"Creating Restorative and Intergenerational Cultures for Youth: Insights from Northern Ireland and the United States"

Derick Wilson, Shep Zeldin

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    In the spring of 2009, a group of scholars and college students from Northern Ireland and the United States spent two weeks together. The purpose of the exchange was to study the conditions facing young people in contested areas of Northern Ireland, to explore parallels with conditions in the United States, and to discuss strategies for promoting positive youth and community development. The first week was spent in Belfast and the surrounding towns. The Northern Ireland/U.S. delegation met with youth, community workers, program managers, prison and human service providers, and local community leaders with and without paramilitary backgrounds. The second week was spent at Corrymeela Peace Center in Ballycastle. The objective was to expand the discussion to more stakeholders, with the aim being to identify a common set of restorative and intergenerational practices that could contribute to inclusive and just societies within Northern Ireland and the United States. What we discovered was that, from the perspective of youth, there are probably more commonalities across the two countries than differences. In both countries, many youth desire peace, and want to be part of the solution and not be viewed as the problem. Youth want the freedom to make friends, and to hang out with people of their own choosing, without having to worry about community or social divides, or contested “no go” neighbourhoods. They want safety, respect, opportunity, and in many cases, a job. The same is true for many community workers. They want the exact same thing for the young people and for themselves, also. Community workers want legitimate opportunities to make a positive difference in the lives of young people. They want policy and programmatic support for the challenging work that they perform on a day to day basis.Common challenges – policy, structural, and relational – were also discovered. There are deep divides in Northern Ireland and the United States that reinforce separation and unequal opportunity among different groups or identities. Most certainly, the two countries differ tremendously in their size and in the nature of diversity among its people. But, the divides that exist in both countries have a tremendous impact on the life course of young people. It is difficult to thrive in settings of fear, mistrust, and isolation. Northern Ireland is an ethnic frontier (Wright, 1987), a contested society emerging from conflict. It is a place where people throughout political, public, and civil society have to decide whether they wish to commit themselves to build a new and shared society together. Duncan Morrow (2007, p.1) put forth the challenge in this way: “Crossing the barrier from the past to the future is a hazardous enterprise. It is especially so in a place like this (Northern Ireland) where the essence of peace has come to mean making a future with the very people ‘we’ tried, and failed, to defeat.” Reflecting the dynamic of “pessimistic common sense,” participants often spoke about how the dominant cultural wisdom in contested societies, such as Northern Ireland, becomes one where people and organizations come to expect that nothing much will change, and where hope often becomes hostage to a wider pessimism. In such a context, there is often an inability and even an unwillingness to imagine a brave new and shared future that is very different from the current reality.This assessment resonated with the U.S. participants. The large gaps in the social safety net, the growing economic disparities among residents, and the prominent gaps between the stated social morality and public policy in the United States has led to a similar pessimistic common sense, and a corruption of public rhetoric and discourse. Others spoke of historical similarities that the United States shares with Northern Ireland in terms divergences between its rhetoric and civic culture. Shriver (2007, p.8) was cited, specifically his view that: “no society can soon recover from vast, institutionalized assaults upon that heroic norm for which America is famous, `that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’… one can hardly get the words out of one’s American mouth without raising the suspicion that down through two centuries we Americans have always silently and publicly added the qualification, `well, not all men, not slaves, not women, not Asians… not… not… not.” There are similar challenges: How does a divided society balance a critical appreciation of the past, while concurrently, living in the present in ways that promote new social principles and policies?
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-19
    JournalYouth and Society
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Nov 2010

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    • Restorative
    • Reconciliation
    • Poverty
    • Youth Inequality
    • Young Women
    • Male Violence
    • Young People and Policing


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