Poverty, politics and paint: Lessons for Glasgow from Northern Ireland

What happened at Unusual NI? SIX speaks with Anthony Gerrard, CEO of Bad Idea in Glasgow, who joined us for his second Unusual Suspects Festival.

Through his work at Bad Idea, Anthony worked with UV Arts and Tell it in Colour as part of the event ‘The Future is Now: How can young people transform their city?’ in Derry. Bad Idea is a social enterprise that aims to inspire young people to transform their futures in Scotland. They aim to revolutionise aspects of education and public services so that all young people can realise their ambitions. Their mission statement is that there is no such thing as a bad idea.

  • The festival is all about connections; can you tell us about your most meaningful connection?

: The first really tangible connection was UV Arts, based in the Playhouse in Derry. Although they have really different approaches than us, we both still have a strong set of shared beliefs in why we are doing the work that we do and the impact that it can have in the world.

 The other one that came to mind, in terms of an almost intangible connection, was Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish poet from Corrymeela. I say intangible because I didn’t actually get chance to speak to him, but I was just really so moved by his talk, he was just such a fantastic, beautiful speaker and one who made a truly lasting impression on me since I’ve come back. Those are the two that particularly stuck out for me, although there were lots of great people doing interesting stuff that I met over the course of the festival as well.

  • The Festival is about learning from people you wouldn’t normally cross paths with, to find innovative ways to tackle chronic social problems. Can you tell us more about what you’re taking away from the festival?

: One of the things that I wish I could have taken away was that board with my Bad Idea tool spray painted onto it from the UV Arts session! That was fantastic to see that done up like that! One of the really interesting things for me, being over there, was finding out more about the reality of people’s lives following the Troubles. Obviously growing up in Glasgow, a city divided by the same religion, you see a lot of this tension being channelled through the city’s two football teams. A lot of the fighting that goes on in Glasgow is very much inspired by the Troubles, and a lot of young people from different sides of the city use violence as an outlet. But being in Derry and being in Belfast, really put things into context. For me, it showed me how unbelievably superficial the violence is over here, compared to the reality of what people and communities of Northern Ireland have faced, and in some cases, continue to face. To see the distance by which Northern Ireland has moved on from this, just makes this continued violence in Glasgow seem ridiculous.

One of the things that really inspired me was the PeaceTech session at the Nerve Centre in Derry exploring how technology can build peace. My mind was going a million miles an hour during that session, as it was fascinating to hear about different and innovative approaches around the world to resolve conflict.

Despite the different contexts, it made me think of the constant battle between young people and teachers in education. Is there anything we have or can learn from the peace tech examples that can then be applied to educational reform? Our classrooms often feel like a battlefield, even for me trying to bring teachers around to why the need for change is so important. And also working with young people to help them understand some of the challenges that teachers face on a daily basis. The ideas and different tools that people were demonstrating during the session definitely made me think that there was something there worth exploring.

Another aspect of the Peace Tech session that has been playing on my mind since I returned from Northern Ireland is whether some of that technology can be used to mitigate and map the impact of welfare reform. Because of the information age, we are coming increasingly detached from how real these things are. You only have to look at the response to the movie ‘I, Daniel Blake’, to see the amount of people that are trying to (especially the Tories) deny the existence of these problems and claim that what is depicted in this film is just a very rare and extreme portrayal what is going on.

Too many people and politicians try to belittle these problems, by saying they are uncommon, when in reality this visual depiction is indicative of the shared problems that many people have experienced throughout the country. Even if you were to demonstrate this by dropping pins into a map, I don’t think it would take a long time at all for that map to fill up with people with shared experiences. You can’t really escape that when it’s presented visually to you. When you see percentages and stats, they can often go over your head and doesn’t tend to impact as much.

  • What do you think Glasgow can learn from Northern Ireland? And vice versa?

: As I said before, Glasgow can learn from Northern Ireland how to get over that sectarian divide. It would probably be useful to put some young people from Glasgow on a flight to Derry and Belfast to show them the fact that a lot of communities in Northern Ireland are getting over these divides, so why don’t they? Glasgow could definitely learn a lot about the willingness to move forward. The enthusiasm of the young people we met was palpable; they’re an essential part of that positive change. They had a real ownership over the need to move their parents and their communities forward, which I think is something we could benefit from here in Glasgow. This idea of young people taking active ownership of the issues they face here just doesn’t exist to the same extent. And that is applicable to the whole of Scotland too. It was great to see all of the young people we met have such a strong desire to be part of the future and creating positive change.

And I think vice- versa, here in Glasgow we have a lot of great projects that have a lot of traction and I think that some of stuff we are doing may be quite new for Northern Ireland. They’re always welcome to take Bad Idea! I think it would work brilliantly in Northern Ireland.

  • What’s different about the Unusual Suspects Festival from other events and festivals?

: The Unusual Suspects Festival seems a lot more intimate and meaningful than any other event.. I go to events all the time, either as a speaker, or a guest and sometimes I feel that they are very generic and that people tend to treat them simply as a means to get out of the office for a day or an afternoon. A lot of the time they turn up, show face, often meeting the same people they always do. Lots of local events are like an echo chamber and it’s just the same people, saying the same thing and talking to the people they already know, over and over again with a just a couple of guest speakers thrown in just to make things seem different from the last event.

Whereas I think the Unusual Suspects festivals are a lot more meaningful, even though it’s in a different city from what I’m used to, I just feel it’s a lot more intimate and that people tend to open up a lot more. They listen better, and importantly it’s active listening in which they feel part of the conversation. Generally it’s a lot more thought provoking because of its unusual nature, especially hearing from people you would normally seek out. It’s great to have people who would ordinarily not be in a room together, be in a room together and I think the Peace Tech session was a great example of this. I don’t know if anyone would ordinarily go from peace tech to educational reform, so it’s good to get those opportunities to provoke some alternative thinking. Social innovation is getting mistaken as cost cutting and doing more with less, and I don’t think that is what social innovation is meant to be, I think it is meant to be finding new ways of tackling problems and not doing things the same way.

As interviewed by Duncan Collins-Adams at SIX in November 2016