Doctoral Research: Stress, Lonliness, Frustration, Confusion, Enlightenment…. Worth it in the end?

So I’ve neglected this blog site something terrible, given that I initially aimed for weekly updates, but today I return for a bit of a rant/reflection on where I am right now.

So Year One of my PhD studies is complete but what does this really mean? Lots of reading, lots of talking, panicking, resolving, not so much writing…

It’s only now that I am realising the full extent of the naivety I had prior to commencing a full time research degree. Having completed undergraduate, postgraduate and masters education; at each stage concurrently doing a million and one things, placements, full time work, leading a large organisation, volunteering with many others, jet setting across Europe while always meeting deadlines, excelling in certain areas and overall coming out with great results, I thought this PhD malarkey would be a breeze. It hasn’t been.

I have had to completely transform myself, from a person of doing, under pressure, excitement, short deadlines, impassioned debate, balancing work-life-everything else. Into a full time researcher. Someone whose main job day-to-day is to read, think, critique, analyse and hopefully write some of that down in the end. I thought this would be an easy transition, that I would breeze through these three years, after all if I could do what I have done in the past with so many commitments, writing one hundred thousand words over THREE years, with a fraction of the commitments should be a walk in the park. It hasn’t been.

The transition is happening, but certainly hasn’t happened fully. Most days I awake with an extreme feeling of guilt, of pressure, of uncertainty. Have I made the right choice? Am I an imposter? I am a great nurse, isn’t this enough?

Today I put a meme of Dory onto my Facebook feed ‘Just keep swimming’, I now realise how ridiculous that choice was. I can’t swim! My fleeting moment of vulnerability on Facebook however did attract a stream of comments from friends and family reassuring me, that I can in fact do this (not the swimming, the researching).

I came into this programme with one aim, to make a difference, however small, to do something which will in some way make a difference (that and the academic robes at graduation). I am an activist, in all that I do. Whether it be walking into an ICU cubicle to nurse a critically ill person, helping to empower young people to self realise and change society, shout from the highest platform I can to ensure my rights are realised and that others have the opportunity realise their own rights, I see this as activism and I am an activist. Academia offers me an opportunity for a new type of activism, I was reminded of this when I revisited my research and found this quote today:

‘it’s not that they’re (clinic staff) homophobic, I can deal with homophobia, I’ve done it all my life. It’s that when I talk about being gay I feel weird, even if I just say I don’t have a girlfriend I have a boyfriend, they don’t know how to react. They fuss, they look confused, the apologise, I don’t fit into their flow chart. That’s what pisses me off’

I am doing a PhD to join with the (few) other academics and activists who are trying to challenge a healthcare system where Queer people feel left out, excluded, unequal, weird.

I am so privileged to have this opportunity. My University invests in me, pays me (though perhaps a little more would help) to challenge this system. I am privileged to have the support I have, a wonderful supervisor who encourages me at every step, keeps me on track and reminds me where I am going. A wonderful partner, the most intelligent person I know, who tells me every day that he believes in me, literally hundreds of friends and family, again encouraging me to be the best I can be.

I’m not there yet but I will make this transition. I am not an imposter. I am meant to be here, doing this, right now, making a difference!

Now back to reading….

No Hating in Azerbaijan

I’m just in the door after along journey back from Gabala, Azerbaijan, having attended the international forum on the No Hate Speech Movement.

What an interesting week, where I learnt an immense amount. I got the chance to dialogue with some really interesting people, about their activsm work as well as share some of my own expertise in the field of online and offline Human Rights Activism. 

It was indeed strange to be in a country where so many Human Rights violations occour, discussing the topic of Hate Speech and online Human Rights activism (also strange being constantly monitored by so many secret police). However there was a realisation that none of us live in a utopia when it comes to human rights, all of our countries have countless violations ongoing and structural oppression of many groups. While for many of us this is incomparible with the abuses and oppression towards activists in Azerbaijan, perhaps holding the forum there may have inspired some tiny spark of change?

