A New Source of Power for Europe’s Roma By Mensur Haliti, Division Director at the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office

A young boy holds a Roma flag during a demonstration in the northeastern town of Miskolc, Hungary, on October 17, 2012. © Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty

For more than a decade, the Open Society Foundations have been supporting the emergence of a new generation of Roma to lead transformative change for their communities. Today there are more Roma university graduates than ever before, and never before have there been more training opportunities for them. There has not been, however, a fully corresponding increase in the power and impact of Roma leadership. We Roma, therefore, need to ask ourselves: how can we build on this unprecedented opportunity and enable this invaluable leadership resource to become a future power source for Roma in Europe?

In 2005, we were a pioneer in supporting young Roma through the Roma Access Programs at Central European University and through an internship program for Roma at the European Commission. Since then, Open Society has supported more than 13,000 scholarships to Roma students through the Roma Education Fund, more than 300 Roma graduates through the Roma Access Programs, more than 300 internships at European institutions, more than 300 leadership development opportunities through our Barvalipe Schools, and more than 200 fellowships to advance new ideas for strengthening Roma leadership. Fortunately, others have also started to support opportunities for engaging Roma youth.
Despite these achievements, investment in higher education and training has not yet made a significant impact on the strength and effectiveness of Roma leadership for two main reasons. First, the number of Roma university graduates is still relatively small, and increased opportunities for individuals have distracted them from public and political life. Second, the recent work of Open Society and others has shown that the trajectory from scholarship to public leadership does not happen through academic or non-formal training alone. It is essential to provide academic and leadership engagement opportunities that are aligned with each other and with the broader field.
A number of factors, however, shape the opportunities for young Roma to take on public leadership roles. Europe’s racist legacy and the exponential rise in populism, extremism, and terror against Roma communities deteriorates the sense of Roma identity. The general discourse is that Roma are problematic outsiders―not equals and not European—and even if they are European, they are somehow lesser Europeans. While this strengthens the determination of some young Roma to fight, it makes many young Roma feel pushed away. Furthermore, the political and intellectual elite are generally unwilling or incapable to recognize these realities, leaving extreme-right parties to flourish. As a consequence, many young Roma are fearful and less motivated to engage in sociopolitical life on behalf of their communities.
The sociocultural systems in Europe promote norms of success that lead to individualistic aspirations, and many young Roma are also affected by this culture. For those who come from Roma communities, the dominant culture of individualism often comes to replace a culture of compassion and personal, familial, and communal relations. But the existing systems of rewards, status, and influence are unfavorable to young Roma. This is accompanied by a great level of inequality in access to professional employment and the associated middle-class status. Therefore, regardless of their individual success, regardless of the degrees they have earned, they are typically perceived as not good enough and not accepted as equal participants in public and political life.
The current Roma leadership does realize the potential of young Roma, but it is not yet fully utilizing this potential. It faces the challenge of remaining resilient and forward-looking while trying to cope with significantly less supportive societal, political, and funding environments. Even when Roma leaders are willing and capable, they do not have the resources to recognize and nurture leadership among Roma university graduates. And there is almost no funding available to provide comprehensive leadership programs.

What can we do to change this?

Engage committed and talented Roma university graduates. We have to reach out to as many of our youth as possible, help them engage with their peers, and create shared experiences to unlock their leadership potential. We have to concentrate on those who care deeply about the issues that affect our communities, on those who have a desire for academic and leadership excellence, and on those who are willing to take the risk of leading transformative change for their communities.

Build a sense of collective purpose. We have to support every new generation of our young people in understanding how we became who we are today, in understanding that before we went to schools and universities, got jobs, and earned status, there were people who supported us and made sacrifices in order to make all this possible. Such knowledge can help every generation connect with and remain committed to their ancestors by becoming smarter and stronger in preserving our uniqueness, sustaining and developing our collective agency, and aspiring for more. This can also support those who are committed and willing to take on leadership roles in creating a narrative that builds on the historical achievements of the Roma leadership, shows their confidence in belonging to the Roma, and envisions a positive future for our communities.

Build leadership confidence. Instead of defining leaders as people in positions of formal authority, we should promote relational leadership. We have to create opportunities for the new generation to master five leadership abilities: 1) leading pro-Roma advocacy initiatives―negotiating and obtaining commitments from the main political and policy actors; 2) leading people—organizing peers and other citizens for collective action; 3) leading public opinion—using purposeful communication through traditional and digital strategies to construct positive perceptions of Roma, maintain supportive relationships among key publics, and support the collective advocacy efforts; 4) leading research and policy innovations—generating and using credible evidence that provides the most plausible policy assessments and policy solutions; and 5) leading and managing civic and political campaigns—deploying the most effective strategies and tactics for winning elections and campaigns that get results.

Build a community of support. We have to nurture cohorts of Roma youth, enlisting the most credible and effective Roma voices to support their development and engagement. This community of support should provide opportunities for our youth to experience and contribute to real political and policy processes; to engage with others who are established in the policy arena; to take up positions in Roma organizations, governments, think tanks, and international organizations; and to start new groups and movements.
We live at a time when much new energy is emerging among our young people. We should make use of this opportunity and support the collective aspirations of Roma youth to challenge the status quo. If we nurture new and courageous voices in a way that inspires others to join the collective fight, our power to bring about change for our communities will be greater than ever before.

Author: Mensur HalitiDivision director for the Roma Initiatives Office, responsible for the Roma and democracy and Roma governance areas of the office’s work.

Mensur Haliti, RIO OSF