Five years ago, the phone rang and distracted my attention for a couple of minutes from the worrying news I was getting from my country. Feeling indifferent and empty inside from the scenes of violence and disorder that had been filling my days for almost a month, I heard the voice of my friend inviting me to do some work for the European Roma Rights Center. "European what?", I asked. "It's an organisation which deals with Roma/Gypsies," she told me. Motivated from sheer curiosity, the next day I wandered the streets of Budapest, trying to find Gyulai Pál utca and this organisation. A couple of months later, I was sitting in the ERRC's office, observing the unfamiliar faces, who would later become my friends and colleagues, but more importantly, a permanent source of inspiration and stimulation in my life.
I have gained enough distance in these years to permit myself an appraisal of the time I've spent and lessons I have learned at the ERRC. I've learned that Roma rights is not an issue that can be solved overnight. It is an issue that will continue to perplex us for a long time. The effect of systemic racism has caused and maintains high rates of poverty among Roma, unequal access to quality education, jobs and housing, and a blatantly discriminatory criminal justice system. Society nowadays blames Roma themselves for their difficult situation, labelling them as inferior. The ERRC tries to address these issues, has established allegiances with ongoing public interest groups that have ties to the Romani community, and have pursued these issues through litigation. I have also learned how traditional legal action might complement and encourage – not replace – community activism and political involvement. Put simply, an exclusive focus on litigation will not accomplish fully the desired objective.
I must confess that my experience at the ERRC as a lawyer has indelibly informed my thinking on lawyering for social change. Even if I wanted to, it would be extremely difficult to change the path I've embarked upon. I have come to realise what progressive lawyers have to learn in order to address the great justice challenge – and opportunity – of the new millennium: facing up to the full scope of race issues, and thereby moving our lawyering practices closer to our strongest theoretical visions of democracy.