The Civic Voices Oral History Project was initially created by the American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation and was funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The project facilitated the collection of oral histories by secondary school students in partnered countries, an oral history archive that would vividly recount the story of key activists who enabled significant change within their national narrative. These interviews were transcribed and uploaded to the International Memory Bank, an archive that would allow the comparative analysis of the stories featured, from countries including the USA, Columbia, Georgia, Poland, Mongolia, South Africa and Northern Ireland. The movements investigated by students, included the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S., the Velvet Revolution in Georgia, Anti-Apartheid activism in South Africa and those who contributed to peace process in Northern Ireland, as well as the continued work of politicians and activists within Northern Ireland to embed new political structures in a society emerging from a recent conflict.
The NASUWT in Northern Ireland, in partnership with their AFT colleagues, was the key vehicle by which the project was introduced to schools in Northern Ireland. The late Karen Sims, former national organizer of the NASUWT in Northern Ireland, led the project and the initial local training of teachers and beginning teachers, before they returned to their schools to invite their respective students to embark on the process of researching and contacting a potential interview subject. To date, Northern Irish students have amassed a highly impressive score of sixty interviews, interviews that add key insights into the Troubles, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights story of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the story of Integrated Education, the emergence of peace in Northern Ireland and the continuing importance of Stormont in the delivery of governance in the post-conflict environment.
In my own school, Magherafelt High School, the project has been a key part of Year 10 Citizenship classes for the last five years, and occasionally, Year 13 Government and Politics classes have recorded an interview as an intrinsic part of the their Northern Ireland Politics study. In some schools in Northern Ireland, the project has also been delivered through English classes.
Civic Voices has formed a key part of the Magherafelt High School Year 10 Citizenship study of democracy and the importance of civic engagement. It has allowed the students to actively participate in recording key insights into the importance of human rights promotion and the current workings of the democratic processes, while the project has also afforded different classes with the opportunity to log and learn from the historical narrative that they record personally. The narrative collected from every interviewee is individual and unique to every group, who are given the responsibility for recording the dialogue. This is the core strength of the project. Every student is responsible for adding a piece to the jigsaw of knowledge that helps to explain Northern Ireland’s journey. The project allows students to lead throughout the whole process. Students are responsible for locating, for researching and contacting a potential interviewee, then, they organize and schedule the interview date, prepare the questions and analyze the responses to find the key element and message within the interview. Consequently, two hundred students, to date, have been involved in contributing to the historical archive. The enthusiasm that each group has brought to their respective interview has proved the value of this project. The buzz of excitement on the day of the interview is incredible, as they all know how important their role is on the day of the interview. The interviews are a fun part of the academic year for the Year 10 students. Students from all ability ranges can take part. They love it.
The students in our school have been fortunate to interview many key actors in the Northern Ireland story, from Baroness May Blood (Union Activist/Women’s Coalition) to Bernadette McAliskey (Civil Rights), from Richard Moore (Children in Crossfire) to Chuck Richardson (Spirit of Enniskillen Trust), from former Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie to Alan McBride (WAVE), from Donna Traynor (BBC) and Paul Clark (UTV) to Finlay Spratt (Prison Officers Association) and Mary Hamilton (Claudy Victims), from Michael Gallagher (Omagh Victims) to Father Maningi (Children in Crossfire). Stormont and our local MLA’s, particularly Sandra Overend, Ian McCrea and Patsy McGlone, have been amazingly supportive of the project. Last year, despite the pressures of the looming European election, our students were able to interview MEP candidate, Mr Jim Nicholson and the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr Mike Nesbitt, on the recommendation of MLA Overend. As a school, we remain really grateful, on behalf or our students that the vast majority of those who they approached agreed to be interviewed. It made their year!
Every year, the classes develop a theme for the year, a perspective that they would like to interrogate. Classes have looked at Stormont, Civil Rights, Media perspectives on recording the Troubles, the difficulty of policing in a divided society, victims and the disappeared, as well as local activism and making a political difference in the national and international arena. Students have looked at the difficulties for prison officers in Northern Ireland, the remarkable stories of forgiveness that inspired change, youth projects such as the Spirit of Enniskillen that empowered students to lead change, while also looking at Amnesty International and Children in Crossfire and the importance of caring about making a difference internationally. Donna Traynor’s recounting of her excitement as she delivered the breaking news of the announcement of the first IRA ceasefire was a really special moment for the students involved.
As a school, utilizing and adapting the original Civic Voices Project to suit the material that is taught, has enhanced the curriculum that is delivered and allows students to get involved in recording, editing and adapting the filmed sources, and to identify snippets from the interviews that could be added to a future interactive timeline, a timeline that should be used by future students and teachers. Civic Voices is one part of the wider Oral History project in Northern Ireland that seeks allow students to interpret and learn from the past, to engage with the legacy of the past, while also pointing towards future directions. Students are the recorders and the analysts, the key actors who will potentially build a very different Northern Ireland in the next generation. All of the material that has been recorded, thus far, in many different projects, will have to be joined up in a central timeline, as the Stormont House Agreement envisaged. It is essential to keep students at the core of this wider project. The skills that students obtain through this project are invaluable to their future career pathways.
An important additional note must be added. It is absolutely clear that Civic Voices works perfectly in the Northern Ireland context, but the project would work equally well in other areas of the United Kingdom. The basic value of the project simply envisages allowing students to gain a personal insight into the struggle for rights and democracy. This can be translated in many different ways. In the UK today, there are many examples of activism that engages different communities in their fight for political change. The story of the growth of the SNP and the story of referendum is one that should be recorded in Scotland. There are petitions led by organizations such as change.org that are often fuelled by the groundswell of local opinion and activism. Right across the structures of governance in the regions of the UK, there are examples of people asserting their democratic right to be heard. The Civic Voices project simply records these voices and aims to engage and inspire the students in doing so. All that is needed is a simple recording device, video or audio, a little bit of background and community research and then students can begin the interview process.
Ultimately, the aim remains to involve more schools in the project, and the NASUWT in Northern Ireland has been extremely supportive in the local context. Sadly, there are key voices that we failed to record, as sickness and age intervened. It is crucial that the legacy of the original project builds on what Karen Sims and her international colleagues envisaged, an adapting and self-sustaining Oral History project, that allows students to continue to record the key community voices that have defended, promoted and asserted democratic values in the local, national and international context. In Northern Ireland, it is essential that we record as many of those voices that can interpret the past failings and successes of the story from a personal perspective and vantage point, before that generation passes. There remains a huge amount of potential interviews and perspectives for students to record. It is a fantastic project.