Sites of Resistance: The Roma, Gypsies and Travellers in the Community

By Andrew Ryder

Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities are among the most marginalised groups in European society. Their struggle for social justice is vitally important, being as former Czech President Vaclav Havel said back in 1993, the litmuss test of civil society in Europe, a reflection of our commitment to human rights and humanity.

A central engine of civil society is the third sector (community organisations), which for the Roma as with other communities come in many shapes and forms. Some are localised whilst others are national and international, each with its own strategic focus. Some provide services and mediation, some focus on advocacy whilst some fuse the two. It has been my priviledge to work with groups like the Gypsy Council, Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition, The Traveller Movement, European Roma Rights Centre and Roma Education Fund.

There are critics who denounce Roma community groups as being part of a ’Gypsy Industry’ that is dominated by non community members that exclude Roma from decision making processes. As noted I have worked within and with a wide range of Roma and Traveller organisations in the UK and across Europe and one of the issues I consider in my book ’Sites of Resistance’ is the value of community organisations. It is true that there have been times when Roma and Traveller civil society has lapsed into managerialism, where advocacy seems to be coralled and stifled by hierarchical management, in contrast to the vibrancy of what appears to be unfettered grassroots activism. However, the realities of funding and large projects entail bureaucracy and this can sometimes be an impediment to community involvement in what we term as ’community development’, even when it is well educated Roma who are leading the project. A problem of disconnection is a perennial one in Roma and Traveller civil society. Do managed projects lead to Roma and Traveller communities becoming estranged by managerialism from initiatives designed ostensibly to help and even empower them?

Inclusive community development envisages civil society providing an important training ground for community members, which helps prepare them for leadership roles. But the complexity and technical skills required for such positions does not mean we can always automatically place the community on the highest rung of a symbolic ladder of participation, given the technical skills advocacy requires and the confidence needed by the marginalized to speak in what for some might be new and strange forums. It is more useful to envisage forms of scaffolding rather than a sequential ladder of participation with different starting points and trajectories, depending on individual needs, but which lead ultimately to community empowerment. The value of the diversity of Roma civil society is that it can allow for such starting points and opportunities for progression. I have seen activists start out at a local level in informal family-based advocacy networks and then take up paid positions within formal NGOs, developing and mixing the skills acquired with their first-hand knowledge of their communities. Some have assumed leading positions in NGOs.

In Sites of Resistance a key focus of interest is the progression of such activists to prominent community roles. I describe for example how Travellers living on unauthorised developments (caravan sites without planning permission) became locked in bitter planning battles with local authorities and the establishment, as they were forced to buy land, move onto it and develop a home without initial planning permission because of the recalcitrance of the policy makers and the lack of clear policy frameworks to facilitate traditional Traveller lifestyles. In these contests to get planning permission for unauthorised developments, Travellers with little or no formal education find themselves locked in a battle of ‘David and Goliath’ proportions with councils, the wider community and media, all intent on thwarting the authorisation of such sites. In these bitter contests families are branded as ‘law breakers’. Perhaps what is most distressing is to see local children copy the behaviour of their parents and taunt and bully Traveller children in the local school.  Thus, Traveller children face not only the fear of losing their homes but become pariahs and outcasts in an environment where they should feel safe.

Realising that the future well-being of their family depends on getting planning permission granted, meaning access to school and health care and the avoidance of constant roadside eviction, Travellers on these sites often come forward and step up to the challenge. I have seen Traveller residents, often with little education or experience of representation, speak to the media and at hostile public meetings and help marshal the arguments together to be presented in complex planning hearings and court cases and liaise and interact with a range of officials and groups they have seldom dealt with before. In such work I often saw Traveller women come to the fore, maybe because they had slightly more education than their partners, or maybe because they were more accustomed with dealing with centres of authority like school. Not only did these women have to rise to the demands of bitter legal and political battles but they also had to hold the family together in what could be protracted disputes where the threat of eviction hung over their family’s head for years. I was privileged to support these Travellers and help them to help not only themselves but also the wider Traveller community, by fusing their struggles into a national campaign to lobby the Government for more Traveller sites, and go on to become effective leaders in that campaign.

These Traveller activists can be described as ‘organic intellectuals’, a term Gramsci coined to describe community leaders whose perceptions of societal injustices spring organically from their marginalized condition. But civil society, informal and formal, has played a central role in helping these organic intellectual advocates gain experience and guidance and has given them emotional support. The book ‘Sites of Resistance’ is a case study of empowerment which illustrates a crucial matter: if we are to achieve transformative change, fundamental and radical change, not just for the benefit of Roma and Travellers but all of those at the margins we need organic intellectuals, for we cannot rely solely on the professional and well-educated leadership of outsiders nor only on the Roma and Travellers who achieve mainstream cultural capital through formal education. Such a vision of inclusive community development is asset-based, it builds on existing skills and cultural practices, is community-driven but also upskilling. It is a form of mobilization which aspires to utilize grassroots support and involvement and is centred upon a community’s concerns and uses these as the building blocks for organization.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller civil society is a relatively new phenomenon. The Gypsy Council was formed just over 50 years ago in 1966 but it is probably only in the last 30 years or so that we have witnessed the development of more formal NGOs that have staff deployed in this sector. Austerity, authoritarian attacks and subversion, has taken a heavy toll on civil society organisations, including those which represent Roma and Travellers but in Sites of Resistance I seek to celebrate what has been achieved, by the community members and outsiders. I believe Roma and Traveller civil society is far more established, stronger and experienced than it was 30 years ago and could and should operate as an invaluable partner for policymakers in introducing a radical programme of empowerment and inclusion for these communities. I have always believed, and believe still, that Roma and Traveller NGOs can be important agents of change and be a central part of the struggle to pass the litmus test of a civil society.

Sites of Resistance: Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in school, community and the academy is published by Trentham Press/Institute of Education University College London. For more information see: http://bit.ly/2AfHm1F.

donate now

Challenge discrimination, promote equality

be informed

Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal

news portal

The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Become a part of the ERRC's activist network in Europe