(Memphis photo credits:  wikipedia.org, http://www.city-data.com, memphisinternationals.org)

Melanie’s Note:  Even though I’m publishing this post three days after finishing the project and leaving Belfast, I wrote it just over a week and a half ago, right around the time I was struggling to move beyond a superficial “tourist’s” perspective of sectarian conflict and come up with a worthwhile contribution for what would ultimately be our final proposal to Belfast City Council.  On that Thursday morning of the second week, I sat in the hotel coffee shop with Clare, a lovely young professional and statistician I’m now privileged to call a friend, crying about the incredible, overwhelming challenge we had been given and my complete and utter lack of ability to do anything at all to help.  I was at a total loss for what to offer, already fearing failure.  We were just 5 short days away from reviewing our proposal with our project sponsors from Belfast City Council.   As Clare and I sat there, over tea and scones, I talked, cried and doodled myself into what would ultimately become an important part of our proposal:  the idea that there should be a standard measure of well-being and locus of control, used to universally measure the quality of life of all programs and fund those that have the greatest positive impact for the most citizens.  The idea was centered in positive psychology, which has emerged in the last 2 decades and moved the discipline from a negative focus on psychological abnormality to a more optimistic one, focused on optimizing human life.  Being highly emotional first and psychologist second, I could only get there by working through the incredible crush of emotions that being in Belfast brought to the surface about my own home, what I think about public discourse and the rights of individuals.  This piece provides a glimpse into the many thoughts cascading through my mind and the very personal perspective I had as a resident of another divided city, at that moment so close and so far away…

We’ve been directly concerned with issues of segregation throughout our project in Belfast.  Although much of the first week was spent debating whether Belfast really is different than any other city, I do think there are many similarities between where I live and this place.  In Belfast, segregation is based on so-called “community background,” which refers to religious (Catholic-Protestant) and self-identity differences (Loyalist-Nationalist).  In Memphis, segregation is based on race and also has a long and emotional history.  Here are 3 similarities I’ve observed between Memphis and Belfast:

1.  A violent history:  Memphis, like perhaps the rest of the South, has slavery and violence against African-Americans as a significant part of its history.  Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis.  Belfast’s violent history is much more recent – the Troubles lasted from 1969 until its “official” end in 1997 with the Peace Agreement.   In both cases, a lot of innocent people suffered and were killed just simply for being who they were.

2.  Physical segregation:  I’ll never forget when we moved to Memphis and we were looking at homes in the downtown area – the realtor we were working with basically scared us into a house in the suburbs due to the potential threat of living in specific areas of the city that were deemed less safe and with poorer schools.  Under this thin veil, though, the issue was more about where people who look like us “should” be living.  Like many U.S. cities, there are parts of Memphis that have a large majority of one race or the other and busing for school integration is still occurring, even in our local elementary school.   In Belfast, people of different community backgrounds live in distinct areas of the city and sometimes, these areas are so small that people on the next block or street are from the other side.   There are also peace walls – 88 of them across the city – or physical barriers that separate people of different community backgrounds.  The difference is one of scale:  it would take me 45 minutes to drive to the most impoverished and deprived areas of Memphis, in Belfast, they are mere footsteps away.

3.  Limited acknowledgement with preoccupation:  In Memphis, if you speak with someone who grew up there, they are likely to be surprised if you mention that there is still a lot of discrimination and racial conflict.  Lifelong Memphians sometimes don’t see it or feel it as much as some of us who are transplants.  Among the newcomer-friends I’ve talked to, racial strife is a common topic – just before I left, one friend said she thought it was a “continuous festering, unhealable sore” that underlies life there.  To be sure, people who have the financial means to avoid it, do.  But it’s not totally avoidable:  this past year has seen much upheaval in Memphis as the city and county schools have been integrated.  In other quarters of Memphis, articulation of racial issues have a continuous spotlight.  How can such perseveration exist alongside a blind eye?  It must be part of the human condition, because I’ve observed the same response in Belfast.

But that might be where the similarity ends.

