Northern Ireland Student Blogger Study Abroad

Time to Craic On: Working, Learning, and Having Fun at The Rainbow Project

AV sitting on the couch with Sylvia, appearing to look deep in discussion. Both are holding coffee mugs.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. AV Lee-A-Yong is HECUA’s student blogger for the Conflict, Peace and Transition program in Northern Ireland this spring. Ze is a student at Swarthmore College, majoring in peace and conflict studies, minoring in psycholgoy. Read on for hir next post!

One of the biggest reasons I applied to the HECUA program here in Northern Ireland is that it provided me with an internship. I wanted to learn hands-on while I was here, and I fundamentally believe that to live and study in a place also means you have to give back to it somehow. An internship while abroad would do this for me, but of course it had to be the right match.

Cue The Rainbow Project. The Rainbow Project is an LGBTQ+ organization in Belfast and Derry that aims to “[promote] the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people and their families in Northern Ireland.” In the Derry centre, I work under one of the youth development officers, helping to provide a space for young people age 12-25 to access counseling, educational resources, support, and just a safe place to hang out with friends and colleagues.

This work is very rewarding and I would love to show some of the things I do in an average week. However, photographs are tricky when working with LGBTQ+ people, as they can unintentionally out a person when they aren’t ready. So, in order to visually capture the goings-on of the typical Rainbow intern, I will be using Sylvia P. Connolly, our stuffed bear, as a model.

Stuffed bear Sylvia P. Connellly wearing a blue t-shirt and holding a rainbow flag.
Presenting Sylvia P. Connolly. Photo credit, AV Lee-A-Yong.

Here is a picture (right) of Sylvia P. Connolly. They’re named Sylvia after Sylvia Rivera, a prominent gay liberation and trans rights activist who was essential in the Stonewall Riots. The “P.” comes from Marsha P. Johnson, the first activist to throw a brick at Stonewall. Their last name, Connolly, comes from James Connolly, a prominent advocate of worker’s rights and an Irish Volunteer crucial in the Easter Rising of 1916.

What’s very important to note about The Rainbow Project is that they accept people regardless of age, ethnicity, and religious background. A lot of what they do includes building communities where people feel safe and included, which is one of the reasons so much of the center looks DIY: it is.

All of the art on the walls was collaged or painted or drawn on by young people who use the center, and the all the chairs were upholstered by them, too. The organization is youth-led, so even all the board games, the cards, the DVDs, and the books were in part chosen by young people who are part of the community here. This is why the mural in the next photo is so important — it’s of Bishop’s Gate, one of the gates to the City of Derry where there is a door installed connecting Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.



The mural in question, with Sylvia sitting lazily in front. Photo credit, AV Lee-A-Yong.

But how is this kind of community fostered? One of the biggest activities hosted by Rainbow is the drop-in, a period of time where participants can “drop in” and grab tea, biscuits, and a chat with others in their age cohort. Sometimes, these drop ins can be home to workshops, crafting, or focus groups as well, but they don’t have to be. It’s a social space, and an opportunity for LGBTQ+ people to make new friends, be themselves, and have good craic.

To demonstrate drop-in, here’s Sylvia and me having a chat about the importance of pronouns over a cup of tea. The string banner made of rainbows and shamrocks was lovingly crafted by one of the center participants!

AV sitting on the couch with Sylvia, appearing to look deep in discussion. Both are holding coffee mugs.
AV and Sylvia, deep in discussion. Photo credit, AV Lee-A-Yong.

In addition to community-building, Rainbow also works on educating the public and working for equality outside of the center. Representatives from Rainbow will often go out to train other organizations in LGBTQ+ sensitivity and inclusivity, and Rainbow’s advocacy network for policy and people is strong. When necessary, they are willing to take action to get the ball rolling on many grassroots projects on top of events like Pride.

And somehow, even though they do all of the facilitating, the scheduling, the counseling, and the youth work, the folks at Rainbow still manage to find time to work in self-care. Sometimes, it’s a run to the CD store, others it’s staff lunch at the favorite local coffee shop, and every so often it’s a trip to the beach on a slow morning.

Overall, my work at The Rainbow Project so far has been founded on community, whether it be from the youth who visit at drop-in just to have fun and play board games, to my coworkers who are advocates and activists, and who are personally inspiring to me. Rainbow has accepted me with open arms into their community, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

group of five peopel standing on a green rolling hill with blue sky above.
Photo of the staff of The Rainbow Project Foyleside at Grianan of Aileach. From left to right: Colleen O’Neill, Amy McRory, Eimear Willis, Lina, Mart and me. Photo credit, Colleen O’Neill.

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