Let’s Celebrate That!

Last Monday, I awoke suddenly to the sound of large explosions outside my window at 8am. In the heart of a post-conflict zone, I was naturally quite shocked. But before you get too nervous, these explosions were not the sound of a resurgence of sectarian violence, but rather the sound of celebration.

As the final clipper ship entered the dock at Derry-Londonderry, the blast alerted the community to begin the welcoming ceremony. The entire riverside was built up with a marketplace for local and international food and stages for music and carnival rides. And despite the area being fairly desolate at 8am on a Monday morning, through the day and the rest of the week thousands of people would stroll through the Clipper Maritime Festival.

Because the apartment I am living in is right along the river and has an amazing view to below, when I was not out enjoying the festivities for myself, I got to peer from above.  People of the ages and backgrounds ambled through the river walk, enjoying the brief moment of warm sun Northern Ireland had to offer.

Children tugged at their parent’s sides for ice cream or treats offered at the cart right below the window, Dinky Donuts. Which incidentally is the culprit of sending smells of fried goodness through the apartment for nine days straight.

There was something incredible about watching people from all different communities converge on this area of the river. They filled the usually quiet riverside with a cacophony of joy.

The entire town filled with excitement in the week prior as we heard reports that the hometown clipper boat Derry-Londonderry-Doirè led nearly all the way across the Atlantic. Even though sports, especially football and rugby, often ignite dangerous divisions between Catholics and Protestants, the Clipper boat became a new symbol of unity.

We shuddered as reports came of the boat losing its lead in the final leg of the race. And cheered in the last few hours when we discovered the boat had regained it’s lead into the homeport. After the win was confirmed, it became the first time any ship had won into its homeport in this 13-leg race around the world.

There’s no better place than this city for that to happen. They needed a win. After four decades of violent conflict followed by another sixteen years of slow and unstable peace building, this community had lost too many times. But for a small moment, that didn’t matter.

The bigger celebration though was had through the week as tens of thousands experienced all the city had to offer and remarkably, seriously remarkably, there was no violence.

The preparation by security and police force was impeccable because the stakes were high. If this event were struck by a sectarian inspired attack, the result to the peace process and community as a whole would be devastating.

But as each day passed and the festival went on without a hitch, the city let out a communal sigh.

The final night featured fireworks on the river and rather than brave the crowds, we were treated to the perfect view from our third floor apartment view.


The fireworks were another reminder of a community that has been transformed. These explosions weren’t a sign of terror, but colourful celebration of a transformed community.

Though they still have a long way to achieve a truly shared society, the conflict has moved away from violence.

And as I heard Michael Doherty, Director of the Peace and Reconciliation Group, exclaim last week, “Let’s celebrate that!”

Indeed, they have.



Balancing Forward Tasks with a Troubled Past

Derry/Londonderry built its economy around shirt making factories. The city produced more shirts than anywhere else in the world.

But the last factory closed last year. Now they have the highest unemployment rate for young people (18-25) in the country. Amid a changing global economic landscape, they have to find a new way to thrive.

Many cities and countries around the world have similar goals of economic adaptation, but Northern Ireland must complete this forward task while healing from a troubled past.

A violent, sectarian past and a peaceful, shared future are opposing forces fighting for representation and focus.

This week I have attended a few workshops focused on recovering history. One focused on untold stories of Protestant and Catholic communities in World War One. Another workshop delved into the exodus of the Protestant community from Derry/Londonderry and Belfast during the Troubles (1966-1998).

Never clearer to me than after seeing the still raw feelings erupt in dialogue this week, I know the past must be dealt with. A festering collective trauma left untouched could catapult this community back into a brutal conflict.

But there’s an opportunity cost to spending days, courses, and careers making peace with history. Addressing the past cannot come at the expense of planning a new future. If this community cannot find a way to improve education, employ young people and create an economy not dependent on foreign aid, a new form of economic troubles could be equally as damaging to the violence of the 20th century.

These are difficult choices to manage. But I know its possible to make them.

As a child of separated parents, I became an expert of equitably splitting time between opposing forces. Nearly everyday I went to both my mom’s and my dad’s houses. I frequently ate two dinners so neither parent felt left out (and because they both make excellent food.)