What’s the difference between Belfast and Memphis?  That’s easy:

1.  Parades

2.  Murals

3.  Peace walls

4.  Flags.

In Belfast, a significant amount of public communication has a stated purpose to intimidate and cause fear.  Since we’ve been here, we’ve heard or seen parades that are for the purpose of asserting a certain community background:  It seems one side would see these parades as a celebration, while the other would see them as intimidation.  People in colorful jackets walk by with bands; they wave flags.  As an outsider, without the same associations of community background, the atmosphere on the same side of a parade seems celebratory and festive.  If I was merely a tourist, I probably wouldn’t even recognize a parade as something other than a reason to party.  And, as I learned this past weekend, when I am on the same side of the peace wall as the paraders, I feel curious and interested.  However, on Saturday, when I heard the deep boom-boom-boom of drums from the other side of the wall, I felt afraid.  Intimidated.  Unsafe.  Vulnerable.  Threatened.  It was strange how the same sound, heard from a mere tenth of a mile apart, can have such different associations and induce such opposing emotions.

Flags are another divisive symbol used throughout Belfast.  As Americans, we had perhaps a small taste of flags as a symbol of national pride after 9/11 – but to the Muslim community in the U.S., I can now appreciate why seeing these same flags flying all over streets throughout the country would be divisive and exclusionary.  Nick pointed out that in the UK itself, flying the Union Jack isn’t even allowed because it is not considered an inclusive symbol.  That the red-white-blue of Britain flies in the streets of Belfast, while those same flags aren’t permitted in Britain itself is too ironic for words.

And finally, the murals.  I’ve talked about them in other posts here and here, so won’t belabor the point.

All I know about this entire situation is that how I react as a tourist is wildly different than how I react as a professional sent to do a project that specifically deals with understanding the deprivation and despair in those parts of Belfast where peace walls, flags, parades, murals and conflict are most prevalent.   It wasn’t until I put all this in the emotional context of Memphis and its own brand of segregation and division that I began to understand a little better what all this truly means, in my heart, where it counts.

And what would this look like if it was happening in Memphis, based on racial differences, instead of community background?

It would mean Confederate flags strung back and forth across the streets.  Marches.  Protests.  It would mean that the Klu Klux Klan rally held earlier this year in Memphis is a weekly, or even daily occurrence.  That the hand-wringing and upheaval it caused would also be daily.  It would mean someone in a balaclava would paint murals with guns on the walls of homes in my small suburban town.  It would mean that everywhere I look would be overt reminders of division and violence and threat.  For both the white and African-American community.  A wound where the scab is being picked off continuously.  And the lurching heart, fear and writhing pain I feel just imagining this environment would be the reality of every single day, no matter which side of the divide I find myself part of.   I can’t breathe imagining home like that, surrounded by such explicit hatred.   I can’t imagine a tomorrow, a future.  How would I be able to see a future, when I can’t even walk to the next street?

I don’t pretend to have any answers, any at all.  Is it arrogant to expect that I could have some sort of an answer?  With just one week to go in our project, I’m only too aware that we have a trite, superficial understanding of what it’s truly like to live in these conditions and feel the full brunt of emotion that comes with long term sectarian conflict happening on our doorstep.  I have profound respect for the courageous individuals  who are actively trying to find a way through the decades of fear that have defined life for many in Belfast.   I hope that we can make even a small contribution to their cause.  #smartercities Challenge


When I told Steve I was going to get to take a break from working all weekend for a tour of the Titanic museum, he asked, incredulously, “What are you going to see in a Titanic museum?  It sank, right?  What else is there?”

“Uh… well, I’m not sure, actually, ” I said, “but I guess I’ll find out.”

Simply put, the Titanic museum is one of the most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited, anywhere in the world.  It tells the story of building Titanic, which is really an industrial history of Belfast.  It follows the rise of the linen, ropemaking and shipbuilding industries and their contributions to this great, unsinkable ship that was the pride of the city at the turn of the century.  Most of the museum walks its many visitors through every rivet, drape and tablecloth on this magnificent ship, which employed many Belfast citizens at the turn of the century.

