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NCI: social justice in the docklands

The summer issue of the Journal of Jesuit Business Education carries a paper by Gina Quin, President of the National College of Ireland, on the work of the NCI in meeting the educational needs of the children of marginalised families in the local community. She traces this commitment to social justice in the College’s mission to its Jesuit origins. The NCI emerged out of the Catholic Workers College, later the College of Industrial Relations, which was established in Ranelagh by the Irish Jesuits in the 1960s as a bid to bring professional qualifications to the developing economy. Its focus from the start was on facilitating a deep and responsible culture in employee/manager relations, trade unions, and other forms of industrial relations.

According to President Quin, once the NCI moved into the Docklands area in 2002 they found a striking disparity between the thriving financial sector which had made its home there as a massive redevelopment scheme evolved and the indigenous Docklands population who had very limited employment opportunities. “Deprivation, marginalisation, educational under-achievement and dependency on social welfare in the traditional community of NCI are widespread,” she notes. If then the college was to fulfill its mission “To change lives through education”, it would have to look beyond simply providing academic excellence to enrolled students. It would have to “find a way to address the educational disadvantage in the immediate docklands community”.

With this in mind, NCI set up an Early Learning Initiative (ELI) programme. It is a community-based initiative which focuses on pre-school children and their families, and it seeks to empower the local community. The thinking behind this is that the first years of a child’s life are absolutely critical for setting the basis of educational achievement, and a failure to develop their language and cognition skills in these years make the task of raising their educational standard in later life very much harder. The ELI, as an early-intervention programme helps to address this reality. It was specifically developed “to focus on the family unit, to support the parents, or even one parent, and grandparents, aunts and uncles, or any of the significant adults in a household, in developing a child’s educational journey”. It opted for a US model, the Parent-Child Home-Visiting Programme (PCHP), and set about training local mothers to deliver it in their own community, through twice-weekly home visits to families with young children. This approach has helped greatly to build trust, as well as to benefit the trained Visitors. Over the first ten years of the programme more than one third of these Visitors have gone on to complete a degree programme in Early Child development.

As President Quin explains in her address, the ELI programme “is built on a foundation of human dignity”. “It is about the common good, the sharing of our wealth of expertise as a college, it is about the empowerment of the most disadvantaged around us, achieved through participation and solidarity brought about through Community Action Research…. [It] is an essential part of the mission of NCI… and provides a critical community service that reflects our values as a Jesuit-founded college.”

The Irish Jesuits are still working closely with the NCI. The Irish Jesuit Provincial Leonard Moloney SJ is chairman of the college’s Governing Body. And to mark the start of the new academic year in the college on 25 September 2019, he celebrated a Mass there for the staff. The liturgy was organised by Desmond Gibney, a lecturer in NCI and it provided an opportunity for those present to remember deceased students, staff and family members, and everyone present came forward to light a candle in memory of a loved one. In the course of his wide-ranging homily, Fr Moloney quoted the late American poet, Mary Oliver, and her instructions for living a life: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Afterwards, everyone gathered for a chat while refreshments were served. NCI President Gina Quin said in her opening words of welcome, while this was primarily a religious event, it also was a community event.