Tuesday 16 January 2018

The real Jobstown: An Cosan

Controversial water protests only tell a small part of the story of Jobstown in west Tallaght. At its heart lies An Cosán, the education ­centre ­co-founded by the late Ann Louise Gilligan, which supports 1,000 local families each year. Our reporter visits for a lesson in community empowerment

An Cosan, Jobstown educators, [back row] Edina Milivojevic, Liz Waters, Wayne Martin[ Education access officer] Maura McMahon [CEO] and Anne Genockey and sitting Lorraine Quinn and Jennifer Wickham - pictured at An Cosan in Jobstown Tallaght. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
An Cosan, Jobstown educators, [back row] Edina Milivojevic, Liz Waters, Wayne Martin[ Education access officer] Maura McMahon [CEO] and Anne Genockey and sitting Lorraine Quinn and Jennifer Wickham - pictured at An Cosan in Jobstown Tallaght. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Ann Louise Gilligan
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Apparently former TD Pat Rabbitte had a keen sense of his electorate. When canvassing door-to-door in the Tallaght area, he could tell, with almost 100pc accuracy, if the female householder was - as he put it - "an An Cosán woman".

An Cosán, it should be noted, isn't a political party, ideology or ICA-style movement, nor is it a society or sorority.

The definite, yet indefinable, quality that Rabbitte saw in these women was cultivated at a grassroots, no-nonsense community education centre in Jobstown.

The name An Cosán may ring a bell with some people. The jury in the recent Jobstown protest trial were told that Joan Burton and her political advisor Karen O'Connell had just left a graduation event at the centre, and were attempting to travel by car to nearby St Thomas's Church for the rest of the ceremony, when protests over water charges broke out around them.

It's unfortunate that an organisation so deserving of media attention was in the news for all the wrong reasons.

An Cosán, which means 'the path', was born in the sitting room of the late Dr Ann Louise Gilligan and Minister Katherine Zappone in 1985, when 11 women, many of them on low incomes and from Tallaght West, signed up to a free course they were running at their home, The Shanty, in Brittas.

No shortage of ideas: An Cosan's CEO Maura McMahon. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
No shortage of ideas: An Cosan's CEO Maura McMahon. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Eighties Ireland had been swallowed by the recession and, at the time, the unemployment rate in nearby Tallaght was 60pc. Third-level education was primarily for the privileged; second-chance education was almost unheard of and, according to An Cosán general manager, Anne Genockey, it was common for young people in the area to drop out of school after sixth class.

Gilligan and Zappone believed that education was the only way out of the poverty trap and what started as a series of informal classes soon became The Shanty Educational Project and then, in later years, a dedicated community education centre for men, women and children.

Today, An Cosán supports over 1,000 families and contributes over €1m to the local economy annually.

The centre offers a diverse range of courses, including degrees in leadership, addiction studies and early years education and care, as well as programmes like Lifestart (a child development education programme for parents of young children), #techmums and Young Women in Technology (YWIT).

More recently, they launched a pioneering Virtual Community College (VCC), which aims to increase access to further and higher education nationwide.

Thousands of students have passed through the doors of An Cosán, yet this is not a typical classroom setting. As education access officer Wayne Martin puts it: "They meet people's needs on lots of different levels - emotionally, intellectually, spiritually..."

An inclusive model

In its earliest incarnation, as The Shanty, classes were conducted in a circle, and that model still exists today. "It comes from a background of women's community education, and women learn best in a circle," explains Liz Waters, the centre's director of social enterprise and the driving force behind the VCC.

"We start by opening the circle," adds Martin, "which gives people the opportunity to share how their day went".

The circular, inclusive ethos extends to the computer room, where the PCs are dotted around a central island; while some of the classrooms have couches rather than desks and chairs.

One of these classrooms, which feels more like a space for contemplation, has a shelf lined with books on spirituality, religion and psychology. It's a carefully-chosen collection, including Shanida Nataraja's The Blissful Brain; Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth; Ivor Browne's Music & Madness; Sr Stanislaus Kennedy's Gardening the Soul and Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Another set of shelves is decorated with photographs and tributes to the late Carmel Habington, a cherished staff member who died three years ago. The team liked to joke that Habington, who was a great champion of the human spirit, worked in 'human' resources.

Habington was a big believer in hospitality and she made sure there was tea, coffee and a scone for anyone who visited the centre. An Cosán, says hospitality manager Sharon Bermingham, is known for its scones, which go into the oven at 8.30am every day.

It's one of the many little touches that make people feel instantly at home when they come through the doors, says early years co-ordinator Edina Milivojevic. And she should know. Milivojevic came to Ireland as a Bosnian refugee in 1997. She found a house in Tallaght but struggled to find a language school. After asking around the area, someone eventually suggested An Cosán.

"I remember coming here with my son - who was only two-and-a-half - and everyone was so welcoming," she says. "Everyone was trying to understand me and help me, and I remember leaving, thinking, 'It would be so nice to work there'."

Jennifer Wickham, the centre's digital pathways programme co-ordinator, is another former student who went on to become a staff member. She started in the centre's Young Women in Technology programme in 2013 and, today, she is part of an initiative that helps to increase digital literacy in disadvantaged areas, not just in Tallaght West, but nationwide.

Wickham tried to walk out during her first week but her teacher and, later mentor, Sinead Kelly, said "I'm not letting you go".

"Without her support," Wickham says, "I wouldn't even be sitting here today."

