Roma Rights and the Next Generation: Alone and Together

By Susan Lloyd McGarry

This spring semester Harvard FXB has sponsored or convened three events that brought students and Roma scholars together and suggested some possible future directions in the struggle for Roma rights and in Harvard FXB’s Roma research..

Alone Together: Strength and Solidarity Between the Roma and African American Communities—Harvard FXB’s Sixth Annual International Roma Day Event

On April 4, a few days before International Roma Day on April 8, Harvard FXB explored the wisdom that Roma and African American communities can offer each other and other oppressed people. Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies and the Harvard Kennedy School Office of Diversity and Inclusion joined in sponsoring the event.  FXB research director and Harvard Chan Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, Jacqueline Bhabha, moderated the discussion in which FXB Roma Program director, Margareta Matache, and Harvard Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Dr. Cornel West, each offered their perspectives from years of activism, engaging with each other and in lively discussion with those present. April 4 was also the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy shone throughout the event.

To start, Bhabha outlined how Harvard FXB’s research on Roma has a role in advocacy, but also aims to bring Roma issues into the wider conversation of how to think about stigma, discrimination, and inequality today.  Bhabha referred to the longstanding relationship between fighters for civil rights for Roma and for African Americans. Roma activists drew inspiration from the legal successes of the US civil rights movement and asked for advice. In 2016, Harvard FXB convened a conference examining reparation for state-sponsored and collective injustice, which included rich sharing between oppressed communities, including the African American community and the Roma [soon to be a volume from UPenn Press]. Bhabha foreshadowed Harvard FXB’s upcoming research:  exploring Roma global diaspora, with a focus on the Americas.

Dr. Margareta Matache spoke about the importance of International Roma Day as a time not only to remember the suffering of Roma in slavery, in the Holocaust, and in modern-day society, but also to lift up the cultural contribution and resistance of Roma. Rather than hearkening back to a distant culturally or historically significant date, April 8 commemorates the first international Roma Congress in London in 1971, which agreed to embrace the name “Roma” and repudiate the denigrating term “gypsy.” It also decided on the emblem of the Roma and its flag. The Congress brought together Roma from many different countries. They found a unity in their sorrow and in the common threads of their diversity.

After asking for a moment of silence in memory of Dr. King, Matache evoked King’s belief that there was no true peace without justice for all people—at the time of his death, he was in Memphis fighting for the rights of sanitation workers. Matache also cautioned that silence can be a betrayal—when there is injustice and we keep silent. With the advent of social media, ignorance can no longer be an excuse for inaction. Every day on social media we see instances of injustice. As black people continue to be disproportionately incarcerated, as Roma children continue to be shunted into special needs classes, as Rohingya face death and suffering in Myanmar, as Syrian children are gassed, we can no longer let activists fight for their communities by themselves. Matache argued that the systems and mechanisms of oppression operate similarly across borders and communities, but each community has had to fight them in isolation.

Matache asked how and when do we stand up for each other? And how can the oppressed move forward when the oppressors still hold the same twisted ideologies and power?  In the case of the Roma, for centuries in Europe, they have been viewed as violent and uncivilized people.  Like African Americans, they have experienced slavery, school segregation, and police abuse.

Drs. Matache, West, and Bhabha FXB Photo: Ben Leaman

Professor Cornel West began by invoking the solemnness of the day and Dr. King’s example of solidarity with suffering peoples throughout the world. Like the event in which we were gathered, Dr. King did not just speak of solidarity: he enacted it, embodied it. He understood the difficulty of living a life of integrity in this troubled world. He would have resisted reducing the Roma to the “Roma problem,” a problem to be solved in which their humanity is rendered invisible. Instead he would have understand what had happened to Roma in Europe as a series of catastrophes visited on them—as catastrophes had been visited on African Americans in the United States and on Jews in Europe. West explained that once you start talking of catastrophes rather than problems, you bring in history, you contextualize, and you pluralize. He said that allowed us to begin to understand that there is no one homogeneous Roma entity, but a diversity of spiritually and culturally rich Roma human beings, shaped by traditions, who in various national and imperialistic have had to cope on a human continuum.

When we talk about Roma-Black solidarity, he continued, we talk about what it means to take seriously those who choose to speak the truth and bear witness to justice—we learn from one another. This is a human affair, having to do with structural domination, formal oppression, and people who have become inured to injustice.  How do we fight against indifference? Dr. King was a warrior for love, believing that a Vietnamese baby or a Roma baby has the same value as an American baby. Professor West ended on a note of hope asking us to notice that the neo-Fascists stirrings in Hungary, Poland, the United States, Turkey Kenya, and elsewhere are connected to the awakenings that are taking place, which are the real legacy of Dr. King and include the rejection of any ideology that loses sight of our common humanity.

Dr. Cornel West listening FXB Photo: Ben Leaman

A lively conversation followed, with poignant questions about the conundrum of Roma in the United States: most Americans have no idea of who Roma are or the history of oppression Roma face.  Yet, as Dr. Matache said, Roma survive in the United States because they pass. But without visibility, how do you organize against Roma suffering?  Matache talked about the inspiration she has drawn from HKS’ Marshall Ganz and his ideas about organizing compared to mobilizing: she sees the next step as Roma organizing together for unity in resistance. Audience members and panelists raised the role of arts in struggles against oppression: “Blues are the expression of a personal experience of catastrophe—that same feeling is in Roma music,” with Cornel West continuing, “The arts have to be at the center of freedom struggles: they provide alternate realities, visions.” Again and again we were reminded that we each need to resist the dehumanization of black people, Roma people, and all oppressed people.

