Learning from stories of reluctant engagement

Living

EXPRESSING TOGETHER A scene from the workshop in the Quay Community Centre (with poet Roberta Beary in the background). 


Ciara Moynihan

A new publication called ‘One Breath’ will be launched in Westport this Friday. The work is unusual in so many ways. It is hard to categorise. It is meaningful, it is significant and it is voice giving. It is sparing, beautiful and moving. It is instructive.
A collaborative project, ‘One Breath’ is produced by Clan Beo, a community collective based in Westport that aims to promote ‘respectful social integration for citizens who live with the experience of disability’.
The publication pairs haiku – three-line poems in the Japanese tradition – with small narratives and simple gestural images, to convey the engagements that people with disabilities and their families have experienced with state and community services over the years.
Pieces by Westport creative Maitiú Quinn sit along side haiku by celebrated Westport-based US poet Roberta Beary, while the narratives and art are by Clan Beo community members. Other contributors to the project include project originator and Clan Beo founder Willie Walsh, artist facilitator Mary White, designer Frank O’Reilly, photographer Christine Prescott and writer Chris Doris.
As the introduction explains: “Over four years, we [Clan Beo] talked to people in 30 families who live with the experience of disability… Many found it difficult to bring to mind truly nourishing and respectful relationships in their years of engagement with both special and ordinary community services. We asked each how many different special professionals they had met. The average number of special professionals each had to to tell their story to was 92.”
Take a moment to let that sink in. Ninety two.
More often than not, the interactions with service providers became ‘reluctant engagements’. Why reluctant? Well, unfortunately, many of these interactions were negative experiences, and exhausting in their volume and repetitiveness.
Through conversations with these families ‘at kitchen tables, in cafés, in the front seat of the car, on the street and (inevitably) late at night in a quiet corner of a bar’, Clan Beo’s Willie Walsh sought to learn about what comprised a good ‘empowering’ engagement with service providers. He asked those he spoke with, “What do you remember as a truly powerful engagement for your family member with a ‘special professional’?”
In the introduction to ‘One Breath’, Walsh explains that these conversations were ‘rarely straightforward’. “In most instances an empowering story was preceded by memories of other ‘professional’ engagements that still carried some trauma. Seven people couldn’t bring to mind a positive example of a ‘truly powerful’ engagement.”
Explaining that although these negative experiences were difficult to ‘leave behind’, the focus of the exercise was to highlight what an empowering engagement, a ‘right relationship’, looks like to these families. This in turn would be valuable for educating service providers and special professionals, helping to ensure that future engagements are positive for all involved.
In October 2019, some of the people in this four-year conversation took part in an art workshop in Westport Quay Community Centre. Here, they were invited to paint ‘haiga’ – simple pictures, again in the Japanese style – that expressed their interactions with professional services.
The final publication contains narratives from the conversations, alongside Beary’s thought-provoking haiku and the group’s striking artwork, as well as an explanation of the whole project’s origins and intentions.
‘One Breath’ is a truly singular offering, and a testament to the families who gave of their time and insights. Hopefully it will help generate more positive interactions and empowering relationships with service providers and others in the wider community in the future.  

‘One Breath’ will be launched this Friday, November 26, at 6pm in The Bookshop (Seamus Duffy’s), Bridge Street, Westport. All are welcome. For more information on Clan Beo and ‘One Breath’, visit www.clanbeo.org.

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Narratives and haiku from ‘One Breath’

Her kids ask about him in the morning before school. When this quiet, attentive man visits, the kids blossom.

Inside the greehouse of his visits
her children blossom


He gently washes her feet in the silence that surrounds them. He would never let the intern do so important a job.

No helper needed
in gentle waters
he washes her feet


When I pause my rant the man behind the desk silently waits for what’s next. In time he sifts through the carnage for an offering, a diamond that might help us move on.

Rant over
the listeners sifts
the sunlight


We don’t envy the guard who comes to convince Dad to stop driving (“he can bloody well try”).
He leaves after a few hours and several coffees. None of us can tell how he went.

Empty coffee cup
words splinter
the sun-patched cloth