Azerbaijan is such an interesting country, so obviously ‘eastern’, yet trying desperately to showcase itself as a progressive nation of the west. It seems however, that it’s method of showcasing development is to use it’s vast fortune to build big shiney things to distract from the real social inequality, and to point blank refuse that it has an issue around the protection and promotion of Human Rights. There was such a stark difference between Gabala, an essentially rural town at the foot of the Caucasus Mountins and Baku, a seaside city that could have been anywhere in the world. Both had immense beauty in different ways however the road journey between them showed much barren land and obvious desolation. I would have liked to have met some more ‘real’ Azerbaijani people, those at the forum always seemed on guard and defensive. Though I cannot begin to understand the complexities of working in an NGO under an oppresive regieme. At times I felt there was much unfair criticism of our Youth Organisation hosts.

Many things about the content of the forum impacted on me. One obvious thing that came to light is that many of us, despite our committment to Human Rights and Equality still have a difference of opinion when it comes to the rights we are aiming to protect. For many there appears to be a hierarcy of groups, “who is it worse to focus hate speech on”? This is something which goes against one the very fundementals of what human rights is about, Equality. For example to say that misogony must be isolated from oppression based on gender identity is absolutely absurd, and to go on to substansiate a point by suggesting that oppression based on gender identity is a ‘trans’ thing, and different from that experienced by cis women is different, is actively feeding into this hierarcy.

I was altogether uncomfortable, and made it known, with the approach of coming up with an exhaustive list of ‘who is targeted by hate speech’. Segregating out different minorities automatically gives campaigners and activists a kind of menu of whose rights they would like to protect and whose they can just ignore. This campaign should be about solidarity and an inacceptance of Hate Speech targeted at anyone. The forum practically ignored the hate speech targeted at those with disabilities and also the issues around classism. What disappointed me most is that this Youth led event actually failed to acknowledge (though again I inputted this several times) that Young People, have so much hate speech targeted at them, simply by virtue of being Young. We need to build a society where targeting anyone with Hate Speech is unacceptable and where no matter what oppression we ourselves may face, we aim to protect the rights of everyone, even if sometimes they themselves may be our oppressors. At times I felt uncomfortable at the direct, almost conflict between individual participants because of the actions of their governments and very often (maybe because of language difficulties) things were taken completely out of context. I actually stepped in at one occasion to assert that the protection of Human Rights needs to step away from the ‘West’ asserting it’s ideals onto others and we need to engage more in culturally sensitive dialogue with those who have different ideals. Of course I abhor the excuse of ‘Cultural differences’ as an excuse for any kind of crime or rights violation, however coming in with the stick of Human Rights and chastising others will not yield progression. 

I felt we lacked discourse about the importance of freedom of speech. This campaign is not about taking ‘haters’ rights of expression away, but about challenging those who use hate speech to ensure that society is not tolerant of such hurtful action and to protect Human Rights online.

Our logo is a heart. To engage our communities offline we give out nice bracelets and badges, hug people in the street and in Lithuania even have a Panda, but this is a campaign about a truely vile phenomenon. The practice of using ones voice to incite fear, hatred and violence. We must remember that our focus should be on challenging this practice and encouraging others to do the same, the braclets and pandas have their place but only as a tool of engagement. 

One of the positive things about this campaign and probably the most positive is that this campaign is Youth led. While hate speech affects everyone, it was Young People who thought of, developed and are leading this movement internationally. It is a solid example of how Young People are the most powerful actors in social change and when allowed to flourish can achieve great things. I’m glad that this acknowledgement got into the final message (thanks to Ireland).

The forum inspired me and gave me many ideas on how I personally can step up my own activism and involvement in the No Hate Speech Movement, and how the Irish campaign can improve and build a strong strategy to become a more sustainable movement.

I am thrilled that I was given the opportunity to participate in the forum and for all that I gained (including my first earthquake experience) I hope that my participation also brought something for others to have learned from. I also now have several new friends, people who are putting themselves out there to make the world that little bit better. I am especially happy to have gotten to know my Irish National Campaign Committee colleagues that bit better and have made some great friends out of Aisling, Kevin, Ian and Aileen who are doing such amazing things back home (as well as our adopted ‘Paddy’ Michael). Theres also the very likely possibility of some ‘double jobbing’ on my part, while continuing to support the efforts to make my home, and the country I love the most a more Equal and tolerant place, I also look forward to working alongside the Hate Crime Hub and No H8 Speech Uk to ensuring the same in my second home.

At the end of it all I also have a lovely certificate saying that I’m a good Human Rights Activist signed by representatives of the Government of the Republic of Azerbaijan. I do love irony.

