The kind of a learning experience which is truly transformative is about the issues that really matter. At the same time it does not make cosmetic corrections in order to present the solutions as impeccable, but it opens the space for questions and critique, and encourages you to explore further.
And it is exactly this kind of learning experience that I would like to write about in the next paragraphs, about the thoughts and impressions that I brought with me from the study visit to the villages and towns of the Bihor County in Romania, organized and hosted by the international Romany Early Years Network and Romanian organization Ruhama Foundation (Fundacia Ruhama).
When my colleague Dragan and I started our travel from Zagreb to Oradea, we were trying to figure out what will be the outcome of participating in a study visit with such an uninviting name – “Integrated community based approach to early childhood services in Romani communities”. When we were traveling back, we knew the answer to this question. Only in 3 days (3 very full days, though) we (we, the participants) managed to visit and to talk to the people living in 2 Roma settlements, Tinca and Telechiu; to meet those that have the duty to protect and to empower all the members of the community that they were elected to represent (public authorities); to visit ECE institutions which in provision of their services deal with challenges of integration through some good practices and, like elsewhere, through just practices; to talk to the people from Ruhama about their 17 years long work marked by challenges, successes and the lessons learned; finally, the participants managed to know each other and to exchange thoughts and experiences ‘made in’ Albania, France, Croatia, Kosovo, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, Spain, Ukraine and Great Britain.
What I took from this visit was the valuable insight on how to make an action, aimed at the improvement of position of Roma, successful and meaningful. Ruhama activities show that there are few key conditions that need to be met. First, it is necessary to gain trust of the members of the community, which is not an easy task and which cannot be planned in a ‘project management’ manner, but it requires a high level of self-reflection by the people implementing these actions, capability to understand the real needs of others, readiness to change one’s own perspective, as well as readiness to change and adapt your action when it is needed. Secondly, it is necessary to plan the cooperation with the local government carefully and wisely, in order to make the change in the community significant and sustainable. Thirdly, it is important to use the opportunities in which the results of the actions can be made visible to the public, media and decision makers. And the most importantly, these actions should not be undertaken exclusively for the members of Roma communities, but in partnership with them, especially in terms of distribution of power and roles in the implementation.
The most striking thing for me during the visit to the Roma settlement in the Telechiu village was precisely the level of trust by the members of the community towards the people from Ruhama foundation, which was evident in the way of communicating, level of self-esteem and satisfaction with the services provided in the center. This was clearly visible at the meeting with the mothers from Telechiu, who were ready to talk openly and honestly with us about the experiences of collaboration with Ruhama, as well as about the aspects that they are proud of or that make them sad. When Lia, mother of 4-year old twins, Rafi and Rebeka, told her story about the conditions that her children were born in, comparing it to the conditions that they live in now, one just could not keep the professional distance, but one could feel the ‘professional closeness’ as a kind of involvement that, in my opinion, any activist, education specialist or other professional in the field of education and social inclusion should foster.
Professional closeness brings me to the general feeling of failure of changing the system that each of us must have felt at some point, and to the issue of the meaningfulness of one’s work. After the visit I started to think more intensively about the fact that there are little jobs that can have more meaning than job of teacher. As anthropologist David Graeber writes in his essay Bullshit jobs (available at http://www.strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/ ) „ (…) what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) (…)“
I would add that there are even fewer meaningful jobs than the job of teacher working with Romani children. These teachers have the potential to provide Romani children with the skills that increase their chances for transforming their own position. And this is why it is important to keep in mind that the excellent teachers and the best education are precisely what Romani children need, even though it is not what they always get. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the teachers working in schools or class departments with prevalently Romani students do not see the strengths, the opportunities and the potential that their position brings. Sometimes I have a chance to meet teachers that present themselves as “Romani teachers”, which means that they teach in Roma classes. They say it in such a way that it seems to me that low self-esteem of members of a group which was oppressed regardless of spatial and temporal categories, enslaved or sent to the concentration camps, and later on systematically isolated, impoverished and controlled, is contagious – that even those that do not directly belong to this group, but work with them, feel less valuable because of it. Paradoxically, their power is much greater – possibility of influencing positively the outcomes of the described situation of Romani children makes Romani teacher a privilege, a title, and not a pejorative.
These are the thoughts that I remained with after this experience, which was conducted by Daniela Tutos and Marian Daragiu, representatives Ruhama Foundation, with the incredible dedication and patience. They were always emphasizing that they would like to show the participants not only the good practices and successes, but also, as they called it themselves, failures and challenges in their work. And one of the biggest challenges which remain is making the integration a two-way process. It means including the majority, or as we are inconveniently called – the non-Romani – into the process of change. I have the impression that this is the only way to produce the systemic change, which will, hopefully, open the path to the change of system.