Engaging with Disadvantaged Communities at University of Limerick

Contact: Maura Murphy, maura.murphy@ul.ie

UL is pioneering work with the Traveller community, led by John Heneghan who lectures in the Kemmy Business School.

In 2000 John was part of a socioeconomic development project involving five European nations. The end of the project coincided with a strategic decision by UL to engage with disadvantaged communities. John was asked if he could contribute to UL’s plan. John wanted to work with the Travelling community. From the outset, his desire was to get Travellers to visit UL and feel comfortable there. He knew he could rely on UL’s staff to engage effectively. So in 2001 he visited all 12 of Limerick’s halting sites, introduced by a respected Traveller woman named Bridget Casey.

These visits resulted in a 10-week course in food preparation attended by 16 Traveller Women, which led to a month-long personal development course during which the women came to UL three mornings a week. The women suggested that UL develop a course that would appeal to Traveller men. 
“There’s one thing that interests Traveller men in Limerick,” says John, ”and that’s horses.” So he worked with the faculty of UL’s Equine Studies programme to create a course in equine care for the men.

John recalls, “Once we had developed a rapport with the parents, we said, ‘How can we help your kids progress in school?’” The result: a current 11 homework clubs around Limerick, 6 in national schools and 5 in post-primary, involving over 60 children. In addition, over 40 Traveller adults are engaged with the UL and the wider community. Traveller women are working with the Garda Minorities Liaison Unit, whose meetings are hosted by UL. Six Travellers attend UL as undergraduates, 2 as postgraduates.

“We’ve channelled services from various agencies in a collaborative way to progress Travellers,” says John. “Our work has helped break down barriers for other agencies. In addition, UL has credibility at all the halting sites in Limerick.” Olive O’Reilly graduated from UL in August with a diploma in Women’s Studies.

First established: 2001

The Traveller Education Framework is an important contribution to the Interagency Groups for Traveller Services of the both Limerick City and Limerick County authorities. It highlights the three main challenges facing Travellers today, namely progress in education, adequate accommodation and attaining employment and identifies the key qualities that best assist agencies and activists in meeting these challenges.

By further outlining the processes or mechanics that reflect the actual engagement with Travellers, the framework thus suggests application to a wider group of similar disadvantaged parties. In this sense, it can be considered as Prof. Mike Morley of the Kemmy Business School has described it as “a fundamental architecture for social inclusion”. 

The qualities emerged after several years of engagement with Travellers from the Limerick City and County areas by UL’s John Heneghan. By recognising that winning the respect and confidence of the adults was a prerequisite to tackling school attendance for children, interventions for adults paved the way for a new attitude by parents to education for their children.

The resulting goodwill showed that rapport rather than money sustained the parental support. In time that rapport facilitated discussions on Travellers’ view of their neighbours and wider community and an introspection of their responsibilities to that community. Empathy emerged as a key quality in addressing problems concerning community relations and essential in confronting behaviour issues. It also facilitated the imparting of negotiation skills and contributed to reducing tension significantly between Travellers and the County Council’s Housing department. The advent of the Interagency Group very quickly provided the benefits of effective collaboration in addition to enhancing the prospect of sustaining these activities. Accordingly, these 5 qualities emerged and suggest a synergistic effect when used together interactively. 
Rapport, Empathy, Collaboration, Sustainability and Continuity, and Monitoring. The processes or mechanics component of the framework includes the homework clubs, classes for adult men in metalwork, woodwork and equine care and leadership training for adult women.

An important insight that brought clarity to the framework as a theoretical concept was that while our model containing interventions succeeded in engaging with some 11 schools, 100+ Travellers, published 6 books on Traveller culture and offers a direction for progressing forward, it does not explain this success. The framework suggests that key qualities must be present and grasped by agencies collectively in order to meet the prominent challenges faced by Travellers and other disadvantaged groups.

Community Partners:
UL is part of the Limerick County Interagency Group for Traveller Services, collaborating with Limerick County Council, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick Institute of Technology, the HSE, FAS, VEC, the Garda, and the Visiting Teacher Service for the Midwest.

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