Archive | March, 2013

About me – the Gypsy and failing

31 Mar

My last posting in Romanian was viewed by over 30.000 people. This is not just a translation as it includes a few other things. I use the term Gypsy in order to make a point. I would normally use Roma.

I’m not an important person. Not a famous writer, nor a celebrity. I have no links with powerful politicians, I’m not rich, and I could list many other reasons why I should not have been invited to speak at the many conferences and events where I was a speaker. I stood next to, and spoke with, Nobel Prize winners, amazing intellectuals, world leaders. Did I deserve those opportunities?

Mostly no, I did not.

So why did it happen to me?

Because I am a Gypsy. It looks good to have Gypsies taking part in important meetings nowadays. It makes the organisers, the country or the EU look more inclusive, to have some like me in their big meetings.

This is probably not the only reason.

Some of the honors that have happened to me were because of the Aspen Institute. They often recommended me.

With Aspen it started the same – the token Gypsy guy. Aspen Institute Romania was under pressure from Aspen Institute USA to get some Roma involved in their activities. Romania has a poor image when it comes to racism against Gypsies. So they sent a Gypsy – me – to the Aspen training camp at Wye in the US.

The first day was funny. We had to introduce each other. Name, university, place of work.  Harvard – Microsoft, Harvard – Bridgespan, Princeton – CIA, Cambridge- Director of Kennedy Foundation, Harvard- IBM, MIT- other big shot, Columbia…I said. University of Craiova .They asked me if it was Ivy League. “Daewoo league” I said (the only thing I thought Craiova might be famous for – at that time Daewoo had a factory there).

Aspen Institute was a turning point for me. I was challenged by a brilliant right-wing Chinese participant (Harvard). He thought that philosophical discussions about the good society worked only for “us – the wealthy, well-educated and with full stomachs”. I felt like asking who were the “us” – the two of us were alone in the room, and I knew for sure I wasn’t part of the “us” he was talking about. I beat him convincingly at ping-pong… so I thought that I could demolish my own stereotype that the Chinese excel at ping-pong, why not try to prove him wrong also about the “good society” thing. I made a bet. When I came back to Romania I started to work in the ghetto, to try to see if the principles of good society have some use there too.

Do I have some other talents?

I am almost tone deaf, I can’t read the future, and I am completely unable to dance. I’m no horse whisperer either, despite the fact one of my uncles did steal horses. I am not a “free spirit” and. I suck when it comes to romance. Not even one of the many gifts the stereotypical Gypsy is supposed to have…

What do I think is my biggest talent?

The ability to fail.

I failed many, many times. I failed in almost everything you can imagine – over and over again. I am exceptional at collecting failures.

My mother grew up in a mud hut in a Roma village that even nowadays has no electricity or running water. She decided to marry a Romanian man, thinking she could rise up in society that way. For him, she was the last choice:  he already had two children and everybody knew he was an alcoholic.

My mother was great with all of us. She worked really hard and helped all of us as much as she could. She was generous with people. She tried really, really hard to be respected and accepted. But she failed. We were never Romanians; we were always the Gypsy and the son of the Gypsy.

I remember failures from very early.

When we moved to Craiova the children did not really want to play with me. They called me a “lice-infested Gypsy”. I never had lice. My mother washed us with gasoline. Every single week. She also washed the floors and the furniture with gasoline at least twice a week. She thought it made them shine.  We never allowed people to smoke in the house, not for health reasons but because we were afraid of starting a fire.

At school, I thought I was the smartest kid in my class. However, I convincingly lost the first elections (in second grade) to be one of two flag-holders (a position that came after the class president, the three vice-presidents and the guy responsible for the plants).

In fourth grade I was elected class president. I was happy for exactly two hours. During a break I heard my teacher saying to another teacher: “The idiots in my class voted for that stinky gypsy instead of the daughter of the university professor Xulescu.”

We failed to adapt to the culture of our apartment building.

Because we were poor, my mother decided to raise chickens. We started a small chicken farm in front of the apartment building – 10 meters from it. We had a rooster – the loudest and most obnoxious bird I’ve ever known. We built a shack where we smoked pig meat – the cheapest way to preserve food for the winter. My mother made soap out of fat scraps in a big pot on a fire in front of the building. In case you don’t know, all these things are normal in a Romanian village – but no in front of an urban apartment block in a Romanian city. We did not set-up a tent, but I guess our neighbours expected us to, as they most likely expected the carts and horses to come one day – and hopefully to take us away with them.

