So, I find myself in Brussels awaiting the arrival of the Pembrokeshire youth forum and their indefatigable super-teacher Bev Stephens! I had set out this evening with the best intentions of reading piles of documents about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities from across Europe in anticipation of the meetings i’ll be attending tomorrow but after 15 pages, that’s about all my brain could take. Instead, I started the ‘light’ reading I brought with me – ‘The Spirit Level‘ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
It’s one of those books that i’ve intended to read for months and months but having spotted it on a colleague’s desk on Friday, and knowing that i’d have at least 10 hours on trains during this trip, I finally obtained a copy! No sooner had I sat down to read it this evening than I realised i’d got through 150 pages – for me, that’s an achievement. What was the key to my interest?
Too often when you’re working with minority communities it is easy to lose track of the big picture. Instead, you end up reading piles of documents about those specific communities. The great thing about ‘The Spirit Level‘ is that the underpinning thesis – that inequality leads to most social ills – predicts the conclusions to those reports I failed to read tonight. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers – like all disadvantaged groups in society – will continue to suffer worse outcomes until this inequality is dealt with on a wider level. Much of the discrimination and poor outcomes they face are a symptom of the wider structure of our society.
In fact, the argument about inequality stretches far enough to include the negative attitudes many from these communities hold towards wider society. Chapter 10 begins with a stark warning from history to those who want to pay lip service to GRT inclusion, from Frederick Douglass, the emancipated African-American slave (1886), :
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organised conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Starting this blog has come at an interesting time. Travelling Ahead has been in existence for 3 years but the momentum continues to grow with every passing month. Looking back to the start of the project it is pretty incredible to see how far we have come. We now have youth forums working with these young people in 14 of 22 Welsh Local Authorities, the UK’s only National Gypsy & Traveller Youth Forum, a purpose-built website for these young people and key professionals who work with them, and a training programme to build understanding and inclusive services.
Most importantly, we’ve been able to work with young people who have been – and continue to be – so inspiring to me and the key decision-makers. Where Travelling Ahead has been particularly successful young people have been at the heart of it. The project firmly believes that young people are the experts in their own lives and that, wherever possible, we should be empowering them to self-advocate for changes rather than advocating for the change ourselves. It was through young peoples’ voices that the Welsh Government’s ‘Travelling to a Better Future’ Framework for Action was strongly influenced. It was through young peoples’ voices that the issue of Gypsy & Traveller site provision is being looked at seriously. And it will be through young peoples’ voices that this project will continue to punch above its weight for the benefit of these communities.
I will be working with our Pembrokeshire Forum next week to take young people to Brussels to visit the European Parliament. Though some of my office-bound colleagues may see this trip as a couple of days of relaxation for me it is actually an important step along the journey to social inclusion for these young people. We will be visiting the European Parliament and allowing the young people to meet their local MEP, Derek Vaughan. They will also be meeting the Roma MEP, Livia Jaroka. Though issues around site availability, health inequalities or education provision, are often raised in relation to Gypsy, Roma or Traveller young people, the ‘democratic deficit’ is rarely mentioned. We know that many Gypsies and Travellers do not vote and this trip is part of Pembrokeshire Forum’s work on democracy and where Gypsies and Travellers fit in. Meeting Livia Jaroka will hopefully show these young people that politics is a route that they can access. Ultimately, I hope that this trip empowers these young people to participate in their democratic right to vote and feel part of society.
The trip to Brussels also has a wider purpose. Too often projects like Travelling Ahead plough a lone furrow in their specific locality, achieving remarkable results but not necessarily sharing that good practice with others. All too soon, the project funding dries up and the good work is lost in the ether. Next week I will be attempting to draw attention to the great work being done for the inclusion of Gypsies and Travellers in Wales by meeting the aforementioned MEPs but also be visiting the European Roma Information Office (ERIO). I hope forge some key links with this European initiative that can Travelling Ahead communicate on a pan-European level.
The Brussels trip is a clear opportunity for all involved but there are also key challenges facing the project over the coming months. As our current project funding ends in March 2013, I am currently exploring every possible avenue to ensure that the momentum, goodwill, experience, and progress we have made over the last three years is not lost. I have a very clear idea about what is needed for the project over the next three years: a strong focus on the involvement of young people directly; better linking-up with parents; a heightened use of the media to highlight particular issues; more involvement with international human rights mechanisms; ensuring Welsh Government addresses Roma migration into Wales; ensuring the duty to provide sites is implemented; and a continued focus on child rights as underpinning everything the project does. I will update any readers on my progress as things develop.
Though all projects are in a constant state of flux with opportunities and challenges, 2012-13 is certainly a watershed moment for Travelling Ahead. I hope you’ll follow our progress over the coming months…