Often, divorce is described only from a negative perspective. Certainly there is heartbreak and challenge, but there’s also something special of getting to experience two worlds in one childhood. I acknowledge I speak from a privileged perspective of a very peaceful parental separation, but I know there is much to be gained and learned from divorce. It’s not only about loss.

There are choices to be made for Derry/Londonderry. Will the workshop offer technology training or a history lesson? Find ways to create a participatory democracy or track the forming of the Republic?

But through these choices, it is possible to create a fusion of disparate entities taking the best from both.

Northern Ireland doesn’t have a mom and dad. They have a past and future. But if I can leave my childhood a contrarian, vegan that’s just as likely to be found in a yoga studio meditating as I am going hard in the paint on a basketball court, I know its possible to for this place to find the best of the past and future to create a vibrant present.

A City by Any Other Name

You may have noticed that there is some dispute over what to call the city I currently live in. It is called both Derry and Londonderry, depending on the speaker’s background. 

Traditionally, people from a Catholic Republican background generally used Derry, while people from Protestant Unionist background generally used Londonderry.

And although this difference may seem inconsequential from the outside, it is yet another cultural marker of a deeply divided city.

Particularly problematic during The Troubles, anyone could identify what religion you were based on simply the name you chose to call this northwest city. And in a violent era, that identification could quickly catapult a calm situation to dangerous. Most of the violence has subsided, but the divided legacy continues, often now in micro-aggressions.

For example, Recently while renting a car in Dublin, the salesman asked for our address. Because the legal name of the city is Londonderry, we used that moniker. His eyes darted up quickly and he responded sharply and wryly, “where I come from we call it Derry.”

His mood markedly darkened and invisible masons promptly arrived to build a wall between our cultures for the rest of the transaction. Though small, it gave me a small glimpse into island that continues to heal from a violent past.

People attempting to bridge the divide often choose to call the city Derry/Londonderry but this name can become quite cumbersome and fails to achieve a unifying vision of the community. Rather it only serves to identity the writer and city using a negative term – not sectarian, rather than standing for the positive possibility of a united future.

This is why this week is so important. This week I don’t live in Derry, Londonderry or a combination of them both – I live in Legenderry.

This designation is happening because it is the start on the Legenderry Maritime Festival, where clipper boats with finish their race across the Atlantic into the River Foyle. Their arrival will be met with a weeklong celebration of live music and fun, free activities on the riverfront.

Before that starts on Sunday though, this week is equally exciting and unifying because it is also Community Relations week. Organisations around the city are hosting events, lunches, film screenings, gallery openings, workshops, and lectures. 

I’ve already been to the launch of a graffiti documentary – Together in Pieces –  and an opening of a photo gallery featuring the portraits of migrants to the Northern Ireland – The Belonging Project. The new Mayor of the city, Brenda Stevenson, attended both events. Here we are at the gallery opening. 


She is an exceptional public speaker and wonderfully personable. In last night’s introduction to the Belonging Project, she told the gathering, “When you come to my city. You come to my family. Welcome to the family.”

This family may have trouble finding a name, but (I selfishly believe) many great families do. My mom’s last name is Walker. My brothers’ last name is Taggart. My dad and I share Collins. And even though we struggled to name our joint Wifi network, our love for each other dissolves any barriers built by names.

This is the process I am part of this summer. Each day I feel more love vibrate from of the city walls into the community.

I’m extremely grateful to have joined this eclectic family.




Mundane workouts; insane adventures

I started regularly running last summer because it was a good kid-free break from being a nanny and because I wanted to “be a runner.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I thought I would figure it out once a was “a runner.”

I found out a few things though. I’m not a particularly good runner. Nor do I have serious affinity for doing it. And I find the routine runs on familiar, flat city roads particularly unpleasant.

But two recent events convinced me that even if I never become “a runner” or have a difficult time convincing myself to get out there, getting or staying in shape is vital to becoming something new – “an adventurer”

And the lure of an unknown exploration lurking around the corner is enough to keep me jogging.


The highest sea cliffs in Europe, a range of mountains once a part of the Appalachians, are only a two hour drive away from my summer home in Londonderry. So last Friday, while my mom was visiting, we decided to hike to the peak. My Aunt Jill had been to the range before, but only crested the top with help of a car.

