TLP Participant Story: North Belfast TLP Autumn 2020: Gemma Cowles, Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE)

“I watched people blossoming over the 10 sessions of the course. And I learned to retreat a bit at times and to listen a bit better. It was very transformative from one end of it to the other.”

Introduction and Motivation

What motivated you to sign up to the course?

I had done a senior leadership programme in the past – but it was not as practical and pragmatic as this course. And I had trained at the Supervisory Management Course. I was looking for something to allow me to sit down and engage with people on ground. I saw what the course was offering and I can’t believe how close the course was to what was promised. It delivered exactly what you said.  I couldn’t find anything else akin to it.

Experience and Learning

What topics stood out for you?

All the course together made it what it is. It really was interactive and collaborative, you will meet people on the ground, and reflect on your own leadership style. I loved the reflective aspect, taking time out to look at me - this was brilliant – the leadership styles model and the leadership questionnaire – it made me more aware of those I lead, their potential, and the situational aspect of leadership. And the information pack that went with the course was exactly what I was looking for.

I also have more of an understanding of social innovation rather than social enterprise. And for me as a public sector worker to see what’s going on for the community in the pandemic was very important – that’s what I got from it. And yet the way it was delivered made it seem light, and a lift from a normal working day.

What are you likely to ‘take back’ to your life/work in the community?

I have passed the leadership questionnaire on to my team. You could reflect back across the whole course and it made me think “how am I doing this?” The other thing I’ll take back is to think about communication – I’m in the public sector and we have lots of acronyms, so it was brilliant to sit down with other participants who bring you down to earth – it brought me back to the community and makes things more real. At NIHE, we have numerous patch managers who would benefit from the course.

How would you summarise your experience of the programme?

I watched people blossoming over the 10 sessions of the course. And I learned to retreat a bit at times and to listen a bit better. It was very transformative from one end of it to the other.


Are there people/agencies you feel able to talk to and work with now that you weren’t before?

Yes – our course group was fantastic bunch. We have a What’s App group set up. I’ll definitely work with Tracey from Supporting Communities – we have already emailed – I can see that I need to connect with them for what I do in my role. And it was also great to meet the people on the Futures Project as NIHE are part of the lead for that. It was also good to network with people living in North Belfast.

What difference will this make to how you engage in your interface area?

The first thing will be the collaborative project which we’ll now develop. The pragmatic side of this programme – developing a project after completing the course - is brilliant. The timing is good because after you’ve done the course, you’ve had a whole view of North Belfast. For example one participant suggested a historical tour, there’s also the possibility of something around tree planting – I like the idea of developing a project which will have a legacy and could help North Belfast for years and years to come. North Belfast is blossoming and we can contribute to it.

What difference will the course make to the interface area overall?

The programme definitely will make a difference. The projects are the icing on the cake – but it’s the collaboration aspect that will make the most difference - bringing people together to look at North Belfast. Once this programme is over there’s 300 - 400 people that have connected. I saw people blossoming and changing through the programme. It is easy to start with a little bit of apathy and some degree of “you’ll never make a difference” to now, people coming up with ideas and looking beyond the interface – at the end people were thinking of whole North Belfast community.

It was also noticeable that people’s religion didn’t come into this – our group had a unified approach. People started as individuals, but when you hear other people talking about the work they do with older people, younger people, etc. there was a lot of empathy, and learning about and seeing the importance of what each other does. It helps that it’s 2020 and the world has changed a bit – but also it may have helped that the COVID situation meant we were all vulnerable together. I thought the barriers were really broken down, there was no divide “I’m from this area, you’re from that area”.


Are there any other ways you would bring what you’ve learned into your work?

I’m working on a huge Schools Energy Awareness programme, aimed at reaching children in 1400 schools. Doing the course and meeting the other participants has made me think much more carefully about families who do not have tablets, broadband and other considerations such as language barriers and support available for children at home. Now it is a real consideration for our project to see how we can help with the digital side of things. Without that awareness I might have whizzed on to target a certain number of children, whereas now I am aware they can only access our project if they have access to the tablets, broadband and support.


To what extent do you think these changes would have occurred in the absence of this course?

I might have thought about these issues at some point, but it would not have been as emotive, it might have been a tick box before – now I will be looking to reach the % of children that do not have access. The course has changed my emotional response to a problem.  

Final comments

What are your final comments on the course?

The course was fantastic – it’s brilliant that it’s Council-led. I was involved in Community Planning for our division in NIHE and I sit with policy makers all the time, but for someone on the ground to get the opportunity to sit down with Council and make those connections is really good – it’s an inroad to Council for people. They may not have ever engaged with the Council before, beyond bins and grants, so it is great to say this is what the Council is about – benefiting you and your community. The other benefit is that there is no financial cost to the course or the accreditation. And you get so much out of it.  

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