ESC challenging perceptions and changing lives

28 Jul 2016 Sandra Bailie    Last updated: 28 Jul 2016

ESC is a film-making charity which helps people rebuild their lives and re-integrate into society. They use drama and film to challenge perceptions, tackle social exclusion and change lives.  

As one in a series of conversations with NICVA members we spoke to Kirsten Kearney from ESC about their work and membership of NICVA.

We use creativity with extremely marginalised and vulnerable people to help them tell their stories and work through the traumas that they have experienced or inflicted.  We aim to reduce re-offending, reduce the number of victims of crime, reduce addiction and substance misuse and help people rediscover hope and purpose for their lives.

ESC’s core work focuses on involving marginalised people in the arts.  Founded in 1999, we have worked with prisoners, ex-prisoners, youth at risk, community and forensic mental health patients, survivors of trauma, prison officers’ widows, medically retired prison officers, young homeless people and young people suffering from cancer (amongst others!) In every project, the focus is on the creative process and on creating a high quality end product, while emphasizing the therapeutic and rehabilitative effects of the work.

An independent external evaluation found that for every £1 invested in ESC’s work with prisoners and ex-prisoners, we produced a Social Return on Investment (SROI) of £10.49.

To try to reduce dependency upon grant-funding, ESC set up a social enterprise - ESC Productions ( which provides film-making services from inception of an idea through to completion to corporate, community and private clients.

ESC’s work is diverse and needs-driven. Here are a few examples:

ESC’s award-winning film, Mickey B, is a world first - a feature–length film based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth filmed with serving prisoners within NI’s notorious HMP Maghaberry. The film features 42 characters played almost entirely by prisoners and prison staff from a wide spectrum of cross-community backgrounds. It tells the story of one prisoner’s quest for power through betrayal, violence and murder and the insanity and death that results. Mickey B was the winner of the 2008 Roger Graef Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film at the national Arthur Koestler awards for Arts in Prisons and has been translated into 8 languages and screened worldwide. 

Voices of the New Belfast is an exciting documentary film project capturing the real stories and experiences of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds who have come to live in Belfast.  See 

Second Chance for Change is a ground-breaking project that took us into the overlap between mental health and the criminal justice system. We worked with the Community & Forensic Mental Health Team from the Northern Health and Social Care Trust with a group of men with a history of offending behaviour and serious mental health issues. The men had the chance to look honestly at their lives and to tell their stories in the way they wanted to tell them. Over five years now, this project has brought real transformation and creating change in the lives of the participants.

Partners in Crime (Prevention). ESC was the UK representative in a 3 year European Grundtvig Learning Partnership involving partners from Holland, Greece, Ireland, Poland and Portugal. The project aimed to learn from best practice in prison and community arts across Europe. 

ESC is facing the financial challenges common to many charities in NI at present such as lack of core funding, uncertain, short-term project funding, a piece meal approach to funding and not being able to recover full costs. Our 2 part-time staff are now working out of a home office, and even though ESC have proved the impact they make there is still no long term recognition of the value of our work within Northern Ireland. Ironically, there is a lot of recognition overseas!

We have been members of NICVA for 15 years now and consider them vital as a safety net for our organisation. If the board or staff don’t know the answer we turn to NICVA for advice and support. NICVA is our first port of call when facing challenging situations and we know we will find the answer there or be signposted to the relevant organisation. We worked with Collaboration NI to look at potential partnerships and found that really useful. We were investigating sharing back office services such as HR and finance and will revisit this again soon. We have also used Sector Matters finance to provide financial support to our organisation and use GrantTracker all the time to source new funding opportunities and remind us of looming deadlines.

The thing we find most useful about being a member of NICVA is the opportunities to meet others in the sector at events and training. It breaks down the sense of isolation that we can sometimes feel working in such a small organisation. The peer support that we receive and the sense that we are all in this together helps us to think bigger and more strategically. There is a sense of community not just through the events but also through the campaign work that they do on behalf of the sector.'s picture
by Sandra Bailie

Head of Organisational Development

[email protected]

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