Colm Regan - A whispering in our hearts…

The image is wired to my brain.  October 1999, a group of five Australian Aboriginal leaders gather outside the gates of Buckingham Palace having just met with Queen Elizabeth to discuss the issue of rights and reconciliation.  In the lead up to the meeting, Patrick Dodson had invited youth representatives of ‘both sides’ in Northern Ireland (part of our Let’s Talk project) to join them at Buckingham Palace.  Nothing captures the relationship between our NGO 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World in Ireland and the Eddie Rice Centre in Australia better than that event.  


Over the past three decades, our links and joint work with ERC have hugely shaped our own understanding of that work, they have broadened our agenda (and not just geographically) and they have ‘given flesh’ to so many fundamental ideas and campaigns.  There is little doubt that the journey we have undertaken together has been transformative – personally, politically and philosophically.

Because of our links with ERC and its Aussie network, hundreds of teachers, students, youth workers, politicians, community leaders and activists from Ireland (North and South), Britain, Malta, Zambia, Morocco, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt (there are more) have been afforded the opportunity to expand their consciousness, to tease out their understanding of human rights and social justice and to discuss and debate options for action.  From my perspective, this is the first achievement of our work together, but there is more.

Being in a situation that provides the opportunity to link such unlikely issues as Aboriginal Rights and Loyalism in Northern Ireland, HIV and women’s rights in Zambia, migration, immigration and prejudice/racism in Europe and Australia, youth creativity and energy alongside the experience and wisdom of elders was always going to produce significant added value.  ERC provided a platform for realising such added value.  Having the opportunity where young people from Ireland, North and South (in the context of a peace process), from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia (in the context of a reconciliation agenda), from Zambia (in the context of the pandemic) and from Malta and the Mediterranean (in the context of the ‘migration’ debate) was always going to produce something special for those privileged to participate.  It literally ‘exploded’ consciousness and hardwired the idea of the ‘global’.  But, there’s more again.

The stories told of lives lived through HIV and its associated stigmas and discriminations; of shattered families, communities and individuals as a result of the Stolen Generations and its intense suffering and of lives lived through inherited discriminations and segregation were bound to transform.  None of us who listened and actually heard those stories (told through formal and informal conversations) could fail to be confronted and challenged.  What does it mean to be human in these circumstances? How do I feel about these situations?  How should I respond? And there is yet more.

For most of us, history is made by others, we have little sense of being ‘in history’ as it is made and remade.  In part as a result of our work together, many of us question that perception of history and of ourselves.  We have watched history unfold and we have been part of that unfolding through the reconciliation agenda and its many dimensions in Australia; through an increasingly embedded peace process in Northern Ireland and through the emergence of an alternative story of the ‘migrant’ and her struggle.  We are constantly reminded that just as issues such as climate change have now made activists of us all, so too have these stories.  Our work together has been nothing short of empowering.  More…

It would be wrong to avoid the personal in this.  Our family has been hugely privileged to host and work alongside individuals such as Cassandra Gibbs, Patrick Dodson, Paul Lane, Peter Yu, Marge Campbell and Dawn Welch (to name just a few).  80:20 has been privileged to work together with Nicole Breeze, Brogan Mulhall, Zeena Elton and Paul Power.  Personally, it has been one of the highlights of my life to date to have worked with Phil Glendenning whom I am proud to call ‘brother’.  ERC helped make all this possible.

To conclude (for now!), our work together introduced me to Henry Reynolds (hence the title of this brief reflection).  Reynolds recounts a lecture in 1842 by prominent Sydney barrister Richard Windeyer (who sought to argue for the diminution of Aboriginal Rights) but who ended that lecture by asking ‘How is it our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts? Windeyer referred to something with which we are all familiar – ‘a whispering’ - all is not well in our world.  The people who are the Edmund Rice Centre have recognised this whispering, have constructed a social justice agenda built around it and have invited countless thousands of people to not only imagine an alternative history but to actively build that history.

Colm Regan is co-ordinator of the Irish development and human rights education organisation 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World.

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