I remember the neighbour upstairs – he would loudly invoke all kind of saints, mass murderers and the rooster together with the “fucking stinky gypsies” downstairs in his morning prayers. It turned out he was in fact a truly kind guy.

My older half-brother was not much help either in this.

He was around 15 when it happened. I came home from school and I heard mother yelling “where did you get these clothes? Where the hell did you get the money for these clothes?” I entered the room and saw a pile of second-hand clothes in the middle of the room. My mother was angry and flustered – looking intently at my brother, who stared back and yelled: “I stole them! You know we never have fucking anything, you never buy me anything… I have to wear dad’s old shirts.”

My mother slapped him hard. “YOU cannot steal – we are the fucking stinky Gypsies, remember– what the hell is wrong with you?” She dragged him around the entire apartment block with the clothes draped over him and a big sign around his neck on which was written THIEF. Of course, my father was drunk. Imagine how popular I was.

My first try to bring a girl home was another good experience.

My mother opened the door. She looked her usual – a Gypsy woman. The girl froze. The dialogue was rather interesting.

“Come in!” I said.

“This isn’t your home!”

“Sure it is – I come here everyday.”

“No, this is impossible – who is she?” My mother was staring at us.

“My mother – who do you think she is?”

“That can’t be your mother!”

“I’m quite sure I know who my mother is…I might be confused about lots of things but I know my own mother.”

“Are you serious? This isn’t one of your silly jokes? You’re really a Gypsy like they say?

“Sure I am – what did you think, I was a Swede in disguise?”

“I can’t go inside – I can’t be with a Gypsy.”

 During the last year of high-school, during May, when it was hot outside and hot in the gym, I was playing basketball. I was sweaty like crazy. I realised that I was late, so I ran up to class. The electronics teacher hated Gypsies and he would never miss a chance to pick on me. I was a few minutes late when I entered. I apologised for being late and I walked past him on my way to my desk. He exploded:

 “You stink – how do you dare to come late to my class?”

Talking to the class:

“Do you know what a stinky Gypsy smells like? Like this one over here – come and smell him.

The class was stunned. He yelled to make them move.

“I told you to come and smell him. Damian (talking to the kid closest to him), you come first.”

He made the entire class come and smell me. Some made disgusted faces – my sweat is no roses.

I felt like a medium-built human-size shit. I never felt a bigger shame. I was in love with one of the girls in my class

So yes – I failed. I went through embarrassment after embarrassment. I failed in getting jobs I was well qualified for. I made a fool of myself with interventions that were out of place. I said and wrote idiotic things. I failed in some of my most important personal relationships.

But this is just part of the story.

My mother remains the Gypsy woman in the apartment building, but she is also the most loved one. She is in the middle of any big cooking project in the building. For years she made and gave soap to everybody around her. We ended up smoking pig meat for half of the people in our apartment building. She is still a compulsive cleaner.

I changed the lives of more that a hundred children in one of the worst ghettos in Bucharest. I met some of my childhood, and adult, idols – Michael Jordan, Michael Johnson, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair, George Soros and many others. I took part in some of the most intellectually rich events – Aspen Seminars, Forum 2000. I travelled the world and I worked for some of the best companies in the world. I do what I want and I love what I do. I am friends with and train with some of the best- known football and basketball players in Romania. I convince them to help me with my work in the ghetto.

I’ve brought an EU Commissioner, ministers, tens of Members of the European Parliament and hundreds of very important people to see what I’m doing in the ghetto. I started an organization that won some very important prizes.

Are these recognitions very important to me? Not really.

So what is important?

That I have not managed to change the way the European Commission continues to waste public money on Roma social inclusion, despite overwhelming proof that they do waste money.

That despite moderating seminars for Aspen Institute Romania – and each year I meet unbelievably smart, kind, and generous young leaders – we still have not managed to produce a significant change in Romania.

That I have not brought about a significant change in life in Roma communities or  made a significant contribution to curbing anti-Gypsyism.

That I haven’t managed to make our intervention in the ghetto self-sustainable, and overall our impact is still insignificant compared to the many and enormous problems in the ghetto.

YET. I have not managed to do these things YET.

I am working on all of them. Because I failed so many times that I learned that failures are the most important part of success. Because it doesn’t matter how hard I fail, how much I embarrass myself, as long as I learn from it and try harder or differently. I still believe that at the end of the day, if I try hard enough I will succeed, even if not fully.

So I keep trying.

