A group shot of those from GEM Programme

We build peace through housing

I joined the Housing Executive as  a graduate, as part of the tenth cohort of the GEM programme, designed to create future housing leaders.

This involves monthly visits to different regions of the UK to learn about different aspects of housing.

After six months working for the Housing Executive, myself and fellow Gem graduates Rona Simmonds, Clare Meehan and Joseph Elliot were asked to plan and deliver an event known as a GEM Shack.

In April, we welcomed twenty-seven young housing professionals to Belfast to showcase the post-conflict regeneration work happening here.

In 1971, at the height of the Troubles, the Housing Executive was established to bring an impartial, fair and unbiased approach to dealing with housing.

Throughout the conflict, the organisation has continued to deliver housing services, based on need, to all sections of the local community.

It plays a crucial role in transforming homes and neighbourhoods and, importantly, people’s lives.

I really admire the Housing Executive’s commitment to fairness and I love working for an organisation with such an interesting history.

These were two things I wanted to showcase to the other Gem graduates and I kept this in mind when organising the event.

Before the Gem Shack we posed the question to the Gems ‘What do you know about Belfast?’ The unanimous answer was ‘The Troubles’.

We specifically chose a venue in the heart of the city’s Cathedral Quarter which captured the changes that have taken place in Belfast since The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

Many of the English, Scottish and Welsh graduates expressed surprise at the modern and peaceful setting.

At the outset, we detailed a history of the Housing Executive and showed the relationship between housing and the conflict, informing the graduates that housing was one of the issues that was a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement back in the ‘sixties’.

We then turned the spotlight from past to present, discussing the presence and removal of peace walls and the regeneration that is taking place through community groups and social enterprise initiatives.

Jennifer Hawthorne, the Housing Executive’s Belfast Regional Manager demonstrated to the Gem graduates that in Northern Ireland – we build peace through housing!

In the afternoon, it was time to get real – we met two North Belfast community activists, who told their stories of what it’s like to live at an interface and what it really takes to build peace.

Lunch was provided by the Social Enterprise Bosco Bakery, which has been funded by the Housing Executive and afterwards, two Housing Executive staff members took us on a tour focused on social housing regeneration and re-imaging.

We visited the CS Lewis Square, Pitt Park and Bombay Street and saw the conflict sketched on gable walls in the form of colourful murals. We even managed to sneak a quick peek of The Game of Thrones set!

During the tour, the Gems visited the ‘No More’ mural in East Belfast, depicting the grandson of a Loyalist community worker shaking hands with the granddaughter of a Sinn Fein councillor.

This cross-community embrace is accompanied by a pro peace poem.

Back at base, the Gems got to play their role in re-imaging Northern Ireland, completing a jigsaw version of the ‘No More’ mural, created by the East Belfast artist Dee Craig.

We channelled our inner ‘art attack’ and the workshop affirmed that art brings people together.

It was a very intense first day!

Day two kicked off with the Social Enterprise Investments Programme Manager Paul Carland wowing the Gems by explaining the opportunities the programme brings to deprived areas, helping communities to help themselves.

Next, a ‘Shared Future Panel’ made up of Housing Executive staff in various roles explained that transformation is reliant upon education and changing the conversations at home,  which eventually creates the people we become.

In the afternoon, we shifted focus on to the graduates themselves – giving them a chance to provide feedback on the Gem Shack.

Some were amazed at the work the Housing Executive does in terms of creating cohesive communities, whereas others noted the organisation ‘keeps its ears to the ground’, while working at the pace at which their communities feel comfortable.

By visiting Belfast, the Gems saw for themselves that change in Northern Ireland is ongoing from the copious sky-scrapers that are shooting up across the city centre. The Gems also saw first-hand the Housing Executive’s efforts to promote Community Cohesion to ensure that progress and change are for all communities in Northern Ireland.

We received positive feedback about the event from our guests and our other colleagues and we’re delighted that we did ourselves and the Housing Executive proud!