For the best part of two years the pandemic shuttered society leaving people of all ages feeling isolated and in some cases scared by what was unfolding. The easy exchanges of everyday life were lost, families mourned loved ones without the comfort of familiar rituals and for some, Covid brought about an existential crisis that made them scrutinise their lives and values more closely than ever before.
The impact of successive lockdowns and working or studying alone fundamentally challenged people’s sense of their place in the world and it was this uncertainty that prompted research fellow Dr Emma Farrell to start thinking about belonging -whether that’s within a family, at work, in society or even somewhere as seemingly impersonal as a big university.
From this reflection has grown the Belonging Project, a joint venture between the UCD schools of Education and Philosophy and the NCAD Bureau+. It began in late 2022 and culminated with the August launch of the Belonging Project exhibition which is currently on view in the student village.
Emma Farrell’s background is in hermeneutic phenomenology which focuses on how experiences, traditions and culture shape ordinary life. She is a founding member of Jigsaw, Ireland's national centre for youth mental health, and takes a particular interest in the lived experience of mental health and distress – both of which were affected and in some cases undermined by Covid-19.
“What really inspired me was seeing people struggling to come back into the world post-pandemic,” she says. “They were trying to negotiate this strange dynamic where things were supposed to be safe yet it didn’t feel as if they were. We’d all been apart for so long that we had lost the rhythm, the routines and the rituals of connection - all things that humans crave. This got me thinking about the opposite of disconnection which is belonging and what that might mean for people. It was this random collection of ideas that eventually grew into the Belonging Project.”
Dr Farrell was especially interested in how belonging might manifest itself in a post-pandemic university setting where the buzz of daily campus life had been absent for so long. True to her commitment to the lived experience, she invited staff and students to share in writing what belonging meant to them.
Short stories, poetry, essays, autobiographical reflections and interviews telling or describing when, how, or where someone had a sense of belonging were all encouraged and the submissions were reviewed by a multi-disciplinary academic team who gave freely of their time and expertise to whittle the submissions down to the final selection.
“Forty pieces were chosen and each writer was paired with a student from NCAD whose role was to reflect their piece through a visual medium,” says Dr Farrell who adds that the Belonging Project also struck a chord right at the top of UCD when incoming President, Professor Orla Feely, mentioned the project and the importance of community within the university in her inaugural address.
“The quality of the material submitted was really excellent and came to us in a broad mix of styles from autobiographical pieces and haikus to stories and reflections,” Dr Farrell says. “It was a friend from NCAD, Robert Farrelly, who first suggested the idea of an artistic collaboration as his students appreciate having good content to work with and we had plenty. The NCAD students started on their artistic creations around January and a bit like the writing, the interpretations were a mix of mediums covering motion pictures, design, illustration and more traditional art forms.”
The project forged strong new relationships between the UCD staff and students and their visual partners at NCAD who spent a semester working on the submissions as part of their coursework and it also brought out the diversity of what belonging and “finding one’s tribe” meant to different people.
For one autistic student his “belonging” happened when he became a DJ with Belfield FM and could share his passion for music with others. For another it was more a case of not fitting in as his long commute every day (he couldn’t afford to live away from home) meant he couldn't stay on campus in the evenings to socialise or join societies. However, he too found his belonging when he forged a friendship on the daily bus ride with a fellow student in the same situation.
“There was a real mixture of pre and post pandemic experiences and of people who'd really found their sense of belonging and others who really struggled to find it. It’s important to have both experiences reflected if we are to understand the learning on campus,” Dr Farrell says.
“What was really positive was that this was a project built on goodwill,” she adds. “We got tremendous support from so many people, including my Dad, who made the exhibition stands, and MoLi (the museum of literature Ireland) who opened their doors to us in Newman House and gave us a wonderful space in which to lay out the Belonging Project exhibition.”
To coincide with the exhibition UCD hosted a day-long seminar which considered the theme of belonging and inclusion from multiple perspectives with contributions from Irish speakers and overseas institutions including the University of Colorado. “They gave us really broad insights into belonging and into the idea of university as a place where individuals belong, where its community creates a sense of belonging and how a university belongs to society more broadly,” Dr Farrell says.
“We had a big gathering to launch the Belonging Project and UCD contributors read their pieces and their counterparts from the NCAD talked about how they transformed them into artworks. The exhibition seemed to touch people which was very moving but also celebratory. I think belonging was something that people had been thinking about privately and we managed to represent it in a powerful way that people understood. It is an idea very much of its time that has resonated with many.”
The Belonging Project Team: Dr Emma Farrell (UCD), Dr Shane Bergin (UCD), Dr Áine Mahon (UCD), Dr Lisa Foran (UCD), Robert Farrelly (Post Studio/NCAD), Rory McDonald (Studio), Claire Campion (NCAD) and John Slade (NCAD).
More information and a selection of the creative work will be available on https://belonging.ie from the 23rd of January. The exhibition will be on display in the UCD Student Village throughout the 2023/2024 academic year.