Desegregation and Organization DROM: An interview with Bernard Rorke

21 March 2022

More than twenty years after the launch of the Vidin Model in Bulgaria, Organization DROM caught up with ERRC Advocacy Manager Bernard Rorke, to talk about DROM’s role in school desegregation of Romani pupils across Europe. 

DROM: When and how did you meet Organization Drom and Donka Panayotova, what first impressed you?

Bernard Rorke (BR): More than twenty years have passed since I met with Donka and her colleagues in Organization Drom. I remember what impressed me was the professionalism and commitment of the team at Drom; as for Donka I was struck by her determination and vision, her charisma and ability to lead, and her capacity to make change happen around an issue that was always close to my heart – school desegregation. 

DROM: You were Deputy Director of the Open Society’s Roma Participation Program. Wasn't the educational desegregation project proposal of Organization Drom a bit out of the focus of the Foundation at that time?

BR: RPP and the ERRC sought to combine strategic litigation with community-based mobilisation to fundamentally challenge what we considered the institutional obscenity of racial segregation; we wanted to break the silence around the scandalous and systemic discrimination that denied Romani pupils their fundamental right to education. The project proposal from Drom combined the ideals of a civil rights movement with the kind of attention to practical detail to create an ‘actually existing model of desegregation’, and set the scene for wider mobilization around the issue. 

This marked a wonderful departure from the typical projects around Roma education, where fortunes were spent in pursuit of gradual, incremental, ‘step-by-step-by-step’ improvement of conditions and outcomes within segregated systems, approaches that neither changed nor challenged what is now belatedly recognised by the European Union as institutional discrimination.

DROM: As a member of the management of a funding institution and as an expert, did you think that the educational desegregation project of Organization Drom organization was too ambitious?

BR: I certainly would not have called myself an expert back in the late 1990s; and twenty-five years on I am still allergic to the idea that I am any kind of expert! The Drom desegregation plan was indeed ambitious, it reset the agenda, and put the rights of the child first, it changed the conversation about access to education for Roma, it transformed what passes for ‘common sense’, and stressed the system by revealing what had been hitherto accepted as normal for what it really was – racist segregation. That was what was inspiring about the Drom project which, within a couple of years, came to be known all over Europe as the ‘Vidin model’.

DROM: You have visited Vidin several times, as well as other desegregation projects. Is there anything that impressed you very much and that you will not forget?

BR: What I won’t forget is the feeling of elation, riding one yellow bus from the mahala to the school, and seeing the schoolyard thronged with eager schoolkids, Roma and non-Roma, playing together and ready to learn together. Knowing how much preparation was involved; how much advocacy, persuasion and sheer effort RPP Director Rumyan Russinov had invested; and how much painstaking work Donka and the Drom team put in with authorities, teachers and parents to make this possible – to witness the reality of it at the beginning of an ordinary school day gave me a fleeting glimpse of what a Europe beyond racism might look like.

DROM: Were there any educational projects in the Open Society that had been implemented up to that time that conflicted with desegregation?

BR: The Open Society was by definition a pluralist enterprise, comprised of a variegated network of organizations, foundations, programs and special initiatives, united by a loosely-defined but firm commitment to justice, democratic governance, and human rights, and a mission to help build inclusive and vibrant democracies. So of course, there were differing and at times conflicting notions about what constitutes the public good. 

Across Europe, it was OSI that took the lead in insisting that only Roma can emancipate themselves, and that Roma must take a leading role in the design, implementation, and monitoring of policy interventions that impact upon their lives; and OSI leadership that backed the first Roma-led, rights and community-based mobilisation around school desegregation. 

Within OSI, the agreed position was that all Roma-related education programs would be guided by a commitment to school desegregation and the promotion of equal access to quality integrated education for Roma. No future funding would go to projects working within segregated schools that maintained the delivery of separate and forever unequal education for Romani children.

DROM: Do you think that the European Union and the international community have the capacity and the will to have positive policies on the Roma issue in the near future?

BR: The EU recently launched its Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation for 2020 – 2030, which comes with a clear message that anti-Roma racism, segregation and institutional discrimination must end. The EU-level commitment is clear, if at times overly-cautious in how it interprets its competences.

Back in the early 2000s, faux-liberals cautioned us and other activists against being too ‘confrontational’ or even using the word ‘desegregation’; now the demand to end racial segregation of Romani pupils in schools is now part of the mainstream European policy agenda; it figures prominently in every communication from the European Commission, and has been vindicated repeatedly in the European Court of Human Rights; and is the subject of ongoing EU infringements against three Member States.

So, rather than focus on the European institutions, it is the Member States that need to be taken to task, that continue to oppress their Romani citizens; and it is national governments that need to step up, and certain leaders need to behave less like racist thugs and more like democrats, as they are primarily responsible for the rights and well-being of all of their citizens and others who reside within their borders. 

There are piles of recommendations on every conceivable policy area to do with Roma inclusion, there is no shortage of EU funding for ‘explicit but not exclusive’ interventions to address the socio-economic exclusion of Roma. However, we can’t wait for policies to fall into place, we need to close the gap between what is and what ought to be; we must continue to struggle, for racists must never prevail; and we must always hope and fight for a better future, especially in those EU Member States, where corruption, racism and contempt for the rule of law corrodes all that is liberal and egalitarian in our democracies.  

Note: This text has been edited for brevity, and this version of the interview is reprinted with the kind permission of Organization DROM. The full text and more information on DROM and desegregation is available on its website:



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