Despre tiganul din mine, etica si esecuri

27 Mar

Ieri am fost invitat la o intalnire super-tare. A vorbit Andrei Plesu, Gabriel Liiceanu seful de la BitDefender, o distinsa doamna din mediul de afaceri, Oana Marinescu si eu. O intalnire despre etica – mai multe detalii pe http://www.umanager.ro.  Aici discursul meu.Am folosit termenul de tigan pentru a sublinia stridenta – in mod normal as folosi termenul de rom. Cam 200 de participanti.

….

De ce sunt aici … nu sunt nici sef de banca, nici persoana publica, nici prieten cu politicieni sus-pusi, nici bogat, nu am scris nimic super important si as mai putea sa insirui vreo cateva zeci de motive de ce nu ar trebui sa fiu aici.

De ce cred ca sunt aici ? Pai in primul rand pentru ca sunt tigan.

Da bine in intalniri.

Un alt motiv ar putea fi ca m-ar fi recomandat Aspen Institute.

Asa am inceput si cu Aspen.  Tigan care da bine. Probleme cu tiganii in Romania– presiune Americana – trebuia sa dea bine la raportare – deci am fost trimis la un seminar Aspen in Wye.

Frumos tare. Inceputul a fost cam greu – lumea se prezenta cu nume-functie – plus universitatea pe care au absolvit-o.

Harvard –sefa la Microsoft, Cambridge – vice-presedinte, Oxford vice-premier , Harvard sef la CIA, Harvard, Harvard, Columbia – s-au facut niste fete cand a zis omul Columbia de am fost sigur ca nu sunt singurul tigan, Harvard, Harvard…University of Craiova. Is it an Ivy League ? Nope Daewoo League am zis. Nu a ras nimeni.

M-am imprietenit cu un investitor chinez de dreapta rau si mai inconoclast decat mine. Jucam ping-pong. L-am rupt – eu am facut sport ca ne dadeau ciocolata in timpul lui Ceasca daca ne duceam la sport – ciocolata era o imbunatatire semnificativa a celeilalte optiuni de desert pe care o aveam – paine cu zahar. Chinezul mi-a mai omorat un stereotip – nu avea nicio treaba cu paleta de tenis.

Asta zice – bai ce vorbim noi aici de etica si societate buna sunt vrajeli de discutat intre oameni bogati, super bine educati si cu burtile pline cum suntem noi. M-am gandit sa il intreb cine sunt noi ca nevasta-sa nu era acolo dar am zis sa nu ii stric omului buna dispozitie.

Am facut pariu ca nu e asa si ca ar putea functiona ceea ce discutam despre societate buna si la nivel de ghetou. Asa am inceput sa lucrez cu pusti intr-un dintre cele mai rau famate ghetouri din Bucuresti. Am castigat pariul.

Sa am vreun talent ?  Ar putea fi un alt motiv pentru a fi aici.

Sunt un afon functional , dansez ca o cizma, nu stiu nimic despre medicina naturista si sunt destul de obsedat de matematica fara insa a fi talentat la matematica.Partea de ghicit , romantism  sau cai -nu ma pricep. Deci ca tigan stereotipic nu prea am talente.

Talentul meu principal cred ca este sa o dau in bara. Am dat-o in bara de sute de ori. Am un talent aproape exceptional in a strange esecuri.

Vin dintr-o familie super saraca. Tatal meu a fost un alcolic care nu a fost nicicand interesat in altceva inafara de adictia lui. Mama –tiganca, dintr-o familie mare care traia in bordei. O femeie senzationala care a sperat ca scaparea ei va veni dintr-o casatorie cu clasa superioara – cu un roman. Nu a prea mers. Esecul nu a fost numai al ei. A fost si al meu. Am fost tot timpul fiul tigancii.

Cand ne-am mutat in bloc – singurii tigani in bloc – copii nu au vrut sa se joace cu mine. Tigan paduchios. Mama ma spala in fiecare saptamana cu gaz. Stergea si mobila cu gaz.  Si podelele le spala cu gaz. Ca sa luceasca. Probabil de asta am parul asa lucitor.Nu stiu pe nimeni mai obsedat de curatenie decat mama. Apartamentul si mobila din Craiova ar putea fi cea mai buna reclama la RomPetrol.  Pute a gaz de te trazneste si acum. Nu primim fumatori in casa nu ca suntem health-conscious, ci din motive practice – evitam posibilitatea foarte ridicata de altfel de incendiu.

