of social capital and of community keep recurring in our conversation. One of ChangeX’s objectives is to increase social connection at the community level. “Friends and family are obviously the foundation,” O’Hara says. “Neighbours and neighbourhoods are really important as well.”

He points to a study of social cohesion, published this month by Amárach Research, that shows that about half of us know four or more neighbours well.

“Those people were much more predisposed to feeling safe in the community, feeling a sense of belonging and feeling a sense of optimism for the future. So those relationships are really foundational. We’re operating at just a level above that, connecting people at community level who have shared interests, whether that be learning or coding or gardening or exercise. Ultimately I hope we’ll be able to facilitate millions of these interactions at the local community level.” Tony Geoghegan Merchants Quay Ireland Does Geoghegan view Dublin’s drug addicts as a community in themselves? “We do often refer to them as the drug-using community,” he says. “They are a community unto themselves, and would all have large networks within their own milieu.” But he points out they are a very “othered” community.

“We’re talking about the sense of belonging and how important that is. That is one of the issues in terms of how we view drug users. As long as they’re viewed very negatively it perpetuates the problem, because they take on those wider negative views of themselves, which makes it harder for them to bring up the will in themselves to say, ‘Yes, I can do this: I’m not a worthless addict.’ ”

He says that the idea of positive role models is central to some of the work they do. “That’s really important, and it’s something we try to use within our services. For example, in our residential programmes there are rolling intakes, so peer involvement is hugely important. If somebody’s detoxing from heroin or from crack, [it’s beneficial] to be in the environment with other people who have gone through that already, who can say, ‘This is a transitory thing: you are able to come through it.’ ”

The most recent estimate is that Ireland has 20,000 opiate users. We still have very few detox beds. Geoghegan says that’s the real indication of how much importance is placed on the issue. “And that links back to the societal attitude that it only affects ‘those people over there’. It’s easier not to give it that level of importance.”

He feels lucky to work in drug treatment. “Because I see people all the time who have moved on. They could be working in The Irish Times or they could be working anywhere. They don’t have a star on their forehead that says you’re a former drug user.

“Often they don’t like to talk about it, which is unfortunate, because the public only see the sharp face of it, the antisocial behaviour. So they don’t realise problem drug use doesn’t have to be a stamp for the rest of your life. It is a phase people can come through – and out the other end – if they get the opportunities.”

Setting goals

How should organisations go about setting goals for themselves and achieving them? “We’re saying we’re not going to write a set of values in the traditional way people do,” says Keane. “We’re actually going to write a set of behaviours and then we’re going to see if we live those behaviours. The young people we’re working with learn to fail, which I think is very important; they learn to support other people; they learn that sometimes they can try very hard and they still don’t win. There’s a lot of things about life you can learn through sport. “

“Behaviour-based is often a better direction to go,” agrees O’Hara. “Values can often end up just being slogans. What Sarah was saying about sport and its role in building social capital, I think that’s huge.

“Think about any town in Ireland and how communities come together in different settings. Traditional ones like the church are in rapid decline and falling away. Sport is a huge part of any community. It’s a huge way for people to come together. Beyond the physical and mental wellbeing that comes with sport there’s the sense of belonging, the various skills that you learn, the sense of accomplishment.”

Participation in all sports is one of the things ChangeX is focused on. “We’ve just started with the Community Games, trying to get new groups with new participants starting all over the country. The numbers seem to have dropped away over the years. There are lots of opportunities, but it’s a question of getting them in front of the right people at the right time.”

Achieving change

What initiatives would each of them like to see achieved by June 2018? “It’s a difficult question, because there is a lot to be done,” says Geoghegan.

One of the changes that made a real difference in the past, he says, was the advent of needle exchanges. “Until they were rolled out in the late 1980s, the view was, ‘Why would you want to facilitate people using drugs?’ But that’s the sort of initiative that’s made a huge difference in the lives of people.

“There’s been a bit of attention given to the fact the last minister for drugs proposed safer injecting facilities. That’s something I think that would make a real difference. Not in the overall drug problem, because it’s only targeting a particular vulnerable group within the wider plethora of drug users, but it would be a very solid intervention that could save some lives. It would protect a small group of street drug users that are hugely vulnerable.

“Ireland has the second- or third-highest level of drug deaths in Europe. An average of more than one person a day dies. I’m not saying you can save all of those, but it would certainly make a difference.”

A lot of the swimming pools in Ireland are run by hotels, or local authorities have handed them over to management companies, says Keane. “But a lot of those companies are revenue driven. What we’re saying is we need a teaching strategy, particularly for children. We are strong advocates for getting them young, and then they can dip back into it throughout their life cycle.”

O’Hara says that ChangeX’s philosophy is not to depend on government for anything if you want to effect change. “We’re trying to mobilise local citizens to take responsibilities themselves for the areas they’re passionate about.

“One thing I think is a big opportunity is that the solutions to a lot of the problems we face exist in Ireland and the world. To focus on the delivery and distribution of those ideas we don’t need a whole plethora of new ideas. About 5 per cent of the population today are changemakers, and about one in four people are volunteering their time in local communities. That’s another big opportunity we’re focused on, trying to get a higher percentage of people participating in effecting change in their own local environment.”

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