The sinking, the most familiar part of the story, is told in a darkened room with lights shimmering like water in moonlight.  The sequence of Morse code messages sent from the ship gives the ominous timeline in stoic fashion, while the voices of survivors tell their stories aloud.  The effect is as if you are in the cold, dark water, listening to the halting voice of a now elderly woman describe bodies floating, the silence, the cold.   I was incredibly moved by this part of the experience.

The next section of the museum handles the rescue of some passengers by the Carpathia and the recovery and burial of victims, primarily in Canada, along with the sorrow experienced in Belfast.   Finally, the last display shows the underwater exploration equipment that located Titanic on the ocean floor when the U.S. was searching for a lost nuclear submarine, along with a stunning underfoot video of the wreckage as if you are cruising along its length, looking down from above.

We heard that it was an either a foolhardy gamble or incredible vision that city leadership decided to build this multi-million pound homage to a sunken ship as the centerpiece of its revitalization strategy for Belfast.  Based on my visit, I’d say it was a brilliant, crazy, visionary idea…  the fact that first-year attendance has doubled original projections is testament to the quality of this amazing experience.  Bravo, Belfast!   #smartercities Challenge

In downtown Belfast, there is a thriving market on Fridays through Sundays, with crafts, local foods, jewelry and a broad variety of eateries, everything from crepes, to paella, to fudge, bread, cupcakes, and curry sauces.   It bustles with people as the sun shines through the windowed ceiling.  I ate lunch there twice – once a vegetarian stall and the other a falafel stall – and once for breakfast.  I even found a juice bar and had a coveted green juice one day!  St. George’s Market… one of my favorite things in Belfast.  #smartercities Challenge


L to R: Anne, Steve, the Lord Mayor, Sandy, June, Nick, Peter McNaney Chief Executive Belfast City Council, and Mel


Today was our final presentation to about 170 stakeholders representing public, private, voluntary and statutory sectors of Belfast City.  We’ve heard (and seen) that the Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir tweets his way through his schedule with his ever-trusty iPad, so thought I’d share some of the conversation, along with a tweet from our friends at Belfast Circus:


We got some great feedback afterward and I’m proud to say that a lot of Belfast city leaders are now talking about measuring locus of control and well-being, two cognitive-psychological variables close to my heart (that’s the Lord Mayor’s comment above about a “standard metric”).  Although my post-presentation high is dissipating, I think we may have actually done a wee bit o’good in this lovely, dynamic, vibrant city that I have come to adore.  I certainly hope so!

Now we’re on to finishing touches on the final report, dinner, closing meetings tomorrow and this Challenge can be called… in the bag!  I’ve also got some SERIOUS catching up to do on the blog…  stay posted, friends, more photos and musings to come!

#smartercities Challenge

Just found this from our launch meeting 2 weeks ago!  Have a gander at the details of our Belfast Challenge….


#smartercities Challenge

… and this is what’s going through my head (yeah, I’m dating myself.  Keep your opinions to yourself.  The 80s rocked, people):

It’s Wednesday at 5:15pm local time in Belfast as I write this quick update.  I’d judge that we’ve roughly put in about 86 hours of work between last Thursday and end of day yesterday (Tuesday).   This morning, we reviewed our proposal with the Belfast Executive City Council, which went well with a good number of questions and feedback.  Since then, all 6 of us have been working on continuing to write the final report and make revisions to the final presentation.

Tomorrow is the magic day we’ve been working toward for 18 days now… we formally present the proposal tomorrow, for 2 hours, to somewhere around 170 people, representing all levels of local government, public and private sector, statutory and voluntary agencies at City Hall.

The only thing I’m worried about right now is whether or not there will be steps up to the podium.  I asked, since I’m having visions of tripping on my way up there to deliver my section and risking…. um, shall we say, “excessive exposure?”

Needless to say, I’ll be wearing pants.  #smartercities Challenge

That’s funny, Belfast looks remarkably like a conference room.  #smartercities Challenge


It’s Monday.  We’re working on the presentation and final report.  It feels like we’ve been doing that for DAYS… oh wait, we have.  It’s a long day to just sit in a room and type and review, discuss, type, review, discuss, type, review, discuss…

You’re getting the idea, right?  Real glamorous.