Primul meu esec spectaculos a fost in clasa a 2-a. Credeam ca sunt cel mai tare din clasa. Am fost propus pentru functia de stegar. Pe care am pierdut-o urat la alegeri.

In clasa a 4-a au fost alegerile pentru comandantul clasei. Am castigat.Colegii mei au crezut ca sunt cel mai bun. Am fost super fericit pana in pauza cand din greseala mi-am auzit invatatoarea discutand cu o alta invatatoare pe hol.

Zicea – auzi, mai, tampitii mei l-au ales pe tiganul ala ca sef de detasament in loc sa o aleaga pe fica lui Xulescu – profesorul universitar. Ce dracu ii zic eu omului aluia ?

Vecinii nostri erau de treaba. Cum eram super saraci mama a decis sa facem un tarc cu gaini in fata blocului. A facut rost si de un cocos. Nu imi amintesc un cocos sa cante mai strident. Vecinul de deasupra noastra era singurul pe care il auzeam ca si cum ar fi locuit cu noi. Ne iubea. Zicea dulceturi despre cocos, antonescu si deportarea la Bug foarte des.

Mama facea sapun in fata blocului. Am facut si o afumatoare. Cort nu am pus dar cred ca vecinii asteptau cu nerabdare caii si carutele – poate poate om pleca.

Cand eram adolescent, eram dragutel. Un pic de vedeta caci jucam baschet in echipa scolii si eram si in clasa cea mai buna din liceu. Citeam mult si aveam par. Un pic exotic.

Prima mea incercare sa aduc acasa o fata a esuat lamentabil. Am venit cu ea pana in fata usii. Nu am avut cheie si am sunat la usa. A deschis mama.

Fata a incremenit. Mama – o doamna – ne-a lasat sa dezbatem. Ma intreaba fata –

Aici stai ?

Eu – da – aici ?

Nu se poate ?

Eu- bai sunt sigur ca aici – oi arata eu prostut dar sigur stiu unde stau.

Si aia care a raspuns la usa cine e ?

Mama – zic eu

Nu se poate

Bai macar pe maica-mea ar trebui sa o cunosc, nu crezi ?

Pai e tiganca .

Si eu ce crezi ca sunt suedez deghizat ?

O relatie care a esuat lamentabil. Am avut cateva zeci de experiente similare.

Ca pusti mi-am dorit tare mult sa fiu super fotbalist. Sa joc in nationala. Am esuat.

Apoi ca adolescent mi-am dorit sa joc baschet la nivel inalt. La 1.73 nu prea a iesit mare lucru; nimeni nu a prea vrut sa ma ia in echipa.

Esecuri – multe multe . Relatii personale, in cariera, in sport si cam oriunde va puteti imagina.

Esuez, s-ar putea zice, cu entuziasm, in fiecare zi. O sa va dau cateva exemple si, ca sa fiu inclusive, il includ si pe Mr Van Groeningen, aici de fata.

Am esuat sa il conving sa se implice intr- o initiativa care cred ca ar fi senzationala pentru imaginea bancii, pentru pustii cu care lucrez eu in ghetou si pentru Federatia Romana de Fotbal.

Am esuat sa conving doua borduri in care era si el, ca as fi un candidat bun pentru o bursa super tare in state si ca as putea sa fiu membru al altui bord.

Nu va spun de cate ori am esuat ca tigan sa fiu angajat. Vorba unui fost ministru de externe care mi-a spus exasperat la un moment dat ca daca as tacea pe chestia de tiganie as fi ajuns mult mai sus. Am stat tot timpul la parter – noi tiganii avem mare frica de cutremure.

Deci de ce cred ca sunt azi aici. Pentru ca am esuat, si am esuat, si am tot esuat. Si asta m-a facut sa ajung aici.

Mama a ajuns sa fie cea mai populara femeie din bloc. Facea sapun la toata lumea, afumam porcul la tot blocul si cam orice gateala mare in bloc inca e supravegheata de ea. Continua sa spele obsesiv scarile blocului si a pus gresie in beci.

Joc cam o data pe luna fotbal cu o parte din fosta echipa de aur. Nu sunt cel mai slab de pe teren. Cativa dintre ei ma ajuta cu copiii din ghetou cu care lucrez. Am convins FRF-ul sa faca lucruri pe care putini si le-ar imagina posibile – implicare sociala pe care multi dintre cei mai buni dintre noi nu au facut-o vreodata.

