For 20 Years, the ERRC Was a Predominantly White Institution. Now What?

22 August 2017

By Adam Weiss

I am white and I have an important job with a lot of authority at the ERRC. That’s not uncommon in the ERRC’s history. What’s unusual, these days, is that someone like me is not running the place: Ethel Brooks is our Board’s first Romani and woman Chair, and Ðorđe Jovanović, our President, is an openly gay Romani man.

For its first 20 years, the ERRC mostly had non-Roma executive directors, non-Roma board chairs, non-Roma managers, and non-Roma staff. Ethel and Ðorđe took their positions at the beginning of 2016. A few months ago, for the first time in its history, the ERRC’s staff became majority-Roma.

Until then, the ERRC was a PWI. That phrase – “predominantly white institution” – is used in America to describe most universities. There are very obvious differences between historically white colleges in the USA and a medium-sized European NGO with a short history; but I think PWI is a helpful term to describe what the ERRC was when I arrived four years ago. It captures the feel of the place at the time. Although the ERRC’s first Romani Executive Director was running the organisation then, the Board Chair was not Romani and Roma made up less than a fifth of the employees. The rest of the management team (including me) was white. There was something about the place that felt elite to me, even if most people there would have shunned the term. “Lawyer” was (and remains) the most common job title and litigation held (and holds) pride of place among the ERRC’s activities. None of the organisation’s lawyers were Romani, nor was its legal director (me); we had two Romani legal trainees. The ERRC had grown used to criticism about elite lawyering and lack of connections to Romani communities. An academic article by an outside lawyer explicitly mentions a case we brought in the late 1990s which resulted in victory before a UN body but no follow up on the ground: “I subsequently contacted the international organization and asked it to step in and provide legal assistance to Romani families,” the author says, “but I got a response that the problem had been sufficiently addressed in the international forum in 1999 and was not of interest to the organization anymore”. Ouch. Many important (and sometimes heated) discussions involving work to advance Roma rights took place without any Roma in the room during my first years at the ERRC.

What does a mix of non-Roma and Romani staff bring to the organisation? Most of us who are non-Roma and working at the ERRC are what I would call “career justice workers”. We have a strong social justice ethic (in my case anti-racist and committed to the rule of law). We care deeply about our work. Yet most of us, if we leave, could go to work with another group or cause to fulfil our personal sense of mission. My Romani colleagues talk about the work differently and I imagine feel it differently. From what they tell me, I think they are expected (or feel obligated) to tell family members and Romani friends what they are doing and why, and show it is making a difference. In any event it is clear that the boundaries between personal and professional are less clear; many have been treated very badly in ways similar to how people we are working with have been treated. When they meet with litigants or NGO partners they share what is visibly a different kind of connection. A recent case is telling. A situation testing exercise we set up yielded solid evidence of discrimination we can take to court. I saw an unequivocal victory, where my Romani colleague who made it happen saw success tinged with frustration, sadness, and anger, balanced with a fiercer determination to fight.

This simplistic breakdown between Romani and non-Roma colleagues does not take into account those non-Roma with Romani family, or members of other ethnic minority groups who work at the ERRC. But I think these differences are real, and as the racial makeup of the organisation changes, they will be felt. Our equal opportunities policy imagines Roma and non-Roma working side-by-side to battle antigypsyism, and now we are there much more than before.

So? Here are some of the changes I have noticed over between now and four years ago, although it would be impossible for me to say if they are the result of more Romani representation in the organisation, or a cause of this change, or if something else is going on:

  • We are more productive. I look after the ERRC’s strategic litigation practice and there is far more going on than when I arrived. I think that is good but some might disagree; there are far fewer conversations about framing a case that meets an abstract definition of “strategic”, and more on getting a solid result in court. Other work also gets done quickly, evidenced in part by the fact that we are running through our programme budgets much, much faster.
  • Everything is more results-oriented. It is impossible to imagine the ERRC publishing a report now that was not evidence in a concrete court case or closely linked to a specific advocacy campaign, for example.
  • We have fewer and shorter meetings. A week after I arrived in August 2013, one (non-Roma) colleague told me that the place should be called the European Roma Meeting Centre. He wasn’t kidding. It was exhausting. My solution to the dizzying array of meetings was to insist we take minutes and do follow up, which also did not work. Fortunately for everyone, we’ve moved organically to a much different and better situation.
  • The office is a nicer place to work. That’s true for me, at least, for the reasons above, and in a thousand other ways.

This blog is, itself, vulnerable to criticism that it is an exercise of white privilege. But racial equality starts at home, and the ERRC has seen a big shift in the past year and a half. We should talk about what that means to all of us. 

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