Stephanie Mitchell is a cofounder of the Belfast Friendship Club. She recently spoke to me about the organisation which meets weekly on a Thursday evening from 7pm in the Common Grounds Café attached to City Church Belfast. (The café the hosts the club is run as a social enterprise and has a philosophy of “people first”.)
“We’ve been running weekly for seven years since 2009.
“It’s a space for anybody who’s new to the city to come along and experience the warm welcome, and that also includes those who are more local. They come and make meaningful connections with one another regardless of where they’ve come from in the world or what their circumstances are. So every week we’ll get 30 to 60 people and a minimum of 20 nationalities. It’s the new face of Belfast.”
“It’s very easy not to belong. So what we find is that once people have come along once they tend to return and they bring their classmates, their visitors, their family members and their friends.”
There’s an emphasis on people’s dignity. What are the values and benefits of the club?
“Our values are very clearly around equality, respect and solidarity – and it’s the solidarity that makes the difference. Solidarity rather than charity. So we are there for one another in the way that people need to be there for one another in all sorts of circumstances because we all need help from time to time or companionship or company to enjoy and event or an activity with. Basically we’re all in the same boat really. We have no hierarchy.”
The friendship club has worked in collaboration with lots of partners and other organisations over the years and members regularly get the opportunity for training and volunteering as well as entrance to events and performances.
A handful number of other friendship clubs have been set up in Northern Ireland: some continue to operate, others have closed. Stephanie is conscious that a successful club does not just rely upon a neutral and accessible location and the right leaders.
In December 2014, she wrote and published a booklet Be the change: a guide to creating safe and inclusive space [PDF].
“What looks very simple on the surface is anything but to actually operate. Hence writing the booklet which explains what enables Belfast Friendship Club to thrive. It looks disarmingly simple: it’s not!”
One outreach from the Belfast Friendship Club is the Small Worlds Workshop, a café-style event where people circulate around tables hosted by volunteers who have come to Northern Ireland from across the world. Each small group spends a couple of minutes listening to their host’s introduction before a longer time of questions and answers. After 15-20 minutes it’s time to move to another table and meet another host. Find out more in this article.
If you know of a group meeting in your