Joc baschet cu mare placere. Si am jucat cu cei mai buni doi jucatori romani (femeie si barbat) in ghetou, in Ferentari. Am adus o parte din echipa nationala in Ferentari. Joc din cand in cand in sala Federatiei Romane de Baschet cu fosti jucatori.

Am stat langa Michael Jordan. Si langa Blair, si langa Michael Johnson. Nu in acelasi timp. Am dat mana cu Mandela si Albright. Il stiu bine pe presedintele Comisiei pentru premiul Nobel, am vorbit in conferinte langa castigatori ai premiului Nobel pentru literatura si pace si as putea sa ma dau mare cu inca o gramada de nume de felul asta. Dar nu vreau sa fiu tigan strident astazi.

Am castigat premiul UNICEF pentru 2012 si o sa primesc un premiu European pentru realizari blabla in Aprilie.

Am ajuns sa moderez seminarii Aspen pe filozofie politica.

Am facut cateva lucruri foarte bune in ghetou. Am schimbat viata la cateva sute de copii.Am reusit sa conving o multime de oameni si institutii sa ma ajute cu ceea ce incerc sa fac.

Conteaza toate aste – nu prea mult.

Ce conteaza pentru mine ?

Ca nu am reusit sa il conving pe Van Groeningen si altii  sa ma asculte pe partea cu federatia de fotbal si cu ghetoul. Pe partea de sport si educatie.

Ca, desi am moderat cateva generatii absolut fabuloase de young leader-si la Aspen, nu am reusit sa fiu implicat in o schimbare semnificativa la nivelul societatii romanesti.

Ca, desi sunt publicat in unele din cele mai bune publicatii europene, nu am reusit sa schimb modul absurd in care functioneaza fondurile structurale europene.

Ca nu am reusit sa transform ceea ce fac in ghetou intr-o practica mai extinsa si sistemica.

Ca nu reusesc sa schimb seminficativ comunitatile rome si nici anti-tiganismul din societatea romaneasca.

INCA. INCA nu reusesc toate astea. Dar ma chinui sa o fac. Ma chinui sa imi opresc tendinta de a cere sa faca altii ceea ce as putea sa fac si eu. Sa dau vina pe politicieni, coruptie , rasism, sistem sau orice imi este mai comod.

Nu sunt convins ca ceea ce fac intra intr-un sistem etic bun. Dar ma straduiesc sa il fac mai bun. In fiecare zi.

Si, desigur, am reusit sa dau cu capul intr-o gramada de ziduri si sa am niste super cucuie.Si niste super prieteni care ma lasa sa le zic bai si fah. Sunt si avantaje in a fi tigan.

 

 

How I crashed into the glass-ceiling

25 Mar

How I crashed into the glass-ceiling

A few months ago I wrote about the problems with funding civil society, and Roma civil society in particular; how EU funds (in particular structural funds) but also project-focused funding stimulate false reporting, rationalizing failures, useless by expensive meetings and trainings, and corruption. Incentives for grassroots work, learning from failures, critical thinking, participation and sharing responsibilities of the vulnerable groups are missing.

I thought I might work to change things for the better from inside a European intergovernmental organization, as my efforts to make changes from outside had failed. So I applied for a job in Brussels with one of the most important donor intergovernmental organizations in Europe. I was a perfect fit for the job description and requirements. The job deals with Roma issues and is instrumental in setting up the priorities for funding targeting Roma social inclusion. I had all the requested skills and solid proof[1] to support my application.

Many of the best Roma professionals and experts I know applied for the job. Five Roma (including me) and one non-Roma person were interviewed, in the first round.

During the interview the main concern of the senior management present was how would I adapt to being a “bureaucrat”. They seemed little concerned about my skills, but worried that I was too strong a leader and might not adapt to their “bureaucratic culture”. They asked about how I would deal with accepting clearly poor decisions taken against my advice by staff members senior to my position or their political superiors, considering that all had much less knowledge than me.

I was stupefied. I had thought that an organization that spends hundred of millions of euros of public money should make sure that politicians and high ranking bureaucrats would NOT take poor decisions, and would do it’s utmost to fight AGAINST sugar-coating and the cover-up of poor decisions.

They did not ask about my experience at the grassroots level – either in the ghetto or leading a network of Roma organizations struggling with huge problems due to inadequate funding.

Several weeks later, I was invited for a second interview. Three of us were left: another well-qualified Roma person, a non-Roma person, and me. Coincidentally, a few days before the second interview a close friend of mine had a meeting with the non-Roma candidate. She presented herself as already representing the organization we had applied to work for. Not knowing that I had applied for the same job, he commented that she seemed to have little awareness about the issues affecting Roma exclusion and what he thought was a proof of structural racism.