HOWEVER, as you may have realized, I inadvertently learned on the way here that the only (ONLY) TV show I watch – Game of Thrones – is filmed in Belfast, as well as around various countryside locations in Northern Ireland. I’ve been simply giddy with excitement about that little fact, so much so, that I worked it into my self-introduction during our project launch, in front of about 90 people from around Belfast.  I think I said something like I was excited to be in Belfast because it seemed somehow poetic and historic to come to the UK since my dad is English, right up until I learned that Game of Thrones is filmed here.

Got a good laugh with that one, I did.

Well, do you know these lovely folks immediately started working on getting a tour of the studio together?  And then, of course I felt guilty when I found out it was scheduled Monday afternoon, since we’ve been working ridiculous hours since Thursday to try to get our final presentation and report done.  My team decided I should still go, because I’ve apparently been yapping my face off about Game of Thrones since we’ve been here.

(It was all fine until taxi driver I was interrogating about actors he’d come across let on to the rest of the team that the show is full of sex and violence.  Totally blew my sweet-n-innocent cover.  Thanks a lot, dude.)

So, today was the big day.  It’s nasty, drizzling and grey as we made our way down to Titanic Studios.  It’s an enormous building formerly used for painting enormous ships like the Titanic…  by enormous, I mean it’s 64,000 square feet, divided into 4 different sets.   Yeah, and there was a big sign that said NO PHOTOS, which the girls (Clare, Deirdre and June went with me) helpfully pointed out as we walked across the lot.

Paul, the Studio Manager, gave us the tour – he’s a great guy and a former Irish language teacher who got a call one day in 2007 about some pilot that was filming in Belfast and could he come and help out?

So we walk through a little door into this absolutely cavernous building with ceilings that I think he said were like 80 or 90 feet high.  When you walk in, you could see a bunch of plywood and scaffolding stuff.  Not thrilling until you walk through a little tunnel into one of the four sets.  Here’s what we got to see:

1.  Tyrion’s chambers:  It included separate sections that are his bedroom and several other adjoining rooms.  None of the furniture or set dressing was there, like in this photo below:

(Tyrion Lannister, photo credit UK Daily Mail)

2.  A new set for Daenerys that will be used in Season 4.  It looked like a pyramid with a large bench-like throne at the top of a bunch of steps with a pool of water around them and intricate designs in blue and gold painted on a stone walls and floor.  There was a silent waterfall on a glass mosaic on one side.  This is the first set created by the new set designer and it was freakin’ spectacular!!!

(Daenerys, photo credit: lilyjackson.com)

3.  The upstairs set for Daenyrus’ private suite in the pyramid, also for Season 4.  There were some incredible, very intricate doors that apparently made by laser cutting wood into amazingly detailed shapes.  Awesome.  It’s a new set, new location, so now I can’t wait to see what happens!!  She apparently goes out onto the balcony to look across the Narrow Sea.  Hmmm….  what’s up there??

4.  An ice mountain, also used in Season 4 when Jon Snow apparently is caught in an avalanche.  The actors had to actually use ice picks and spiked boots to climb the set piece, which was made of plywood and styrofoam and covered in candle wax and sprinkled with salt to look snowy.  It looked very realistic!  Because they had to basically destroy the set for each shot of the avalanche, it was filmed during the day, then the set people had to rebuild the set every night for 3 1/2 weeks for the next day’s shoot.  (Can you imagine??) 

I haven’t seen Season 4 yet… (Steve’s got 10 episodes taped for when I get home), but since John Snow is my favorite I had to ask if he is dead.  He is not.  Whew, thank goodness.  Eye candy, ladies, have a gander:

That’s what I’m talking about.  (Jon Snow, photo credit:  gameofthrones.wikia.com)

5.  Ice maze, also used in Season 4.  This is apparently part of some scenes involving trenches at The Wall (I haven’t seen yet!), which, incredibly, were build on an elevated platform out of huge styrofoam blocks.  The camera crew are  actually are underneath the set during filming.  Whoa.

