Voices in Education

Writing Romani Youth Lives
As a child, Dejan was one of the best soccer players in his school. When the time came for the school team to play in a regional competition, Dejan had no doubt he was going to be selected to join the squad. He was wrong—the coach did not choose him. Dejan recalls feeling sad and not understanding the coach’s decision. “Look at them; don’t you see any difference? They are white, you are black,” the coach explained to him. It was not his sole encounter with discrimination. Almost 30 percent of the Romani young people we interviewed in an earlier research project1 stated that they struggled with discrimination in the school environment. Yet, Dejan thinks he was strong, and he is now a college student. He is among the 1 percent of Romani young people who have managed to enroll in higher education in Serbia.2 But at what price does higher education come for Romani adolescents? 
In our article in the Summer 2017 issue of the Harvard Educational Review, we discussed the findings from the Reclaiming Adolescence research project, a two-year initiative of the Center for Interactive Pedagogy (the CIP Center), Save the Children, and Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.3 We showed that two-thirds of the Romani adolescent interviewees did not report experiencing discrimination during their education and many expressed faith in their equal chances of securing a good education. But our findings also revealed how the discrepancies between the Roma’s aspirations for education and their more modest and realistic expectations for future careers correlate with the experience of discrimination and other hardships they faced.4 Also, parents, state representatives, and youth researchers argued that the Roma adolescents were missing signals of discrimination or normalized and internalized discrimination in their lives as a resilient coping strategy. 
To us, all these findings suggested the need for more attention in research when designing questions regarding sensitive topics. We decided to further explore these issues and probe feelings and opinions on sensitive topics through different means, as we felt that conventional research instruments do not adequately capture these views, probably as a consequence of “the silence produced by subalternization.”5
Starting in 2015, in partnership with the CIP Center in Belgrade, Serbia, we implemented The Romani Champions, a study of sources of resilience and success amongst Romani adolescents in higher education. Emerging Romani scholars collected quantitative data from 100 Romani students and 100 Romani adolescents who have not made it to college, but who were selected from the communities where the students come from (convenience sample). The student researchers also conducted ethnographic interviews with twenty Romani students. Most of the Roma adolescents interviewed belong to low-income families, have experienced poverty, and have limited or no history at all of higher education in previous family generations. Some of the preliminary research findings gathered from the questionnaires and the interviews suggest that both Romani students and the comparison group are exposed to similar risks and live in similar social and economic contexts. A majority of adolescents (students and nonstudents) and their parents described high aspirations or dreams regarding education. 
Our methodology also included a Writing Lives workshop,6 a safe space for Romani youth who encountered racism or other stigmatizing and traumatizing experiences to share. The team designed the workshop to learn about the resilience and support mechanisms employed by Romani young people who succeed educationally despite strong institutional and societal pressures to drop out of school. 
In Writing Lives, we did not use a rapid question and answer approach, but rather encouraged substantive self and group reflection on educational trajectories. We used research tools that would facilitate the expression of hidden or painful experiences. In Writing Lives, the participants wrote letters about the obstacles they had encountered from their perspective and through the eyes of their parents. The participants also created a title and outline for a book about their education, discussed their experiences in small groups, and then suggested symbols for their educational journeys and the obstacles they felt they had overcome through drawing and clay modeling. Finally, they shared positive and negative experiences from school. The workshop was intense and taught us several valuable lessons in understanding the often quiet and consistent pressures of being a minority student. 
The experience of each of the Romani college students we met taught us a lesson about resilience. Most of the young Romani people we met in the Writing Lives workshop in Belgrade had experienced traumatizing instances of discrimination and stigmatization at all levels of the education system. They shared stories of bullying, rejection, and isolation in the classroom by peers. They also talked about not fully understanding, at a very young age, why they were treated poorly and differently by teachers. Like their peers who had been pushed out from school, some college students remembered moments when they wanted to drop out of school, or when they had done so, to avoid the toxic school environment. They talked about feeling sad, rejected, unappreciated and insecure, and of having no services to turn to for support or guidance in the school setting. One of the students decided to study psychology as her major, hoping to find ways to help herself and others feel better about themselves and their identity. Students reflected on instances when they underperformed in school, remembering unpleasant interactions with teachers and peers that had an impact on those stages of their studies. “When I think about the past and reflect on it, I feel that they took something away from me,” concluded one of the students. 
Along with families, a small number of non-Romani people who believed in and supported the Roma students contributed to Romani students continuing school in the face of persistent discrimination, stigma, and poverty. When some Roma students were at the point of giving up at school due to a particularly troubling incident of bullying or discrimination, a non-Romani peer stood by them and helped them get over the incident. When teachers graded the Romani pupils unfairly, they turned for comfort to a peer or another teacher. Several mentioned a particular teacher in the school who had carefully mentored them and invested time and trust in their education. 
So, one question to explore looking forward is understanding the factors, contexts, and knowledge that informed non-Roma peers and teachers willing to stand up again racism. Also, our findings push other scholars and us to rethink and reimagine methods and instruments to understand minority youth discrimination.

Müller S., National Policies towards Romani Women in the Western Balkans, CARE International North-West Balkans, 2011.

Jacqueline Bhabha et al., Reclaiming adolescence: a Roma rights perspective, Harvard Educational Review, forthcoming 2017. 

Frey A.F., Cross C., (2011). Overcoming poor youth stigmatization and invisibility through arts: A participatory action research experience in greater Buenos Aires, Action Research, 9(1) 65-82. 

The workshop methodology was developed by Prof. Sharmila Rege and piloted in The Champions Project implemented by Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune (KSP) in Maharashtra and the Institute of Development Studies Jaipur in Rajasthan. Additional information available here: https://fxb.harvard.edu/research/adolescent-empowerment/gender-and-adolescent-agency-in-india/champions-project-2/ 

About the Author:
Margareta (Magda) Matache is a Roma rights activist and scholar from Romania, director of the Roma Program at Harvard FXB, and also a Harvard instructor.
Jacqueline Bhabha is a professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. She is also the director of research at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.
Arlan Fuller is a research associate at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.