The second interview was slightly better than the first in terms of the questions asked of me. But by that time, I had started to wonder if I really wanted the job, after all. The salary they offered was obscenely high, and I told those interviewing me that I would donate 70% of it to the organization I had started in the ghetto of Ferentari. That, I thought, was a good example of social responsibility and a good model to be followed by others, and might even reflect well on their institution.

Three people interviewed me this time – two were new. None of them had any practical or academic experience with Roma issues. This time, the interviewers were worried about the fact that I was very energetic and I might not fit into the team. That I might not be “happy” within their organization. They also asked me how they would be able to benefit from my high-level contacts (but not about my contacts in the Roma communities). They made it clear that they viewed me as a potentially great asset, but with a rather “strong personality”. These concerns didn’t seem to fit with what I had read about the job: I would not have applied, had I thought I would be unhappy in the organization. The job required lots of travel in Roma communities and a significant degree of independence, so it seemed to me that energy would be needed.

As a team leader working for IBM many years ago, I learned that inability to deal with colleagues who are intelligent and good at what they do, but have a “strong personality,” reflects badly on the team leader. My experience as a manager[2] taught me to seek out the best people for my team, not the most “comfortable” ones. I checked some of my books on management and I didn’t find disagreement on this point.

All the Roma professionals who were interviewed had great hand-on experience working with Roma at the grassroots level, and also in international institutions. Most of us had very little or no experience with sugar-coating failures, accepting and supporting poor decisions of senior management, promoting practices that waste huge amounts of money in useless meetings, huge consultancy fees, and irrelevant trainings. In other words… none of us had worked for the European Commission.

The non-Roma candidate was the one who eventually received the job. She had previously worked for the European Commission. In fact, she had been the program manager of some EU funds dealing with Roma. I could not find evidence that she had any experience or success working at the grassroots level with Roma communities.

What message did I get out of this? That if I want a job as a bureaucrat, the skills that matter are to have low energy, to accept poor decisions made by others around me, to be able to present failures as success, and to have a non-threatening personality. The glass ceiling is concrete solid when it comes to Roma. Roma participation is indeed very important as long as is done from a very safe distance.

I write this not because I am bitter. I have plenty of ideas and work to do. Maybe I will apply for the next job that comes along, or maybe not. I write this because change is needed and if we continue to promote the idea that the ability to pay lip-service, compliancy and cowardice are the requirements for a brilliant bureaucratic career, our societies are doomed.

http://eeagrants.org/News/2013/Roma-inclusion-an-important-priority-for-the-Grants

If the text in the link above is hypocritical or not is for each of you to decide. No Roma or people with hands on expertise in Roma communities work for the organization.


[1] Most published Roma expert on Roma issues, winner of a number of international and national awards for my work at grassroots level, national and European level (both policy and grassroots), contributor on Roma issues for all major stakeholders in the field, EC Commissioner, Secretary General of Council of Europe, Commissioners for Human Rights and National Minorities, over a hundred of EU ministers, mayors, MEPs, ambassadors came to see what I started in the ghetto of Ferentari…

[2] I lead for years a private company with over 300 employees

The 10 Commandments

21 Mar

The Holy Romano-Euro-Narnian Church*

 *Any resemblance with the European Commission is purely accidental

In the name of Flexicurity, Synergies, Mainstreaming and Holy Baroso-laan may the enlighten Queen in charge of us Re(a)ding, Housing, Employment and Health[1] lead you towards the meadows of Euro-Heaveeeen.

This is how the Roma sermon in Euro-Narnia opens and closes. Sermons are dogmatic and strictly reflect the Ten Commandments. Those Commandments were delivered during the Second Revelation at the Summit of Roma in the land of Cordoba. The Queen came with them written on golden papers – when she spoke, angels sang, the peasants fell back into their chairs, pigs flew and some high-level officials woke up. Engulfed in the flames of passion and hair-dye she delivered this message to us:

We, the holy trinity of the President Barosolan and Vice-President on Roma issues and the enlighten Seniors, are your Lords that took you out of slavery in the Eastern Lands and allowed you free travel and access to the wealth and wonders of the West. These are your Commandments

