Cork's youth forging their own futures in a home from home

A youth-led Cork project, nurturing teen talent in a welcoming environment, is a huge success, says Liz Dunphy.

PASS by Marlboro Street in Cork most evenings, and you’ll find a cluster of enviably hip youths gathered at the door to the GroundFloor Project at the YMCA, chatting and laughing within a four-foot radius of the entrance, as if magnetically bound to the old red-brick building.

Inside, a beautifully busy mosaic tile floor that’s borne years of heavy footprints lightly, welcomes you to this place that now nurtures some of Cork’s most talented youth. The GroundFloor Project provides an open space for people to come and hang out, play and record music, watch movies, play video games, and take part in media workshops.

Since opening its doors in 2011, GroundFloor has gone from strength to strength; adding layers of paint, recording equipment and musical instruments to what was a disused office space. GroundFloor is youth-led. When painting the walls, each person chose their favourite colour and painted one panel, creating a vibrant space that accurately mirrors the energy and collaborative ethos of the group themselves. The people in GroundFloor set the rules which remain unwritten, but are based on common codes of good behaviour.

As youth leader George Kamau puts it: “This is like our home. We respect it and each other.” Fellow youth leader Zelen Tshabangu adds: “We have this reverse triangle view of leadership and power. Leaders are at the bottom, the most casual members are at the top, so when someone new comes in we make them feel like it’s their own place, that they’re as important and welcome as the most active members.”

Cliff Masheti says: “GroundFloor allows young people to have an identity. Teenage years are often hard. You don’t fit in, you’re self-conscious and you have very little control over your life, but you come to this place and it welcomes you. It nurtures people so they can reach their potential in whatever they’re doing. A musician has the facilities and the freedom to develop. You don’t get judged on how well you can play guitar, sing or rap. It’s all your peers, they’re encouraging and non-judgemental, so it’s a really positive environment for young people to be in.”

Kate O’Neill lists some skills acquired at GroundFloor: “I can understand IT and recording technology now. I’m practising the bass; you can’t just walk into a shop and start practising instruments. There are a lot of opportunities here. The media workshops are great too. They teach you about video production, and show you how media’s constructed.”

Laura Kinsella, media workshop facilitator, says: “There’s a culture of respect here that’s organic. It’s all voluntary. You hear schools saying that rates of education are dropping, that kids aren’t learning, but here there’s immense productivity because they want to do it, and on their own terms. I think that’s so important, that they can lead and steer. The energy here is incredible, and it’s casual, informal and they create it. It’s really unique.”

The young people involved also pay for GroundFloor’s upkeep themselves. They fund-raise with gigs and cake sales, and use the money to pay for electricity bills, toilet paper, coffee, and minor repairs. They also charge a small fee for the use of recording facilities. Zelen emphasises: “It’s not about making money, we’re trying to encourage young people to come in, so if they can’t afford it but want to record, we ask them to donate what they can to help pay for electricity.”

Youth worker David Backhouse says: “This project has taught us to slow down, and get the young people’s opinion on everything. That’s really paid off. It’s an important dynamic to get right, where the young people push the project forward, and can lead us in new directions. The outcome is visible in how they set rules and standards, in their attitude and approach to getting stuff done. It’s deeper than the music; it’s about how they treat each other.”

GroundFloor’s success has inspired other youth centres to adopt their approach. Two new spaces are opening in the coming weeks, modelled on GroundFloor. Zelen says: “It’s growing all the time, and inspiring young people to take on more responsibilities, and become leaders.”

The project is now in its third year and a spring clean is underway. The place is cleared with typical teenage zeal, with the gang lavishing a little more attention on each other’s jokes than on scrubbing the floors.

The recording studio, a room at the back of the building, is a more focused hub of productivity, with chords and riffs being bounced between bass and guitar as young musicians collaborate under a framed picture of Zelen’s band Unwinding Cables with Glen Hansard, who attended their gig in Whelan’s recently.

The gig showcased young musicians to watch. GroundFloor members are constantly cropping up on such lists.

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