By John Madden
The Washington Ireland Programme (WIP) is in operation in Ireland for 22 years. In essence, it is an initiative that brings 30 Irish 3rd Level students across to the US every year to work amongst some of the key politicians and policymakers on Capitol Hill, Washington, also known as the Seat of Power in the United States of America. So, to be selected out of a large volume of candidates to be a part of this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity is a big deal, and to be the first Traveller to be picked to attend is even bigger. That Traveller was Kathleen Lawrence.
Kathleen has been something of an activist from an early age, even from 2005 she volunteered for a local summer project for young people experiencing exclusion and marginalisation. She works with Pavee Point in Dublin and is committed to the attainment of human rights for Irish Travellers and Roma. It was this experience that bolstered her application and success on the WIP. We caught up with Kathleen soon after she had returned from her adventures to get an insight into what exactly the WIP was and how the experience impacted on her personally.
What first attracted you to the WIP?
Being honest, at first, I didn’t know much about it. It was something that popped up in my emails, and I thought, “Ooh, a trip to America, why not apply?” Joking aside, I had a better look and it wasn’t until I started filling up the forms that I realised, oh, it’s not just a trip to America; this is going to be hard work. We all know America is a very interesting place, both good and bad, but this was a chance to live and work there; it was for those reasons that I was attracted to it.
There’s a lot of applicants each year, was it a tough process to get in?
It was a detailed application process, but in addition to the standard information forms we were asked to do essay questions on what kinds of services we had been involved in, the leadership roles we have had, what I have learned from my successes and failures, and the implications of Brexit, and that was just Round One of the overall process. Those of us who were successful in Round One were called back for interviews. This was also rigorous and intense as there were individual one to one interviews and group interviews, all of which were to gauge you as a person and to see if you would be the ‘right fit’ for the programme.
How did it feel to be told you’d been accepted?
After the interviews, we were told that we would find out within two weeks. The day before I was supposed to hear back, I had myself convinced that it wasn’t going to happen. It went as far as 15 days and I’d given up all hope. The next day I got the word, I was just shocked; total disbelief!
Tell us about the trip itself.
Each person picked is given an internship-style position which could vary from working with a political figure to a lobbying group. I found out that I was going to be working for a politician. I was really taken aback by this because I work within the area of human rights; it didn’t make sense to me at first to have a human rights worker alongside a politician. It was a funny thing, the last place I wanted to work was on Capitol Hill, but it turned out to be the best place to work. I was working for Congressman Brendan Boyle, and from the moment I entered the office, I was made to feel welcome. I got to grips with the basic mechanics of the political system, this in itself, turned out to be one of the best possible experiences as it gave me an understanding of why they put somebody with a human rights background in a political office as I was now able to see things from ‘the other side.’ While the business side of the trip was really important we also got a taste of what American family life is like. We stayed with host families, my own host was a pro-bono lawyer called Susie Hoffman and to me, she is one of the most selfless people I have ever met in my life. She and her two daughters, Casey and Tricia treated me amazingly. From the moment I arrived, it was a case of “mi casa es su casa.” In meeting them, I now have friends for life. They really made the whole experience so much more for myself and my housemate Kiera, we did everything from hiking to shopping and all the while treated like family.
What was the normal day to day routine for you?
Our schedule was pretty rigid but it varied from week to week. From Monday to Thursday we’d be in our intern roles. Some evenings we’d be in debates, other nights we’d be part of the audience to some very high profile guest speakers who would explain the work they did and how they got to where they are. For example, Jake Sullivan and Cody Keenan, both of whom worked for the Obama Administration.
Did you do much travel while in the US?
We saw quite a bit, but one visit that stuck out for me was when we had a week in New York City. One of the mornings we had breakfast in the Goldman Sachs Building, which overlooks the famous Hudson River. For me, it reinforced the extremes of the US, as on that morning we were looking out the huge pane glass windows of the sky skyscraper on the 60th or 70th floor at the beautiful sprawling city below us. It was amazing to think of the wealth that went towards creating such buildings and views. However, later that day we went to an area of the city called Brownsville which is one of the most disadvantaged areas of New York. I saw people there enduring the same disadvantages as Irish Travellers; for instance, they have low educational outcomes and high unemployment. It was really eye-opening to see the contrast between where we had been earlier that day, on the 70th floor of one of the biggest financial institutions in the world, to the projects of New York. That was one thing about the programme that was valuable, it wasn’t just, “look at all these great people we put in front of you,” it also showed us the huge divide between those who have, against those who have not. This split became more obvious to me, as even in Washington, on my way to work each day, I would pass at least three or four homeless people.
We are seeing a lot of racial tensions coming from that side of the world, did you experience any while you were there?
I knew there would be discrimination in America, but not necessarily against me. When I was going over I made sure that everybody knew I was a Traveller. I just didn’t want it to be the case of somebody saying the wrong thing, and nor that it would be the ‘elephant in the room.’ In saying that, from day one it just wasn’t an issue for anybody on the programme.
While I was there I had one incident. I was on a train in New York and I got talking to a nice American lady, she had married a Dublin man. She told me she was from a very small town, the population of fewer than 500 people, a rough area littered with broken down cars, no wheels; you can nearly picture it! She told me that when she was showing her husband her hometown she said to him, “you think parts of Ireland are rough and you know knackers, I’ll show you knackers!” I was taken aback, stunned at what I heard coming from her mouth, like I’d be used to hearing such words in Ireland, but this was America. After a few minutes, I gathered myself and said to her, “you know that I am an Irish Traveller?” At first, she didn’t know what to say, but then she apologised for offending me. I accepted the apology but it was infuriating because she knew what she meant. I would have found it easier to deal with if she had not understood how it was offensive and the weight of the word she used. It was a stark reminder that attitudes need to change. It was as though her husband brought his prejudices over across the Atlantic and passed it onto his American wife. It was just a reminder, that to some people, no matter where I go, I will always be “just a knacker.”
What advice would you give to readers who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Well, for the WIP you’ll need to be in 3rd Level education but if anybody finds themselves applying, I’d say, be honest with yourself and about yourself. You’ll need to know what you are letting yourself in for. It seems obvious but to be that far away from family and friends for nine weeks can be hard on you. At times, I pined for home. Especially after the incident on the train, while my WIP friends were supportive and sympathetic, I didn’t have the people around me who I could vent to or people that can relate and understand where I was coming from. In saying all that, it is an amazing experience. If you want to do something different with your life, create networks and meet great people that can open doors for you to change your life, then I’d say, go for it!
Kathleen was the first Traveller on the WIP programme and no doubt will not be the last. For the time being Kathleen has said she’ll be continuing to work with Pavee Point, doing her utmost to champion human rights for Travellers and Roma. Certainly, a name to watch out for in the future!