Community, legitimacy and activism

12 July 2019

By Tefik Mahmut

Have you ever wondered, if you as a Romani activist, or the organization you represent has the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the Roma community?  Despite the fact that the boundaries of this community have not been clearly defined; and despite the fact that its members may perceive or define these boundaries differently, we regularly deploy the term ‘Roma community’ to describe and justify our work as activists.   

One could legitimately ask what constitutes a community, what are its elements and whether these elements parallel the ones that we think constitute our Romani community? What defines us as a community? What unites us accordingly, and why this is pertinent to our (NGO) work? 

‘Community’ is widely understood as a socially-constructed unit of members that share common characteristics, and is perceived or perceives itself to be distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists, albeit, what constitutes ‘common characteristics’ for one person is not necessarily the same for the next in our Romani circle, so let’s see what the literature has to say about ‘common characteristics’.    

Nina Simon in The Art of Resilience, explores the concept of ‘common characteristics’ and concludes that a particular community should be identified by the “shared attributes of the members in it”.  In her theoretical framework, she incorporates four common characteristics or elements by which a particular community can be identified. The place where members were born, live or work – a sense of a place that is situated in a given geographical area or in a virtual space through communication platforms. The members’ shared identity – this abstract term may be externally assigned or internally defined; the former is linked to socially-contracted concepts such as race, ethnicity, nationality, and the latter alludes to sexual belonging or religion for instance. Furthermore, she incorporates affinity – something people like to do together, and affiliation – values hold in common, roles in organizations or professions – as additional elements that constitute a certain community. Other elements identified by communitarians as key to creating and sustaining a community include notions of a ‘shared history’, ‘a particular culture’ or ‘common attitudes and goals’.  

Given the gravity of the aforementioned ‘common characteristic’ or elements that constitute a community, one could argue that while we share the same ethnic belonging as an externally attributed identity, we may not share the same internally defined identity (religion, sexual belonging etc.), or in a similar vein while we may share the ‘same history’, we do not share the same ‘goals and attitudes’, and while some of us claim to share a ‘particular and shared culture’, many others dispute what is shared or particular, and do not feel bound by the collective.

We must be mindful and alert to such presumptions about ‘community’ before we embark upon any community engagement-type activities. We need to constantly remind ourselves of these dilemmas throughout our engagement with members of diverse Romani communities. This could help us build stronger relationships with our communities, and subsequently enhance our NGO work which could ultimately help us become more effective in ameliorating the human rights situation on the ground as our overall goal. 

Saul D. Alinsky in his Reveille for Radicals rightly argued that “the first stage in the building of a People’s Organization is the understanding of the life of a community”; do we as Romani activists possess ‘the understanding of the life’ of our Romani communities? Are we the same ‘activists’ as we used to be before we flew out of our Romani mahalas? Do we possess the same understanding as we did, before we ‘emigrated’ (educationally, professionally and otherwise) from our Romani mahalas? And where does our ‘competence’ to build a People’s Organization, or fight for and on behalf of Roma come from? 

The ethnic dimensions of our identity do not, and should not determine our competences in the Romani struggle, there should be more to it than that. In other words, being Roma does not make us de facto experts in fighting for or on behalf of Roma. There should be more to it than that, preeminently when we are dealing with community members at the grass-roots level. The way I see it, we should fight with them, not for or on behalf of them, because at the end of the day, we are ‘them’ and just because we are ‘them’ does not give us the competence, nor the right to impose ourselves as experts or leaders among them. We might be, or we could be, but not without them and their involvement in the process, as namely has been the practice hitherto. Obviously we can not incorporate all of them as community members into the process, but nonetheless, we can focus less on drafting strategies in fancy avenues, and focus more on visiting Romani mahalas and addressing their community needs that should be drafted with them, by them, for them.

There is not a degree, nor a research that could parallel the understanding of the life of Roma, unless you have been living among them, working with them and for them. Most of us, as Romani activists do possess this understanding, but lately we have been using our degrees or this ‘understanding’ as a one-way ticket to fly out of our mahalas, rather than to remain there and use it as a tool to fight with them, not on behalf of them. 

Let us talk about the relationships among us, as community members, before talking about the relationships with ‘the gadje others’; let us know ourselves better, before articulating our needs and operationalizing our demands to those ‘others’; and let us be who we truly are, a divergent community that due to its divergent character should not be defined by an essentialist notion of ‘a particular culture’, but rather a community that should be united by collective ‘attitudes and goals’ articulated and rearticulated by us through a collective deliberation among us, and put into action to further the liberation for all of us


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