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Gay Rights, Homophobia, Ms Panti Bliss

I just thought I’d share a few musings regarding the recent public discussion around homophobia, marriage equality and of course Ms. Panti Bliss. For those readers unaware of the recent commentary I shall summate. Some weeks ago Panti AKA Rory O’Neill, who has been both an entertainer and LGBT rights activist for many years was interviewed on national television. The issue of homophobia came up, Panti rightly pointed out that homophobia was widespread and called for those who opposed equal rights for LGBT people to simply ‘feck off’. When pushed by the interviewer Panti named certain well known individuals and a well known religious ‘think tank’/’institute’. Complaints flew in from said parties, and the national broadcaster RTÉ paid up a sizeable amount quite promptly, stirring much public annoyance, anger and questioning. Most of the questioning focused on the meaning and use of the word homophobia.

The first thing I must do is thank Panti, who was so courageous in speaking openly and personally about the daily reality for those of us who are LGBT. For me, Panti’s public addresses since the first television appearances have been the most moving, she has perfectly articulated that inner reaction within us to ‘check’ ourselves, make sure we’re not being to ‘obviously gay’ for fear of ‘offending’ but mostly in fear for our own safety. I have to say I’ve never really been intimidated by groups of straight lads, or felt the need to consciously hide my sexuality, maybe it’s due to my stature (or my martial arts training). However Panti’s words made me realise that I too ‘check’ myself, perhaps subconsciously but I still do it, for me it’s not about fear but it is about oppression, while I’m quite comfortable in my own skin and happy to share my affection openly with the man that I love, society makes me feel that deep down inside it’s wrong, different, even deviant. Panti’s bravery puts her right up there with the other heroes of our community, people like, David Norris, Katherine Zappone & Ann Louise Gilligan, Tonie Walsh, Lydia Foy, Ailbhe Smyth and my good friend Micheal Barron, people who haven’t been afraid to call out homophobia, discrimination and oppression for what they are, leaders of our community who have each made it that little bit easier being gay in Ireland.

Panti Bliss speech at the Abbey Theatre

When it comes to calling out homophobia, one question has taken the fore in recent debates.

Is it homophobic to oppose marriage equality for same sex couples?

This question has posed the greatest difficulty for me, not so much the question itself but the answers I’ve heard. For me it’s quite simple: to disagree with equal rights for any group is discriminatory and phobic! No matter how people try to rationalise their disagreement it can’t be rational, it is hateful and prejudicial. It is because this is so clear in my mind that I am utterly disappointed with the views aired by many people I hugely respect and who have done such a fantastic job in representing and advocating for the LGBT community and equality in general in the past. Several of these respected people have answered “not necessarily” or simply “no” when posed with the above question and I must ask myself why? For fear of losing votes or popularity? In case naming this as homophobia will, as the opposition to marriage equality suggest ‘damage’ our campaign? Or simply afraid of making the public acknowledge their prejudices? Do these people actually feel that the denial of rights to LGBT people can be because of anything but an underlying homophobia?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of chairing a panel discussion on LGBT rights entitled “Tolerance vs Acceptance: Shall we take the road less travelled” with input from renowned academics like Dr Vesna Malsevic and Ailbhe Smyth as well as representatives from various church groups there was an acknowledgement that piecemeal rights steadily increasing through time showed nothing more than a tolerance for LGBT people, if we really want to be accepted in society we must continue to fight in stamping out homophobia, ALL homophobia. It is only when no child is bullied in school for their sexuality, when coming out isn’t such a stressful experience, when it’s not ok to laugh and joke about ‘gay sex’ (I use quotation marks because I don’t believe there is ‘gay sex’, sex is sex even if it is between two men or two women), when no gay person has to ‘check’ themselves that we will have reached acceptance. I acknowledge that marriage equality is a hugely important issue, I would like nothing better than to be able to marry the man I love and have our relationship respected in law as much as any other but I believe that to ‘park’ the issue of homophobia until after the referendum would be a huge mistake. It would be winning a battle to lose the war. We need to continue to call out all homophobia for what it is, until people acknowledge their prejudices they will not overcome them, and while they may vote yes for marriage equality, their sniggering, taunting and making me feel uncomfortable being me will continue.

Some recent tweets I noticed asked questions like “why do gay people think their rights are more important that everyone else’s?” WE DON’T! There is no hierarchy of human rights and no excuse for discrimination against anyone, for any reason. We just want people to realise that those concepts include us.

