Staff Looks Back: Laura O'Dowd and Ryan Black

Laura O’Dowd and Ryan Black both worked at Supporting Communities (or NITAP at that stage) first as Liaison Officers and then as Training Officers based in Drumellan.

Ryan went on to work for both Lisburn & Castlereagh Councils and is now Director of Neighbourhood Services at Belfast City Council while Laura continued at Supporting Communities to become the Support Services Manager, only recently leaving us to become Director of Housing at Ark Housing.

As part of our 40th Anniversary year, we got Laura and Ryan together to reminisce a bit and to give us their thoughts on the organisation, its contribution to communities, and their careers. They both have some very fond memories of the organisation and some funny stories to tell - not all of which we could include in the video!

Like all of the former staff we’ve talked to, some of their best memories are of their fellow staff members and how those strong working relationships contributed to the overall work of the organisation.

“There was a really good staff team… very, very supportive. And from my perspective from the outside looking in now, that seems to have continued on. That is very much shown in how the organisation communicates and how it deals with communities; that’s one of the really strong things about the organisation”, said Ryan Black.

Both Ryan and Laura credit Supporting Communities with providing them with a strong foundation in community development principles that has helped them to develop their skills and understand the challenges facing communities, something which has served them well throughout their careers.

By working so closely with communities, “you get to see the nuts and bolts, the positives and the negatives”, remembers Laura who had a very close relationship with the group at Drumellan over the years.

We asked them about the evolution of tenant participation in Northern Ireland since they started working with Supporting Communities and they both mentioned some significant changes in attitudes and approaches to both community and tenant participation over their careers.

Laura talked about the importance of the government’s formal recognition of the value of participation and the creation of the ITO by the Department of Communities that ensures housing providers make it a priority in their businesses.

“For me, when Supporting Communities became the Independent Tenant Organisation, that really lifted the organisation in terms of its status and recognition as an independent organisation. So [the status of] tenant participation has definitely evolved over the years”, Laura explained.

“It goes beyond even tenant participation”, agreed Ryan. “Supporting Communities has definitely helped mobilise communities so that they are aware they do have a voice and they do have a role to play in terms of holding organisations that are delivering their services to account and that foundation has been really strongly built and we’re still seeing the benefits of that in the terms of the work that’s happening today and I think Supporting Communities has had a big role to play in that.”

40 years is quite a milestone and a great achievement for a voluntary sector organisation. We asked Laura and Ryan what they thought about the 40th Anniversary.

“It says a lot for an organisation that is now in its 40th year and still growing, still informing, empowering, and encouraging people. Not just tenants and communities, but also public bodies and other agencies”, Laura remarked.

“I think where the longevity of the organisation has come from is the fact that the services they are providing are making a difference”, said Ryan. “It’s a difficult role but there’s a huge sense of achievement when you know that you’re making a difference and you’re helping people to improve the quality of life of people living in communities.”

We also asked what they saw for the organisation’s future and the new challenges that our communities all face in these changing times. Ryan predicted an increased need for partnership working to make the best use of limited resources, something that Supporting Communities is certainly prioritising in it’s current Strategic Plan.

“We’re in a different context now in Northern Ireland but also in terms of the availability of resources. We need to strengthen the collaborative opportunities of working together because the needs are ever increasing but the resources are ever decreasing”, said Ryan.

Laura credited the organisation with the ability to adapt to new challenges and take chances on new ideas.

“You’re not doing what you always do because its easy to do. You take leaps of faith and challenge staff and board to grow and develop more”, she said.

It was a real pleasure to catch up with these distinguished staff alumni. The current staff and board certainly intend to live up to your kind words and take on the challenges that the future holds for us.

Thanks to both Laura and Ryan for telling their SC Stories and sharing their insights about the organisation’s past and future.

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