174 TRUST: Designing a Way to Bridge the Cultural Divide
By Kendall Veenema
Issue 14 Spring | Summer 2015
Despite its size, the small city of North Belfast, located in Northern Ireland, is no stranger to large-scale issues. The area is historically rooted in segregation, sectarian violence and religious tensions between the Catholic and Protestant communities. In possibly the most dysfunctional area of the city, culture and cultural identity had been at the very root of sectarian divisions, and used as a means to impose a threat to the other in an attempt to intimidate and exclude both main communities. These ‘troubles’, as they are often referred to, began 40 years ago and continue today as racist crime rates have risen 51 percent (June 2014) in North Belfast alone. With a population of more than 100,000, local residents live among the highest levels of poverty and social deprivation in Western Europe.1,2
Amidst this hardship, however, is a beacon of light catalyzing cultural change and conflict resolution through the arts. Located in the middle of ‘Murder Mile,’ where more than 20 percent,2 of the murders in Northern Ireland occurred, is 174 Trust and its Director Reverend Bill Shaw. As a Presbyterian minister in a Catholic area, Reverend Shaw has led the nondenominational community-based organization for the past 16 years and works to promote peace, social justice and reconciliation in the disadvantaged community.
In January 2014, one of 174 Trust’s greatest visions came to life when the doors opened to the Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts. A 13-year and £3.5m project3, the Center is a world-class cultural arts venue with a 170 seat theater and performance space, conference facilities, artists studios, exhibition area and café. Aimed to create a shared cultural hub that encourages community cohesion through active engagement with the arts, the center’s ethos of cultural inclusivity can be best reflected in the quote below by Reverend Shaw.
“It’s impossible for a society to be healthy in terms of its ability to be truly reconciled within itself and to foster a sense of shared society if its arts and cultural community is unable to make its proper contribution to a civic debate. Culture has a key part to play in peace building.
According to Shaw, the secret to their success is its program design. Programming is not contrived to force the issue of cross community relations. It provides the opportunity and conditions that allow friendships and conversations to evolve at their own pace. The staff help facilitate conversations between the different communities based on embracing and celebrating cultural difference and exploring ways in which these two cultures can collaborate to produce a very positive and strong message of a brighter future for all the city’s citizens. In a little over a year since opening, the progression of peace and prosperity in the community is palpable. As seen in the success of their Stories at Duncairn project, a creative writing program that builds confidence for adults and young people with learning or social difficulties by improving their literary skills, the Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts has become a place of commonality where people come together, share stories and build relationships through the arts. It is a humanistic approach to public diplomacy, and its success in driving positive change is evidence to the power of policy when the arts become part of the strategy.
About the Author:
Kendall Veenema is a Master’s Degree student in the Pratt Design Management graduate program. She brings eight years experience in creative marketing, brand development and photo production, along with a deep commitment for social good, to develop research based creative strategies for both economic prosperity and profitability. Currently a freelance photo producer, she leverages both business and design thinking strategies to produce innovative branding, marketing and advertising campaigns.