Promoting equality in Trinity through the power of a podcast

Dr. Michelle D’Arcy pairs a native Irish person with a refugee to explore the “common threads” that knit them together

The week before classes start, lecturers are busy preparing lessons, sorting their timetables, and tying up loose ends in preparation for the academic year. Assistant Professor of Political Science Michelle D’Arcy, however, had much more on her mind. 

Dr. D’Arcy, who was raised in Dublin but completed most of her education in the United Kingdom, has begun her seventh year lecturing in Trinity with the launch of an original podcast entitled Common Threads. D’Arcy, whose research has involved analyzing developing countries and European states, was inspired to create Common Threads in response to the growing refugee crisis in Ireland. 

“I feel like we live in a world where we are less and less able to relate to each other on a basic human level and see past identity labels,” she says. “I wanted to create a space for us to see people from different cultures through the lens of our common humanity.” In order to best represent this commonality, D’Arcy decided to pair an Irish person with a refugee or a person seeking asylum based on a similarity she found between the two. The pair then has a conversation spanning everything from their upbringings to their philosophies and views on life in order to figure out what it is exactly that they have in common.

 I wanted to create a space where refugees can be seen as ordinary people and not be defined by the fact that they are seeking asylum. 

After the conversation, they open an envelope revealing the reason D’Arcy had paired them together, but often times the conversation leads them to discoveries beyond what D’Arcy had predicted.  In one of the most recent podcasts, Bulelani Mfaco, an asylum seeker and activist from South Africa, spoke with Dr. Jacqueline (Jac) Hayden, another professor of Political Science at Trinity. D’Arcy had paired them due to the fact that both had studied Political Science at University College Dublin (UCD) and consequently completed a PhD after having spent time living and working in the “real” world. Throughout the course of their conversation, however, the participants discovered that they shared the same sense of “fighter” spirit and “anti-system” mentality, developed through their childhood experiences and dedication to education. 

Mfaco was mainly raised by his grandparents in South Africa and Hayden grew up in London and Ireland. Both faced significant challenges during their childhoods. From a young age, Hayden helped her father work as a hairdresser to make ends meet, while Mfaco was living in poverty in South Africa, often having to wake early before school to fetch water so his grandmother could grow food to sell to support the family. As they grew older, both made their education a priority, even when their circumstances made it difficult or even impossible. In fact, Mfaco dropped out of school many times in order to support his family, but ultimately persevered in pursuing his education. He progressed from studying in a one-classroom schoolhouse, where only teachers had books, to University College Dublin. It wasn’t the name of their universities that united Mfaco and Hayden in this episode, however. As Mfaco relates, it was more the fact that both “acted on the belief that you can always do something to change your circumstances”. 

It’s an exploration of the human condition – the essence of who you are can be there independent of the things you’ve gone through in your life.

For D’Arcy, the most rewarding part of creating Common Threads was just that: seeing the participants come together and connect in ways even she hadn’t expected. “I wanted to see what would unfold, but it was a risk,” D’Arcy says. “I didn’t know they would even get on, but in all cases I was just amazed with how much they had in common. It went so much deeper than the original reasons I had paired them.”

Though the podcast episodes themselves are less than an hour in length, the preparation was a lengthy process. After receiving funding from the Trinity College Dublin Equality Fund, D’Arcy was finally able to put her vision into motion this past year. She started by doing a test run with her brother and a friend to refine the format, then brought each participant in to ask them a series of questions before the episode. “I have a list of questions within five categories to get to know them: childhood, education and work, hobbies, friendships, and philosophy of life,” she explains. “I picked those categories because they are things we all have in our lives that don’t touch on aspects of persecution.”

Indeed, one of the points D’Arcy was most conscious of was ensuring that the podcasts served as a platform for the refugees to tell their stories as human beings, not people who have been persecuted. “I wanted to create a space where refugees can be seen as ordinary people and not be defined by the fact that they are seeking asylum,” D’Arcy says. “It’s an exploration of the human condition – the essence of who you are can be there independent of the things you’ve gone through in your life.” 

 The format [of this podcast] could be applied to lots of other groups and societies that we tend to reduce to a single story. 

Though Trinity has taken steps to eliminate racism on campus by introducing scholarships for people seeking asylum and running the Trinity Equality Fund to finance projects such as Common Threads, D’Arcy feels that there is still more to be done.  “I’m concerned at the escalating levels of racism and the unwelcoming response to people who are fleeing desperate situations,” she admits. “I’m hopeful that Trinity will succeed in becoming a university of sanctuary and provide moral leadership on this issue.” 

While D’Arcy does not have immediate plans to create more episodes of the podcast, she is hopeful that they will continue to affect and inspire the Trinity community. “The format [of this podcast] could be applied to lots of other groups and societies that we tend to reduce to a single story,” she says. As Trinity is increasingly becoming a more diverse and international campus, D’Arcy believes “we should be giving back… to make Trinity a welcoming space for all.”

To learn more about Common Threads and listen to the episodes, click here.