  1. Thou shalt listen to no other Lords before us.
  2. Thou shalt not think for yourself, listen or get involved in the work of any others, especially critically-minded experts or community workers; for WE the Lords are jealous and fast to punish any thinking outside the Framework and Mechanisms we bestowed upon you. Thou shalt show us love and praise us continuously as we will give blessings to those and those alone that keep our commandments.
  3. Thou shalt cherish and praise the names and the words of the Lords, and show unconditional faith in our Holy thoughts. This will prevent you from ending up disgraced and working at the grassroots level in Roma communities or ghettoes.
  4. Thou shalt remember and celebrate the Day we spoke to you. Keep that Day of the week as a day to hone your skills for praising and obeying us.
  5. Thou shalt honor your Queen and your Lords as we are your true Mother and Father – this will ensure you a long and successful career in Euro-Narnia.
  6. Thou shall not criticize anything that comes from us.
  7. Thou shall not doubt our measures – we are always right.
  8. Thou shall not perceive or comment on anything that might appear to you as plagiarism, waste of money, structural racism, ineptitude or plain arrogance. The Meadows of Heavenly Euro-Narnia will be reserved for you, the poor and ignorant.
  9. Thou shall not be a witness against Euro-Narnia. You can be a false witness against anybody else.
  10. 10.  Thou shall not covet anything we have – power, hugely undeserved salaries, honors, praises and benefits. Those will corrupt your souls. Repent and pray to us whenever such thoughts cross your minds.

The holy books of positive practices, open method of coordination, flagship initiatives, Lisbon and EU 2020 strategies, reporting, assessing and monitoring are the living texts among the Euro-Narnians dealing with us the peasants.

The saintly Queen and Seniors (Director Generals and Directors) – we call them the Magnificent Cardinals for Roma – are the preferred choices for opening any Roma Sermon in Euro-Narnia. Regardless of their professional lives outside Euro-Narnia, the Magnificent Cardinals can talk about anything. The sacred ritual through which they know so much about everything, even if it contradicts their human experience, is called the Holy Sense and Harmony Ingenuity Transfer,  better known as the Holy S.H.I.T. ritual. This ritual allows the Magnificent Cardinals to give us short and specific advice about what is best for us the peasants.

Once the Sermon starts the Magnificent Cardinals are brief. They bless us with their presence and leave without any interaction. Such interactions are well known to be highly toxic for their Holinesses. Only low-level Euro-Narnians can interact with peasants,  and even they will need to go through serious purification rituals afterwards – 50 repetitions of the Saint Shuman and Spinelli prayer:

Forgive me Holy Saints for my sins. I listened to the pagans. I took notice of what they said. I was exposed to their despicable and unholy hands-on experience with the problems of Roma. Their Holy S.H.I.T -incompatible thinking based on their many years of experience soiled me. The Euro-Narnian way is the only way. The Queen’s way is my way. Harmony, Ingenuity and as much stalling, spinning and paying for good media as possible is the way to solve the problems. We are the Lords’ appointed rulers of Roma. We know what they need.

Experts, and especially Roma experts, need to be kept as silent as possible; they should have no more than 10% speaking time during Sermons about them. Even a small increase could create a permanent disturbance in the force, and invalidate the sacred ritual.

Only low-level bureaucrats (also called The Choir) can share the body of Barosolan and a glass of his grapey blood with the peasants. The Magnificent Cardinals can not, as that would bring shame to the empire.

The Magnificent Cardinals are inspired. Their words cannot be judged, but require Absolute Faith. Any challenge to the perfectness of the existing rules, Structural Funds, structures is apostasy and punishable by excommunication.

[1] Reading (as in Education and not Commissioner in charge of Roma V. Reding). Education , Employment, Health and Housing are the main pillars of the EU Roma National Frameworks Strategies – a pure coincidence in this text

The Almighty Church of Social Inclusion

18 Mar

Over the last ten years I have taken part in about 50 major European Commission conferences on Roma issues. Many were in the early years. I thought initially that conferencing was a way to achieve change. Last year I went to just one EC conference.  After the meeting I wrote a piece about structural racism that was published by the European Voice[1]. The “Extraordinary Meeting on Roma” was extraordinary proof of structural problems and ingrained racism within the Commission. Only two speakers out of 29 were Roma.

I was invited this year to another EC conference. It will be my last.

This meeting in Brussels on the 15th of March had 25 speakers. Again, two of them were Roma. Two EC directors (senior management) appeared, read what somebody else had written for them, and left. They didn’t listen to anybody else’s presentation, and they did not take questions.  Each of the middle management bureaucrats from the Commission did the same. They showed up for their panel and then promptly left.