Some Highlights of the Event From the Next Generation

Dr. Matache expressed the need for awareness and greater activism in the name of justice. She stressed that today we cannot simply rely on social activists and policy makers to carry the weight of the cause: each of us must be motivated.

Dr. Cornel West expanded on Dr. Matache’s points by declaring that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy should not be one of remembrance, but activism, and that an indifference to evil is arguably more detrimental than the evil itself.

This year’s Alone Together panel embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spirit of passion, hope, and love. Both Dr. Matache and Dr. West discussed the need for marginalized groups to come together in solidarity in their pursuit of justice. Moreover, through solidarity and cooperation, advocates for the Roma and African-Americans can learn from, and educate each other.
John Anusavice, human rights activist and senior at Saint John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts

Watch the video of the panel (well-worth watching, this write-up can only give a taste of the event).
Learn more about the FXB Roma Program.
Read the op-ed in the Guardian by Drs. Matache and West.

Roma Children and School Segregation

Prof. Iulius Rosta, Jacqueline Bhabha (speaking), Tatiana Peric Photo: Aditi Hazra

In early March at the student-led European Conference 2018, FXB research director Professor Jacqueline Bhabha guided the morning session “The Rights of the Roma Child: The Struggle to Combat School Segregation in the European Union (EU).” Tatjana Peric from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Professor Iulius Rostas from the Central European University in Budapest joined her in a discussion of prime importance to the next generation of Roma: the ongoing policy challenge of structural school segregation and discrimination against Roma youth within the European Union (EU) education system.

Peric (Deputy Chief of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues), Rostas (CEU’s Chair of Romani Studies), and Bhabha examined the role of the EU and national and local governments as engines of both stasis and change in relation to school segregation. The panel reviewed the acute (and acknowledged) failure of EU Roma policies to date: as a result of the pervasive discrimination and marginalization Roma children face in schools, half of all Roma students in the EU do not complete primary education, and most do not complete secondary or tertiary education. The speakers also highlighted some good practice projects and possible policy changes.

Read about the FXB Roma Program research in Serbia on educational hardships of Roma youth in partnership with Center for Interactive Pedagogy.

 “Breathe in Hope”: Roma Rights, Human Rights

(portions of this section taken from the organizing committee report)

Panelists for “Shared Action across Human Rights Issues”: Khadiyah Tribble, Margareta Matache, Charles Prouse, Karlene Griffiths Sekou, Suraj Yende Photo: Luiz Sampaio

In late January with many other organizations, Harvard FXB cosponsored the inaugural Harvard student-led human rights symposium at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS).  Human Rights: Adapting to the Challenges of Our Times allowed activists, scholars, and students to discuss the common challenges facing human rights movements across the globe, along with the potential for new alliances.

The day began with remarks from Doug Johnson [HKS lecturer, longtime director of the Center for Victims of Torture, and an organizer of the Nestle formula boycott], who memorably reminded us that despite the focus on challenges, the key role of an activist was to “breathe in hope, and exhale it to others.”
Human Rights Symposium 2018 Organizing Committee

Before the event even began, we “breathed in hope”:  there was such a demand for this opportunity to share ideas on human rights challenges among scholars and communities that tickets disappeared a week in advance. Inspiration and food for thought continued to nourish throughout the day.

“Shared Action across Human Rights Issues – Solidarities and Coalitions,” the last panel of the day, featured activists tackling issues in their communities: Dalit rights in India, Black Lives Matter and Native American struggles in the US, indigenous rights in Australia, and Harvard FXB’s Margareta Matache on Roma issues in Europe. The inspiring dialogue among these leaders included the reminder by Karlene Griffiths Sekou of Black Lives Matter Boston that solidarity with another’s struggle should be a reaffirmation of one’s own humanity, not the impulse to “help” an “other.” Charles Prouse, an indigenous Australian advocate, pointed out the complexity of human rights work: it encompasses multiple issue in which the same person can be both victim and perpetrator.

Matache was one of the student organizers for the event. This year she is a Mallinckrodt Fellow in the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration at HKS, while still continuing as the director of the FXB Roma Program.

…New tactics and coalitions can only occur if spaces are made for the exchange of knowledge…. We hope you will join us in continuing this annual event next year.
Human Rights Symposium 2018 Organizing Committee (in photo below)

Back row: Mia Ozegovic, Mayuri Anupindi, Bethany Ellis, Santiago Mueckay, Ha Ryong Jung (Michael), Luiz Sampaio; Front row: Margareta Matache, Ana Galli;  Not in Picture: Mukul Saxena, Alek Suni  Photo: Luiz Sampaio

Read the blog on the symposium at Human Rights@Harvard Law.
Go to the video of the program or look at the program website.
Read an interview with Matache at HKS.


The intellectual quality and the level of engagement in these three events, particularly among young people, offer hope for the future—hope for a revitalized commitment to justice and respect for every human being in today’s challenging times.

Susan Lloyd McGarry is a senior writer with Harvard FXB.