International Roma Day: The History of the FXB Center’s Roma Program

This year marks the eighth anniversary of the Roma Program at Harvard University. Conceived and built by the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard, the Program has become a leading focal point for Roma scholarship, convening and advocacy in North America and beyond. A key aspect of this, by tradition, is the Roma Program’s annual international conference to mark April 8, International Roma Day. This year, for the first time, because of the university shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference has been postponed. But we mark the important anniversary regardless – on this occasion via this retrospective blog. What is the Roma Program’s history, in brief, and what are its signal achievements?

Ten years ago, Jacqueline Bhabha and Arlan Fuller, FXB Center Director of Research and then Executive Director respectively, visited key centers of Roma research and advocacy in Europe to explore opportunities for collaborative work with Romani colleagues. A central concern was their interest in developing participatory approaches to Roma-related research, shaped by and with Roma scholars and activists. That trip planted the seeds of the Roma Program, jointly shaped by Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, and Dr. Margareta Matache, who has led the program for the last eight years.

Let us start with the annual conference. Over the years, this international convening at Harvard University has served as a platform for launching new topics in Romani scholarship, bringing Roma-related concerns to the attention of Harvard scholars and American researchers more generally, and amplifying the voices of leading and emerging Romani scholars, activists, and leaders. Conference topics have included anti-Roma racism in Europe, the emerging field of critical Romani studies, reparations for state-sponsored injustices, and the global Romani diaspora. Speakers, panelists, and discussants from all over the world have participated, bringing together eminent social scientists, with politicians, performing artists, NGO leaders, and young scholars, many of them Roma.

An additional trademark of the Harvard Roma Program is its dynamic research productivity: the Program has spearheaded two volumes – Realizing Roma Rights and Time for reparation? Addressing state responsibility for collective injustice  – and a significant corpus of peer-reviewed articles, as well as reports, policy commentaries and other publications.

Reflecting on the Program’s activities, the following emerge as highlights.

First, the Roma Program has pioneered participatory action research with Romani communities and individuals in Europe. This methodology challenges conventional Roma-related research, replacing the dominant top-down approach, with its paternalistic bias and focus on Roma victimhood and “vulnerability” with an emphasis on Roma’s lived experience of  pervasive discrimination and its impact on Roma access to justice and human rights. The Roma Program’s Reclaiming Adolescence project in Serbia assisted Romani youths and their communities in leading a self-directed research study about Roma educational and career circumstances and challenges. The study yielded a rich data set on Roma experiences of discrimination in educational encounters and their impact on school achievement and future career aspirations. The study documented in detail the varied contexts driving Romani ado­lescents to became less confi­dent about their desired careers, re-shaping their expectations to accommodate the racist environments that dominate their life chances.

Second, the Roma Program has been challenging the racecraft that perpetuates the notion of an “inferior” Roma culture that drives a purported lack of “appreciation” of education among Roma families. The Reclaiming Adolescence study shows, by contrast, that Romani parents place a strong value on their children’s education, in spite of the racist encounters that make the schooling experience too painful to tolerate. Building on the findings in Reclaiming Adolescence, a second research project, One in a Hundred, shed light on the triggers of higher aspirations, success, and resilience in the case of the one percent Roma youths who make it to college. The study found that an oppressive environment of persistent stigma, stereotyping, and explicit racism affects Romani college students too, as the long shadow of oppression stretches from the students’ earliest encounters with the educational system. This second important study highlights the ways in which  non-Roma peers and teachers are critical influences in  Romani youths’ lives, whether as perpetrators of discrimination or, much less frequently, as key supporters and treasured allies. Two decisive factors driving the educational success of the 1 percent of Romani youth who enroll in higher education are 1) teachers’ belief in a Romani student’s intellectual capacity and\ related support and mentorship; and 2) teacher and peer support in standing up to and challenging discrimination.  In short, good schools and progressive, unbiased teachers and children constitute a large part of the solution to Roma equal access, participation, and attainment in education.

Third, the Roma Program has introduced the issue of reparations for state-sponsored injustices against Roma into academic and policy conversations. Europe’s Romani population has been subjected to a devastating series of gross human rights violations. These stem directly from state policies that promote racial hatred, institutionalized injustice, and crimes against humanity. Despite some individual legal victories resulting in findings of harm and the award of modest damages, comprehensive reparations – symbolic, legal, and material -have yet to be made. The Roma Program has initiated scholarly conversations and collaborations with Romani scholars and advocates to emphasize the issue of reparations in knowledge production, advocacy, and policy demands.

We are also contributing to the strengthening of a global conversation and a joint advocacy movement on reparations claims across historical and geographical spheres. Most importantly, we have set out several reparations strategies that are relevant in addressing the continuum of anti-Roma collective injustices in Europe: a) Truth-telling b) Memorializing resistance c) Victim empowerment d) Offender accountability e) Restitution f) Apology g) Reparative Compensation and h) Legal measures.

Fourth, the Roma Program is expanding the archive on anti-Roma discrimination to include Romani communities outside Europe. It has launched two programs in the Americas, as it expands the scope of Roma scholarship in the global Roma diaspora.  We are currently developing or implementing research and conference projects intended to support a systematic study of Roma communities in the Americas, starting with studies in the U.S. and Canada. Three topics are of particular interest: (a) an expansion of data on Roma in the Americas (b) a comparative exploration of theories of diasporas, stigma, and racism as they apply to Romani populations in the Americas and Europe; (c) an inquiry into the nature of the Roma diaspora.

Fifth, the Roma Program is contributing to the creation of spaces for global solidarity among oppressed communities across the world, using the Roma, the Dalit, and the African American struggles as focal points for inquiry and discussion.  Our dialogues consider how enslavement, racialized poverty, or police brutality remain common facets of the criminalization and demonization of oppressed peoples. The goal is to harness reciprocal support, learning, and cooperation among social movements from different geographies and areas of interest. We are also interested in reflecting on coalition politics in more tactical ways. For instance, we are engaged with colleagues in support for a more robust Romani feminist movement, built on solidarity and coalition opportunities with other women of color.

Finally, the Roma Program is committed to shifting Romani studies from the backwaters and margins of academic scholarship and toward a more central place in social and political theory and in multidisciplinary, multi-thematic, and multiregional studies. Consolidation of the field of Critical Romani Studies, which the Program has actively participated in, is a key element of that effort.

We invite you to join our International Roma Day Facebook Watch Party on April 8, starting at 10 a.m. EST. We also hope to see you on November 13, 2020, at our postponed annual Roma conference; our subject this year will be “Intersectional Discrimination. The Roma Case.” Please view our event page for more details.

For more information about the FXB Center’s Roma Program, click here.