“All human beings – not some, not most, but all. No one gets to decide who is entitled to human rights and who is not.” Ban Ki Moon – Secretary General, United Nations

Dissenting Thoughts on Youth Clubs, Volunteers and Professionalisation


ta to the jack petchey foundation ta to the jack petchey foundation

Adding fuel to the burning embers of our pre-Xmas exchanges about the relationship between the voluntary and so-called statutory sectors, between volunteers and paid professionals here are two challenging blogs.

The first, courtesy of John, the opinionatednurse, asks ‘What’s a Youth Club?’.

It begins:

Some people are of the opinion that what happens in youth clubs isn’t “real” youth work. In fact it has been suggested to me (by someone hugely respected in the youth and community field) that youth clubs are “disgraceful representations of the archaic class structures of rural Ireland”. My very understanding of the purpose of youth work, and my own experience was questioned. Said person went on to insist that no volunteer has the right to say they do youth work

The notion that the dedicated and passionate volunteers who facilitate youth clubs have no “right” to say that…

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What’s a youth club?

Some people are of the opinion that what happens in youth clubs isn’t “real” youth work. In fact it has been suggested to me (by someone hugely respected in the youth and community field) that youth clubs are “disgraceful representations of the archaic class structures of rural Ireland”. My very understanding of the purpose of youth work, and my own experience was questioned. Said person went on to insist that no volunteer has the right to say they do youth work

The notion that the dedicated and passionate volunteers who facilitate youth clubs have no “right” to say that what they do is youth work, or furthermore call themselves youth workers puzzles me. Many contest that the “right” to the title of youth worker is reserved for those who work in the field full time, others suggest that a degree in youth work is necessary to use the title. If we cannot decide on what exactly a youth worker is then how can some quite emphatically deny the title for those who volunteer in clubs?

Surely youth work is not about the adult who facilitates it, it’s about the process; a process by which young people engage, innovate and develop, a process which supports young people through a time of transition to become responsible and confident adults. So getting away from the use of the title youth worker, if what happens in youth clubs isn’t youth work, then what is it?

For many years I’ve had the pleasure of travelling around the country, seeing some of the most fantastic, innovative work with young people. Some of this work took place in a café environment, some in a project space, some outdoors, some in information centres and much of it in youth clubs. Some believe youth work is for engaging with “at risk” young people and that this work is somehow more important than more universal provision. Is there a hierarchy of what type of youth work is “real youth work” and what is not? Youth work should be about what the young person gets from it whoever that young person might be or what their background or circumstance is.

There’s been so much change in the youth sector in Ireland over the past few years, some positive, some negative. Youth Work has been hailed as the solution to the youth unemployment phenomenon, it is going to solve the problems of bullying and youth suicide, it’s going to stop young people engaging in crime and taking drugs. While I’m not sure that youth work alone can solve these complex issues, it certainly has been shown to help young people cope, learn, develop and most of all enjoy being young. We’re lucky in Ireland to have such diverse and strong youth organisations, collaborating like no other grouping in the voluntary sector and retaining such an impact despite the devastation brought about by cuts. But we must remember where all of this came from. Youth work started with clubs, it started with volunteers and it started in local communities. It’s fantastic that methodologies have grown and developed and we’ve been able to apply them in all kinds of circumstances. Academics and “professional” youth workers are constantly innovating and advancing new ways of engaging with young people, publishing articles and developing programmes. But so too are the volunteers in clubs, their practice is flourishing and taking different paths, why so do some rank what happens in “the academy” so much higher than what happens in the parish hall on a Friday night.

While there are many concerns about the rollout of a new quality standards framework for youth clubs, I for one welcome it. It is a chance for those of us who work in or have worked in clubs to showcase our work, to show that what is done in that parish hall on a Friday night is no less youth work than shiny evaluated and “evidence based” programme that gets all the glory.

I say to the volunteers in youth clubs across the country, call yourselves volunteer youth workers, youth leaders, mentors, whatever you want to! Just keep up the good work!

Below is a video clip from one of the country’s top providers of youth work, Limerick Youth Service showcasing just a small sample of some of the fantastic youth work being carried out in clubs right across the country! Well done Limerick Youth Service and thanks for sharing!