Education - the ripple effect

Kelly's first experience of An Cosán was through the lone parents' programme. "It's amazing to see them grow," says early life education officer Lorraine Quinn, who is part of the support team. "They come in with low self-esteem and confidence and then they go on to higher level education."

Waters agrees, citing what they call the "one-generation solution". "If you can bring a young woman, who is a lone parent, to degree level, the research shows she will earn 40pc more than someone without a degree - and the impact is not just on her but on her children, too.

Sure enough, the staff at An Cosán has seen the ripple-effect of education, not just in the second and third generation of their students, but in their own homes too.

Wickham says her son, who was "slacking off", went to Tallaght IT when she took up a course at An Cosán. He's now training to be a guard and is currently in the US, working with the homeless.

Genockey was another early school leaver who came back to education through An Cosán. "The history of our family was that none of us went to college - that's just the way it was," she says. "But when I came back into education, we talked about it as a given in the house that [the children] would go to college."

After her children grew up, "seeing mammy constantly doing her homework", her son went to Trinity College and her daughter to NUI Maynooth.

Martin, who joined An Cosán initially as a mentor and is now an education access officer, has just finished a Level 8 Honours degree in psychology.

He was in his mid-thirties when he started the course and, as part of his thesis, he explored the role of parental support in college access.

"The difference in people who come from areas that are deemed as disadvantaged is that they don't have someone in the family who has gone to college before them," he says

An Cosán CEO, Toronto-born Maura McMahon, agrees, before pointing out that 99pc of Dublin 6 students go on to higher-level education, compared to 24pc in Dublin 24.

The childcare solution

Systemic inequality, she continues, requires radical solutions - and An Cosán has no shortage of ideas. Women attending the young women's programme, for instance, can drop their children off at the childcare area, Rainbow House, while attending a class. Senator Lynn Ruane, who came back to education through An Cosán, left her daughter Jordanne with the staff at Rainbow House when she joined the young women's programme at the age of 16. Jordanne, who is now the same age as her mother when she joined An Cosán, has grown up to be an IFTA-nominated actress.

"The fact that we had the embedded early years access was critical to [Lynn] continuing," says McMahon, who is herself an early school leaver who came back to education.

Rainbow House also provides childcare for children with special needs who have been referred from Tusla - Genockey describes it as an "intervention and prevention service" - while their Fledglings Early Years Education & Care programme, established in 2008, has been rolled out in eight more centres across Dublin.

The Fledglings programme follows the evidence-based, HighScope Curriculum that was developed in the US in 1970.

"They have data that for every $1 input into the programme, there will be a return in terms of education, social and emotional health, of $17," explains McMahon, before sharing an interesting aside. Apparently, just as Pat Rabbitte could pinpoint an An Cosán woman when he went door-knocking, local school principals can spot children who have been through the Fledgling programme when they transition into junior infants.

"They have confidence, they're independent and they're deliberate in their decision-making," says McMahon.

There's a lot to learn at An Cosán. The team is on the ground, listening to the community and meeting their specific needs. When there was a recent spate of robberies in the local shops, the counselling staff set up workshops for those affected. If a student doesn't turn up for class, the teacher calls them afterwards to find out if everything is okay and encourage them back.

Higher education officer Eithne Dunne points out that the CEO sits in on the learner forum meetings. "We joke that we can't change the car parking but anything else can be brought to the table."

The way the team interacts with one other is different to other organisations. They're active listeners (Ann Louise Gilligan was known for being a great listener) and democratic negotiators; and they don't seem to get tied up in circumlocutory sign-off procedures or meetings about meetings.

A nationwide programme

What's more, they've all been given the scope to imagine and initiate big, bold socially-conscious projects that stretch far beyond Tallaght West.

Waters won a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Impact Award in 2014 for her work on the VCC project; Martin is working on various initiatives to increase higher education access; Milivojevic is working on a pilot project that will potentially provide a relief cover panel of early educators.

Yet as visionary as these projects are, they are, by and large, funded by private donors.

An Cosán receives funding from the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Education and Tusla, but 45pc of their resources come from the private sector. And as the team here will tell you: go-getters and change-makers need all the support they can get.

Fulfilling the vision of founder Ann Louise

Copy of ir PL7429021Le.jpg
Ann Louise Gilligan

As academics and activists, Ann Louise Gilligan (pictured) and Katherine Zappone always talked about starting a project for women who didn’t have educational opportunities.

When they spotted a 100-year-old cedar house called The Shanty for sale on the site of a former hedge school in Brittas, they knew they had found the location.

Their first course, in 1985, was attended by 11 women from Tallaght West, an area characterised by poverty and isolation.

Zappone and Gilligan knew childcare was a barrier to education so they provided a service that allowed women to drop their children to a childcare centre in Tallaght and then get on a bus that took them to The Shanty, which was 10 minutes away.

Word of the classes spread, and they soon had to convert a four-car garage on the property into two training rooms to meet demand. In later years, they began to run additional classes in Tallaght’s community centres and churches.

However, after 10 years in operation, they could no longer cope with the demand and they began to lobby for funding from the State. The local council gave them the site where the An Cosán centre is now based, and told them they would provide architectural services if they could raise the rest of the money. The women were preparing to march on the Dáil when they heard that they had been awarded a grant of £600,000.

Gilligan’s wake service was held at the centre last month and the walls are still decorated with photographs of a woman who is remembered as a fierce campaigner with a gentle spirit. “Ann Louise’s superpower was she could see the greatness in every single one of us that we didn’t necessarily know we had,” says CEO Maura McMahon. “And that then enabled us to see that goodness in others.”

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