Collaboration with community partners brings HECUA’s model of transformational learning to life. We know that the 12-15 hours a week that students spend interning with a local organization is just as valuable as the time they spend inside the classroom. Periodically, we feature the community partners who make experiential learning possible.
As Pride month comes to a close, we are highlighting one of our international community partners that works to advance LGBTQ+ health and wellness.
The Rainbow Project: Promoting LGBTQ+ Health and Wellness
The Rainbow Project partners with our program Conflict, Peace and Transition in Northern Ireland. Located in Derry and Belfast, The Rainbow Project is a non-profit organization that is devoted to promoting the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people. We spoke with Colleen O’Neil who is the Youth Development Officer and HECUA internship supervisor to learn more about her work.
“Our main goal and mission is to serve young people and provide a space that is LGBTQ+ affirmative. In many ways, our work is a bit of everything. Anything that is part of a queer person’s life is something that will fall under our work, from their experiences at home, to school, and in their communities,” she explained.
In all the areas of their work, The Rainbow Project’s approach is to be youth-led by amplifying the voices of young people in the community. Rainbow provides direct support through peer and social support, counseling, support groups, and advocacy by working with youth and their families. They also reach youth by working in schools. Particularly, Rainbow has been developing a model of practice to support youth leadership.
“We see ourselves as being in partnership with the young people. We’ve been working on developing a model of practice—which is quite exciting and important—because especially when working with a marginalized community, their experiences need to be told with their own voices. Our staff are trained in youth work, but we understand that our experiences as young people were quite different than the experiences young people of today.”
As the largest LGBTQ+ charity in Northern Ireland, Colleen explained why this support for health and wellness is so needed, particularly in rural areas of the country where queer community and services for queer people may be more limited.
“The farther outside the cities you go, the more vulnerable and isolated people are. It’s not as common to see queer people and queer families in rural areas, so we try to support with the resources we have.”
She adds that their work is not just focused on addressing issues, but also celebrating the community.
“We tend to talk about the issues and the negatives because they are hard, but we have this absolutely amazing community of young people who are radical, diverse, and forward thinking. A key part of our work is to celebrate that and bring people together, learn from them, platform them, and take the lead from them.”
HECUA + The Rainbow Project
HECUA students play a unique role in supporting this work when they intern with Rainbow. Colleen described how each student has brought their own unique passions and contributions to the work.
“I started at Rainbow about five years ago. When the first intern came, I didn’t really know what to expect. But when Ellen arrived, it was just amazing.
Every intern is completely different. It also means the experience is different each time we host. Each person brings their own heart, passion and what they’d like to get from the experience.”
Some interns have studied queer culture, organized events, or delved into research projects. Whatever the project, Colleen expressed that what matters most are the relationships interns build with the community.
“Our work is all about people. The time an intern can give—listening to people with compassionate curiosity, learning about the community, and hearing what they have to say—is really valuable. For a community that often has their voices silenced or may not be out in their own families and communities, having someone listen to you who isn’t from Northern Ireland is such a strength. You can ask questions and talk about things that would be more difficult to discuss if you’re from the same place. There’s a space our interns can hold that affirms people’s identities and lives.”
Through HECUA’s program, students learn about the history and current reality of conflict in Northern Ireland. As an organization, The Rainbow Project creates a unique space for intersecting identities that is a bit uncommon.
“We’re naturally an organic, cross-community space. When people come to Rainbow, usually the aspect of their identity that is at the forefront is their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity. We don’t have a Catholic Rainbow and Protestant Rainbow. We have one center, one place. Regardless of where you’re from, that’s where you go for support.”
Addressing one’s community background can be a challenge, even at a place like Rainbow. That’s where interns can—and do— play a unique role.
“What hosting the interns allows us to do is raise those conversations (about identity) in a way that is not confrontational for people. Our interns come and they say ‘I’m doing this program, this is what we’re learning about, can anyone talk to me about that?’ It raises it in a way that’s very different than the traditional model. It’s brought those conversations through our door in a way that has been really well received, and it’s allowed us to build on that, bit by bit.”
For students who intern at The Rainbow Project, the experience often carries on beyond the program’s end.
“For us, the internships themselves are about three months long, but the connections we make last so much longer. Sometimes you don’t know how powerful the relationships can be until a long time after. We’ve hosted some really special people and get really excited about the work they continue to do after they leave,” Colleen said.
When it comes to working with HECUA students, Colleen emphasized that, “it’s a two-way street.”
“I always tell the interns, you’re not just here to absorb, you’re here to share, you’re part of the team. We’ve really learned a lot over the years and it’s informed the work that we’ve done,”
And, of course, Colleen also hopes that each intern falls in love with Derry.
“We hope that people learn about how great Derry is. There’s loads of pain, but there’s also loads of love and community spirit. When you go somewhere, you don’t want to just go and learn about a community, you want the learning to connect to people. We want people to experience that community.”
Many thanks to Colleen for taking the time to speak with us.
HECUA is proud to partner with The Rainbow Project. To learn more about HECUA’s program in Northern Ireland Conflict, Peace and Transition (offered every fall and spring semester) visit the program page, here.
Through community partnerships, HECUA offers off-campus academic programs for students to do integrative intellectual, political, and artistic work in support of movements for social justice, peace, and environmental sustainability in the US and abroad.