When such a wondrous opportunity arises, you want to be able to successfully climb the to the top. But not just climb it. To enjoy it. To be able to look around as you climb. To have enough stamina to sprint the last couple hundred yards to say you were the first to reach the top. And to triumphantly raise your arms to signal to your family the peak is worth the final ascent.

Unfortunately, for most people including myself, these wild fitness activities don’t come very often. And most of the work done to prepare for these rare opportunities is done at a stuffy gym, on a painfully thin yoga mat, or through pollution-filled air.

Even though those mundane workouts feel dull and frustrating, I remember my arms triumphantly raised in the air and think “the peak is worth it.”



Because of both geographic and language barriers, I have had few chances to bond with my nine-year old German cousin, James. He stole my long-held spot as the youngest of 26 cousins on my mom’s side, but I wasn’t bitter. I was eager to get to know the kid on my recent visit. However because I’m awkward, he’s nine, and four years of high school German helped very little, it didn’t go very well.

Until the last night, as the family walked up to a hilltop winery and restaurant, I had a chance to hang out with him, but I had to work for it. James was riding his scooter, his mom was holding their dog, Roxy. Both James (and scooter) and Roxy were tired of sticking to the pace of the family.

Seeking to alleviate their boredom, I grabbed Roxy’s leash started to sprint as fast as the dog would let me up the hillside. James soon caught up on the scooter. We rushed up the dirt roads dividing hundreds of acres of grapes that would become my post-run refreshment. James raced past me and darted side-to-side to ensure I couldn’t retake the lead. James maniacally laughed as he cut off each of my forward advances.

Image                                                            Image

Just as I began to tire, the road’s conditions take a turn for the worse, which prevents James from reaching full-speed on the scooter. A rocky road, though, was no match for my Toms and I took the lead into the final restaurant destination.

The others were about a half-mile behind, so James and I sat at a picnic table and caught our breath. We stared out into the view memorized by nature’s beauty. I looked down at my formerly distant cousin and said in botched German, “ugly huh?”

He looked up and giggled. We were at the peak of the mountain experiencing the peak of our relationship.                                                                          Image

James reached down, grabbed a stick, and whacked me with it…I’m fairly certain that’s nine-year-old boy for “you’re really cool, cuz.”

The run is hard. The peak is worth it.


Urban Exploration of Derry-Londonderry

I’ve spent a week on the Isle. My jet leg has subsided. And I am having less trouble with strong Irish brogues. 

Monday was a banking holiday so after a peace workshop with US college students in the morning, I had the afternoon off and I was looking for something affordable to do. 

Inspired by Finding Delight’s blog a couple of months ago, I decided to embark on an urban exploration.

First task of my exploration – lunch. Along with pretty much everyone else in the office, I eat lunch from Sandwich Co. nearly everyday.  But in an attempt to branch out and try something new, I walked looking for a new place to eat. Though I was carefully vetting the first few places I saw, it began to rain heavily so I dipped into the next café I saw without much thought.  

The menu and decor looked surprisingly familiar. Maybe it was just the style here?  Upon further inspection, I realised the menu was indeed the exact same because I was at another location of good ole Sandwich Co.  

Exploration foiled.

But my sandwich was good and reasonable (read: cheap) so I continued on looking for a real exploration on the wall.

The city centre is surrounded by a wall that protected the city from invasion in the seventeenth century. Now that the Game of Thrones style warfare is over, the walls serve as more of a pedestrian highway around the city and a high point to take in views of the rolling green hills. 


Off the wall, I found a small entrance to a “craft village”. Once I passed through the unassuming passageway, I entered a new world filled with colourful doors, open seating areas, craft shops, and cafés.


As the rain started to come down again, I took refuge under a building overhang and held tight to a mossy wall so I could protect my phone while I snapped a quick picture.


It was clear the rain wasn’t letting up, so I entered a small tea shop. This time thankfully not another Sandwich Co.

My urban exploration soon turned into a work exploration because I had to return to the office at six to attend a volunteer training for a youth partner organisation. Because I will only be here for eight weeks, I cannot actually be a volunteer, but I was told it might be a good learning opportunity.

