Trinity College Dublin: Impact evaluation of youth leadership programme in north Belfast

High rates of university education and openness to relationships across cultural traditions were among positive impacts observed in young people who attended a youth leadership programme in north Belfast, according to research conducted at the School of Religion, Theology and Peace Studies (Belfast Campus).

The research, published in a report entitled Assessing, Reflecting, Adapting: Retrospective Impact Evaluation, assessed the longer-term impact of a leadership programme run by community organisation R-City on adolescent participants’ life outcomes in terms of their wellbeing, life skills, leadership skills and community engagement. The research was led by Ms Eileen Mah Gricuk, former student in Trinity’s MPhil in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation.

The report was launched last week at R-City’s premises in the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road, Belfast. At the event some past participants shared their experiences of how R-City “can be life-changing if you let it be”.

Strong connections have been developed between Trinity’s Department of Peace Studies in Belfast and grassroots organisations in the north including R-City, which, from its beginning in 2013, has been a launchpad for young people to become confident and resilient adults.

Trinity’s School of Religion, Theology and Peace Studies (Belfast Campus) was responsible for evaluating the R-City core leadership programme, which has seen over 300 adolescents and young people participate. Starting at the age 15 or 16, the youth are guided and challenged with opportunities through a unique three-year pathway to learn leadership and life skills, with which to forge a positive future for themselves and their communities. The programme is an encouraging and safe environment in North Belfast, where daily life barriers are present including poverty, sectarianism and paramilitary intimidation.

The retrospective impact evaluation study of the programme set out to identify the longer-term impact of the programme on the participants using indicators representing wellbeing, life skills and leadership skills. The research covered youth active in the programme from 2013-2019.

Key findings include:

high levels of self-assessed wellbeing, life skills and leadership skills
positive impact on education – 44% went on to university
diverse and inclusive connections across communities
wider positive impact on family members and community social action
positive identity development characterised with confidence, optimism and resilience for their future lives

Ms Eileen Mah Gricuk, author of the report, said:

The enduring impact of violent conflict in Northern Ireland can still be seen and felt in daily life, and this is still visible in spaces such as North Belfast. What this research has shown is that with the right support, young people can develop not only practical life skills, such as critical thinking, communication and working with diversity, but also a positive sense of self which includes openness, confidence, positivity and ambition. Through a retrospective lens, the research participants clearly identified that some aspect of their time in the R-City Programme has contributed positively to their lives, ranging from self-belief, further education, better communication with family members to giving back to others through community engagement.

A further remarkable observation was that the research survey and focus group interviews were conducted in the early months of 2021 when Northern Ireland, and much of the world in fact, were in the midst of strict lockdown restrictions. Despite the ambiguity, constraints and isolation of this time period, the research group continued to declare optimism, positive social connections and resilience, which they attribute to their development through R-City. R-City has not only had positive enduring impact on young people in their early adult years, but it has been shown that these gains will continue in a ‘snowball’ effect throughout their lives.

Other highlights of the impact evaluation include:

programme design has an array of different elements and approaches to suit different individual needs and preferences
comprehensive three-year duration, beyond ‘tokenistic’ one-off activity
progression from directed activities in first year to more self-directed learning in year three
many staff and volunteers are former participants also from the north Belfast catchment area who act as mentors and role models
integrated throughout the whole programme journey is active participation in social action for the local community through projects, activism and relationship.

Dr Brendan Ciarán Browne, Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution, School of Religion, Theology and Peace Studies (Belfast Campus), Trinity added:

The links between the Belfast campus at Trinity College and RCity are based on our philosophy that conflict resolution and reconciliation requires active engagement between the academic community in college and on-the-ground peacebuilding NGOs. Trinity has recognised the importance of these links, most recently when they nominated Prof David Mitchell and I for a Civic Engagement Award. This was a great honor to receive and highlighted College’s commitment to supporting work that takes place beyond the confines of the campus environment.

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