Community worker Darren Ferguson (49) from Glengormley talks to Audrey Watson
Q Was there a particular event or experience that led you to set up Beyond Skin?
A It seems quite ‘cosmic’ when I say this, but various elements came together. My background was community and development work, and I was very influenced by popular culture as well. I was particularly influenced by Peter Gabriel’s music and the human rights aspect of what he does.
And, Nitin Sawhney, who has done a lot of great stuff. We took our name from one of his albums — Beyond Skin. In the sleeve notes he says ‘My identity and my history are defined only by myself. Beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion and beyond skin’.
Another inspiration was a project called 1 Giant Leap — which was two musicians travelling the world, playing music and making a film to try and find out what connects us all as humans. All three were using music for social change.
In 2004, Northern Ireland hit the media headlines when it was described as the ‘racist capital of Europe’. Those headlines and the sectarian division we have here really made me want to do something to help tackle that and change the narrative.
There was also the creative aspect. Being a musician, I have the need to create and although initially Beyond Skin was music-driven, we work across all areas of the arts now.
Q What was your first project? Was it hard to get things up and running?
A I’ve always just put two feet in the water and learned as I’ve gone along. I approached Belfast City Council and told them about 1 Giant Leap and how I wanted to show the film to people. I told them I had spoken to the guys who involved, and they were happy to come to Belfast and do some stuff here.
The council told me that they didn’t fund individuals, just organisations, so I said, ‘I’ll be right back’, and set about starting Beyond Skin.
In the process, a lot of other bodies came onboard such as the Community Relations Council and we eventually got the 1 Giant Leap guys over.
I had to really learn on the hoof as I had no idea how to bring artists over, what was involved etc, so I was kind of winging it.
A lot of people told me that I had no chance of getting the film shown in cinemas here as I was up against blockbusters and new releases, so I decided to go and meet the cinema managers myself and they said yes and that they would give me a night for the screening.
That taught me very quickly not to listen to people telling me what I can’t do and what can’t be done and just go for it. It’s been like that ever since.
Just ask and just try stuff. All people can say is no.
At the start in 2004, it was only me and then I had a few friends helping and things progressed to having a board of trustees, employees and a solid structure.
Q Did you always have an interest in community work? What did you do before Beyond Skin?
A In my younger years, I attended Glengormley Presbyterian Church and became involved in the community work that they were doing.
After leaving school, I went to Newtownabbey Tech, where I studied engineering and media studies. After that, I did a lot of manual labouring and worked here there and everywhere.
I’m a keen musician so it was a case of earning money wherever I could to buy equipment and set up a music studio. But I always maintained an interest in community issues at home and abroad.
I worked with various charities and aid groups in the 1990s and over the course of that decade, spent a lot of time with the Voluntary Services Bureau working in Romania after the revolution there, helping in the orphanages and doing whatever we could.
That changed everything for me. We would raise money, go out and just do whatever needed to be done — building work, buying mattresses for the babies who were in the children’s homes — just helping in whatever way we could.
Conditions out there were horrific and very disturbing. I have memories of walking into places where there were hundreds of babies and they were all quiet, not making a sound, because they had learned that if they cry nobody comes.
We also worked with street kids who lived in the sewers. One day, we were out in the snow and community workers who were working in the area, took us to some waste ground which had a manhole cover in the middle.
They gave it a knock, and out these families came. One guy had an old guitar. He had a huge smile on his face and started to play ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’.
Even now, I still get very emotional when I remember that.
That time really brought it home to me that there is something fundamentally not right with the world when people have to live like that.
It was a defining moment in my life which I’ve no doubt paved the way for me to eventually set up Beyond Skin.
Q Is anyone else in your family involved in the same line of work?
A My birth father died from a brain tumour when I was four years old, so my brother and I were raised in our younger years by a single mother, which has had a real influence on what I’ve done with my life, particularly with Beyond Skin. Dad was a bit of a musician as well and played the harmonica. He was a guy like me who wasn’t afraid to try various jobs. He was taxi driver for a while and did this, that and the other. Probably like me, he got bored very easily.
A lot of Beyond Skin projects are focused on women and I’ve found that I’ve depended a lot on women when I need to get a something done. I think that comes from having a really strong role model in my mum, Eileen.
I can see my mother has definitely shaped my life.
Plus, she married again, and I inherited three older sisters!
Q After witnessing such horror in Romania, it must be difficult to feel sympathetic to people in Northern Ireland who in comparison have so much?
A It’s a bit like holiday photographs. People weren’t actually there, so even though you show them pictures, they’re not going to get what it’s really like.
So, although I can talk to people about Romania, they weren’t there and won’t get just how bad it was and you can’t judge people for that. I’ve had the good fortune to travel outside my comfort zone and see and experience a lot of the gritty stuff out there. A lot of people don’t have that opportunity, so I don’t judge people for not understanding it.
What we do at Beyond Skin is provide avenues to explore the wider world and find out about this stuff and see what we can do to make it better.
Q Have you ever experienced any resistance to what you are doing with Beyond Skin?
A Yes, we have. We’re risk takers. We’re not afraid to push things slightly and that’s a parallel line regarding creativity as well. Last year, the Black Lives Matter movement was such a welcome thing to have happened.
I thought ‘well this is a chance for us all to unite and get this thing sorted’.
My idea was to invite people from the wider community, especially members of the white community who would lean more to the right politically, into a Black Lives Matter discussion, but that didn’t really go down that well. But we will keep working with all communities. I really think that you have to involve everybody in these conversations.
A year after the Black Lives Matter movement began, I think we all realise that it hasn’t done what we hoped.
Q Do you think are we getting anywhere in Northern Ireland in terms of sectarianism and racism?
A We definitely are. There is a lot of great stuff going on. We’re involved in projects every day where we see the changes.
What we’re finding is that people just want to have a sense of belonging and whatever group that they’re brought into the world into, or belong to, they want to guard and protect because they feel welcome and safe there.
I can see both sides of divisions — how people relate to each other and why there is that fear of the other — they want to protect what they have.
The only way to dissolve those divisions is to get the dialogue open. Music and the arts are a perfect way of doing that. It’s a great way of enabling that conversation.
QWhat project are you most proud of what are which one would be the one you’ve most enjoyed?
AThere’s been so many. Recently, the collaboration work we’ve been doing with the Afghan Women’s Orchestra has been really powerful stuff, really up there, and I feel for our friends in Kabul and the challenges they are facing — young girls are striving to get an education and learn music but are up against such dark forces.
And seeing the empathy from the women and girls here who are collaborating with them. The realisation of what is happening to women in a different country and the desire to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their sisters in another part of the world, who are from a completely different background.
We are planning a Youth for Peace concert on August 12 as part of the EastSide Arts Festival and the young girls who are working with the Afghan Women’s Orchestra will be performing.
QHave you ever sort of been abused verbally or physically in any way because of what you do?
AI’ve had it from all sides. I’ve had a few threats from far-right groups in my time and also from the left because we are engaging in dialogue with the right. We can’t win sometimes.
But we’ve gathered tremendous respect throughout all the communities and people know what we’re about.
Some people don’t like our politics personally, but we can sit down, have a drink and talk about music and other stuff and work through things together.
We have quite a unique and strong relationship with all communities here and I’m very proud that we as an organisation have achieved that.
For information about the work of Beyond Skin go to: www.beyondskin.net