(The Wall, photo credit:  gameofthrones.wikia.com)

6.  And…. the Iron Throne.  This set of the throne room is really big, really cool.  The room is big but surprisingly small compared to how it looks on camera.  The throne itself has quite a bit of metal on it, although there was a little section chipped out of the seat and it seemed to be partly wood too, with maybe some sort of foam as well.  I don’t know, I’m clearly not a set designer.  Again the painting to simulate reddish stone walls and floor was so realistic, with detailing of stylized rabbits around the balcony walls.


(Iron Throne, photo credit: gameofthrones.wikia.com)

All the chandeliers were gas-fed and lighted with fire, although there was no lighting in any of the sets today.  The painting on all the sets was really amazing – it looked like marble and stone in different colors.  Gosh, thinking of how amazing the settings are on the show, it was really incredible to see them close up.  No wonder the show is getting so much recognition and is such a visual extravaganza.

While we were looking at the various sets, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) was there filming.  The Studio Manager said he’s a great guy and likes to play pranks all around the studio.  He also said that all the actors are really nice and that the actor who plays Joffrey is actually quite soft spoken, a great testament to his acting chops!

Perhaps the coolest part of all this is that the show employees between 700 to 800 residents of Belfast and is clearly bringing a lot to the local economy.  We walked by lots and lots of semi-circular workshops and trailers that were marked with signs like Special Effects and Drapes.  We could see people in the shops tinkering around a bit too.  They use a lot of local craftspeople, like bricklayers and other construction and artistic effects folks.   Happily, they’ve recently had a massive uptick in studio tours, mostly Americans.  When we were waiting for our cab to head back to work, a bunch of guys kept showing up at the front gate for extras casting calls and Clare said she had read in the local newspaper they’re looking for men with beards.

All in all, a fun peek inside the coolest show since… hmmm, The Sopranos, I think?  If you’re not watching it, you need to get on that, immediately.  June, Clare and Deirdre seemed convinced that they oughta check it out just from seeing the sets.  You can rent it from Netflix.

We now return to our regularly scheduled work marathon….  #smartercities Challenge

Alright, even though you’re going to think I’m making this post up, I swear I’m not…

It’s Sunday and we’ve been at it for hours in our conference room in the Hilton.  The staff here have been attentive and empathetic, so they come every now and then, to check if we need anything, sigh and leave again.  So, our sweet lady who brings us jugs of hot water and coffee appears at our door and says:

“How would you like a wee break?  We’ve got a bouncy house and a rodeo thing…. c’mon with me.”

There is a Chicken Wing conference down the hall from our work room.

I promise I’m not kidding.

I can’t invent a Chicken Wing Conference in Belfast, people.  I may be creative, but let’s be serious here…

We follow her through some back hallways of the hotel past wait staff pushing carts of chicken wings to a large ballroom with round tables covered with white tablecloths.  Hundreds of colorful balloons enliven a small dance floor.  In one corner, a huge bouncing house, yellow and blue.  In the other, a bucking bull ride.  And for us, 10 minutes of bouncing, crashing, bucking and laughing hysterically.

Bouncing is surprisingly exhausting when you’re past a certain age.  Like ten.  Who knew?

Great.  Fabulous. 

Back to work.

But she just came back and said there is apparently a cross-dressing comedian coming on in about an hour. 

Good grief.  Truth is stranger than fiction, friends.  #smarterCities Challenge

It’s Saturday.  And we’re typing.  It was a bright, sunny day in Belfast – something that’s a bit of a novelty based on what we’ve seen the past 13 days – and we’re hanging in our hotel conference room, typing.  Yep, preparing our final report and presentation.  We worked until late last night (Friday) and, actually, now that I think about it, um…. every other day too.  A little bit ago, we relocated for a change of scenery to a lounge but we’re due to go back down to the conference room soon.

This morning, we got a bit of a break and Nick, Sandy and I went on a Black Cab Tour of Belfast.   It was simply marvelous – I’ll post my photos soon.  Afterwards, we grabbed a quick bite at St. George’s Market, which is right down the block from our hotel.  Then, typing.  Lots and lots of typing against a backdrop of yakety-yak while some of the rest of the team worked out other issues.

Here’s an irony:  I’m taking a break from about 8 hours of typing to…. uh, type this post.   Better get back to work before anyone catches me!  #smartercities Challenge