The time for young Roma

by Ramón Flores

On 21 April, during the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the manual “Mirrors”, the first on human rights prepared by the Council of Europe in combating Romaphobia – racism and discrimination against Gypsies – was presented in Strasbourg in collaboration with the European Youth Forum Roma (FERYP) and other Gypsy organisations and professionals.

This has been a big step, because it is a manual prepared by young people for young people, where they share techniques and methods to combat Romaphobia from a different perspective. This perspective must be intercultural, since the fight against racism is not just a matter for “Romani activists” but for all people living in society.

In this regard it is worth questioning what role young Roma and youth organisations should play in combating the Romaphobia and anti-Romani feelings that are flourishing in Europe with increasing frequency. Often, and especially in Spain, we detect an “accommodation” of Roma civil society.

And when referring to this accommodation, we do so based on a comparison of Roma social movements from many parts of Europe. A new way of working, thinking and acting is needed to adapt to the new “wave of vandalism against Roma” taking place across Europe.

It is time to ask a simple question. What are the factors that explain the role of youth as advocates for change in Roma communities?

Despite being the clear leaders and visible faces of Roma movements, young people generally have less power than adults or the elderly in any political or social system, especially in Roma communities. Moreover, these movements arise through widespread, decentralised popular participation. While we may assume that “the Gypsy youth movement” represents a homogeneous group, not all young people are the same, and for today’s European Romani societies youth movements represent an array of different interests and goals. This puts Roma youth movements at a great disadvantage, as they compete against well-established institutions in regards to the future of their communities.

Unfortunately, yet predictably, this form of social intervention, where the voices of young Roma are prominent, does not have the same professional level compared to other Roma community movements that are older and more experienced. However the Roma youth movements have clearly emerged as a visible and meaningful way to involve those belonging to one of society’s least favoured groups.

Existing opportunities to develop comprehensive approaches originating not only from within communities but often externally are key components for the advancement of policies and projects for young Roma. They also help to emphasise the roles of young people in the social, cultural and economic development of Roma communities.

It is with respect to these areas that we should reflect on the best way to work and especially in which areas we need to define achievable and realistic goals. Beyond the exaggerated, unfounded and misplaced criticisms aimed at Roma social movements in Spain, we need to define strategies based not on welfarism but on participation. In other words, we should avoid flaunting poverty to our own benefit and advancement, opting instead to use students as young leaders to advance and enhance the visibility of the true reality of Roma communities.

When mainstream society thinks of the Roma community, they automatically think of poverty, exclusion and marginalisation. This is where the key to youth involvement in all spheres of civil society lies. We need to change the focus and avoid feeding and exploiting the “bad side” of Roma communities. Now is the time for us to stop promoting such images imposed from the outside which feed the vicious circle of Roma poverty that exists because of policies based on welfarism. Welfarism continues to exist because policies encourage it.

It is clear that we cannot deny reality. But reality also shows us that more and more young Roma have training and are ready to take decisive roles not only to “eliminate racism” but to normalise our inclusion and interaction within increasingly multicultural societies.

From this modest venue provided by the Virtual Museum, I would like to reach out to young Roma, students and workers and encourage them to take a step forward and lead the process of normalisation through the promotion of multiculturalism. They should not wait for “the associations” to take the lead and develop projects. Each and every one of us, from our respective positions and points of view, should raise our own voice and claim centre stage. We will never get a better chance than we have now. The time has come. That time is now.