Northern Ireland is a country that has been deeply affected by the polarization of its communities, divided by religious affiliation and political and ideological association. A country where the religious and political identities of its citizens have been nurtured through the generations along sectarian, tribal lines and even today weave their way into the unique culture and traditions of what are still divided communities. Catholic or Protestant, Nationalist or Unionist. In fact, for many years the term “community” could have been more appropriately defined as “territory.” Hence, in a place where, for many years, intrareligious dialogue and community collaboration seemed impossible, how are individuals rediscovering empathy? How are groups that had once vilified each other learning to play on the same team? How are we diverging from past territorial lines to construct a true community?

For me, the roots of change in the divisive discourse of the past came from ordinary civic action. In particular, young people believed that genuine peace could be brokered, and more importantly, sustained. My first experience of youth advocacy in action was evidenced when I joined the Belfast City Council Youth Forum. The Belfast City Council Youth Forum is a group of 30 young leaders, each coming from very different political, religious, and community backgrounds across my city, but united by a common goal to be a voice for other young people and advocate for the issues that mattered to them. We worked on campaigns centered on social justice, from homelessness to urban poverty. Our work was a manifestation that individuals from opposite ends of the “ideological spectrum," with very different religious beliefs, can become united through the transformation of their efforts and passion into vehicles for effective deliberation, collaboration, and connection. Here, civic renewal could be established through a network of social tolerance, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

My upbringing in Northern Ireland, coupled with my experiences as an active participant in platforms such as the Belfast City Council Youth Forum, have taught me that community building, peace-brokering, and faith-inspired justice starts when ordinary citizens show courage, humanity, and humility. It starts with simple actions and simple questions: What am I doing to improve my community, my city, and the world around us? It’s about being the kindest, most creative, and most impassioned version of yourself. In using both our heads and our hearts, and coupling dialogue with action that we can create the change we wish to seek, whether that be social, economic, political, or religious.

Although some may predict that my background, coming from a post conflict-society, coupled with our contemporary, tumultuous political landscape, would make me feel cynical, disenfranchised, or even pessimistic about the future of community building and peacemaking, I feel exactly the opposite. Instead, I am inspired by citizens from so-called “diametrically opposing” faith traditions who lead the call for peace and justice. Of course, I accept that this is not an easy process and there is still much work to do. However, by shaking off inherited divisions, exchanging them for optimism and hope, coupling them with open minds and a vision for a future that breaches the territory between “them” and “us,” young people in Northern Ireland are demonstrating that they can be the catalyst for the exchange of fear with hope, disregard with mutual respect, and suspicion with trust.

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