Because the tea shop was cozy and I didn’t know anyone that was attending, I was pretty apprehensive about going. And even though I convinced myself to show up, I thought about bolting during the uncomfortable silence after the introductions.

But of course, I stayed. Of course, it was amazing.  Not only did I learn a lot about this organisation’s mission to create peace by getting youth of all backgrounds to have fun together, I also had some of the most interesting conversations on the tea break I’ve had yet.

I didn’t get out of the training until after nine at night, but was rewarded with this view and rainbow on my walk home.


Exploration Complete. 

Embracing the slow down

My first few days have been slow. I’ve started writing a speech, created a presentation, and observed an important meeting. But mostly my job this week is to begin learning the history of conflict here and the philosophy this organization approaches peace with.

Even though I’d like to breeze through a few books on the subjects, I have to keep talking breaks. I have a hundred years of history and a few decades of social justice work to get familiar with. The material is dense, there are so many acronyms, and peace is a subject that is extremely challenging to read from a desk.

Yet, my muscle memory from having a constantly heavy workload is guiding me to rush through this introductory phase so I can learn more, write more, understand more. Keep up with the others. But I’m starting to embrace a change of pace. I am becoming a patient learner; nothing else would do this issue justice.

With at least a hundred years of conflict and continuous struggle, it is be easy to think social transformation is impossible, especially if you are looking for quick, tangible results. Luckily, everyone I work with is full of wisdom and had some candid advice to overcome disillusionment. . During my first lunch, one of my supervisors explained that change is slow. You have to keep knocking on doors and chipping away at blocks. And then when everything is right change will come.

These organizations are working without an end date. No final tournament or competition will come to let them know their work has paid off. Results come slowly and unexpectedly. In their fight to break down violence, they have to be armed with patience.

At the end of an inspiring meeting today, where peace leaders from around the region embarked on a landmark cooperative effort that will take up much of the rest of my summer, the air was filled with an almost palpable excitement. But one rising star of the organization cautioned, “I think we need to remember. We are in Northern Ireland. Things are not going to happen fast.”

I think that’s part of what’s special here.


Cross-Cultural Jokes and My First Day

I enjoy laughing and making people laugh.

And for as long as I can remember I have used humor as a way to fit in. I had a trademark joke by the time I was three. I became friends with my third grade teacher because we had similar humor styles. I entered high school knowing no one, but quickly made jokes and friends followed.  Jokes make people feel comfortable and remember the person that made them feel that way.

So today, on my first day as an intern, I was more than a little thrown off when I realized that humor doesn’t quite translate cross-culture. It’s not even spelled the same (humour). I sat at lunch with the director of the organization I am interning for and the director of the umbrella organization over that. These two people are instrumental to peacebuilding here and I was looking to make a good impression. While I listened to the table’s conversation, I tossed around jokes in my head. But couldn’t land on any sure bet. If there’s one thing I know it’s that your first joke cannot fall flat. In fact, I think it’s best if you really vet your first three jokes with a new group. This sets you up for a few failures later, because hey you’re the funny one. I was silent for much of lunch, attentively nodding, smiling and laughing as appropriate moments.  I’m planning on keeping this low-profile until I understand a little more about humor, and about everything.

Two goals have emerged on my first day

Remember to spell a bunch of words the British way

Learn how to make people laugh the British way

They very much believe in starting slow here so today was really easy going.  I met a bunch of people, got a key, and got a desk. I wasn’t expecting that new mac attached to the desk, so that was a wonderful surprise. Looking forward to personalizing my desk a little bit so it’s not so sterile. I’ll be sure to post a picture when it looks more like Emma’s Desk.


The office fells kind of like a social justice playground. I am interning for an organization called The Junction. They are part of a cohort of twelve community organizations that share offices and collaborate on projects called DiverseCity Community Partnerships. They had me at the pun.  But also, everyone is delightful and working hard to peacefully transform Londonderry. Every Wednesday they host a guest speaker and provide free lunch for anyone in the community interested in eating and learning. Wednesdays are my new favorite days.


Post Script: My Aunt made me the best sign for my room. Feeling really at home here


Post Post Script: I’ll leave you with a view from the kitchen table. Hard not to be in a good mood while eating.