The director of MIT's Center for Reflective Community Practice (CRCP), Associate Professor Caesar McDowell, is chairing a conference in Omagh, Northern Ireland that brings together representatives from the Catholic and Protestant communities to discuss "Regeneration -- Renewal and Beyond."
Speakers at the conference, which started Sunday and ends today, include Nobel Peace Prize winners John Hume and David Trimble and the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Philip Lader.
Professor McDowell became interested in Ireland in 1989 when he was on the faculty of Boston College and the school's president, the Rev. Donald Monan, recruited him to coordinate the Wider Horizons Program with colleges in Belfast and Dublin. The program brings Irish education students in their final year to the US for two months of intensive training.
Working on Wider Horizons, he made many trips to Ireland, forming friendships with colleagues and observing the culture. As an African American with a background in community relations, he had common interests with those trying to build bridges between diverse communities in Ireland.
"It's an engaging place," he said. "Smart people are working very hard with very difficult issues, including the effects of oppression and poverty. It makes you reflect on what's going on back home.
"This is a crucial period in the peace process," said Professor McDowell, noting that this month marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of "The Troubles" and the first anniversary of a car bombing in Omagh last August 15 that killed 29 and injured 382.
"It is important for the people of Northern Ireland that anniversaries like these be remembered," said Professor McDowell, who joined the MIT faculty last September. "It is also important for those who have suffered over the years that they are marked with some sense of hope."
More than 200 delegates from the public and private sectors are participating in the conference, including policy makers, advisors, academics, developers, architects and representatives of volunteer and community organizations. The conference is sponsored by the Omagh District Council.
"Through the conference, delegates will gain a unique insight into some of the problems faced in the countries throughout the world," Professor Mc-Dowell said shortly before the sessions started. "For each of these problems, they will see how people have come together to find solutions. The determination of the town of Omagh to regenerate itself after the devastation of a year ago provides a remarkable example."
Professor McDowell, who grew up in Denver, received the BA in sociology from Pacific University in Oregon in 1972 and held a variety of jobs, including assistant superintendent of an Alaska school district, director of youth programs for a YMCA and horse breeder. He enrolled in the Harvard University School of Education in the early 1980s, earning the MA in 1984 and the PhD in 1988. Before joining the MIT faculty, he taught at Harvard and BC and headed the Civil Rights Project Inc.
Professor McDowell came to MIT last September to head the Community Fellows Program, which evolved into the CRCP under his direction. "The Community Fellows program focused on the individual and grassroots leadership," he explained. "We are changing the focus to work with groups of people and to concentrate on long-term commitments to communities and neighborhoods."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 25, 1999.