But what can you expect when that’s what their boss does?  I have never seen Vice-President Reading – the highest-level Commission member in charge of Roma issues – take the time to listen to anything Roma practitioners had to say or to ask questions of them.  She reads the speeches someone else wrote and leaves.

Most of those in charge of Roma issues have weak or nonexistent hands-on or academic experience  (Even the best people in the Commission cannot claim more than touristic exposure to Roma communities.) Virtually their only opportunity to engage with Roma experts and practitioners is at these conferences.

But they don’t engage.  The high level bureaucrats come – deliver the sermon; we pray, take our communion (there is always free lunch and coffee), and discuss among ourselves.  Meanwhile those on high attend to more important business.

This Friday I did not want to play this game anymore.

The meeting was filled, as usual, with a good number of Roma with wide-ranging expertise as well as (non-Roma) Roma experts. Together, the directors and midlevel managers from the Commission – who came to tell us what we should do – had far fewer hours spent on Roma issues than any single one of us.

And for the first time it hit me that in fact we should behave like these senior managers. And in fact, I am busy with more important things too. I have 30 children from the ghetto who look forward to seeing me at basketball practice tomorrow.  I have Alberto, Totonel and Andrea hoping I’ll take them home for the weekend and make pancakes and fruit salad. If I stay to listen to the sermons I will lose that chance.  So I talked and walked out. A few others did the same.

Civil society should walk out. The way most EC senior managers deal with Roma issues is not only irresponsible, it is disrespectful and deeply racist. And we should call them on it.

First and foremost, the Commission needs to publish and adhere to a basic minimal standard of cooperation developed with, rather than dictated to, the Roma civil society.

The European Parliament should initiate an independent investigation of the way the European Commission uses public money on Roma. It might help transparency and accountability – things the Commission requires from everybody but itself.

The European Commission is not the almighty Church of Social Inclusion. Its imperious behaviour is an embarrassment for Europe and a major impediment to social progress.  Walk out and demand change!

Basic Fallacies

12 Mar

The economic fallacy

Superficial analyses about the economic costs of social inclusion are widespread within the political class in most of Eastern and Central Europe (ECE). In this article I will look at an economic fallacy regarding an imagined group of Roma that I like to call the “Frankenstein” Roma a term that is meant to emphasize both the confusion and simplistic Roma archetype that is largely spread among policy makers.[1]

Most politicians and policy-makers think of the word “Roma” as a euphemism for all kind of petty criminals (though of course many of these criminals are not Roma). As with any stereotype, the percentage of the Roma that fit the “Frankenstein” description is just a fraction of the total number of Roma. Successful Roma professionals tend to be invisible for politicians and policy makers as they do not fit the racist but widespread typology of a “true” Roma. In fact, there are more successful Roma professionals than “Frankenstein” Roma.

The economic fallacy about the Frankenstein Roma says that their countries are better off, in economic terms, without them. This belief justifies both inaction at home (lack of effort and funds spent on social inclusion) and a reluctance to work towards stemming immigration to Western European countries.

ECE governments think that the majority of Roma that leave their countries are, at best, singers, dancers, or menial workers (cleaners or restaurant helpers), but most likely live on welfare, steal, or are employed on the black market. Regardless, they consider that at home, Roma are a significant economic loss for their countries’ economies.

They also believe that once the “Frankenstein” Roma leave, that the host countries (Western Europe) will have to deal with the costs of welfare, policing, education, health, housing – while most of the money these Roma save will be spent back at home.  It is a crude and wrong but easy to sell message for the majority of voters that anyway do not like or openly hate the Roma.

The “Frankenstein” Roma need to be incentivized and made responsible towards their citizenship. This would require an aggressive campaign to make Roma feel that they are an important part of their nations, through massive investment in social inclusion, fighting anti-Gypsyism and promoting active citizenship within the most difficult ghettoes and Roma communities.

Such an action plan requires long to very long (over 20 years) strategic measures, involves significant budgets and will be moderately to highly unpopular. It requires serious hands-on grass-roots work an activity disliked not only by the policymakers but also by most NGOs active in the Roma and social inclusion field.

Why should any country do this?  The answer is simple- there is no other better solution.

Most of the “Frankenstein” Roma governments want to get rid of will not settle permanently in other countries. They will continue to collect welfare in their own countries as well as welfare in the West. Some will use their criminal experiences in the West to strengthen the criminal networks in their own countries. It’s already happening: in the ghetto where I work, I have witnessed the number of drug addicts skyrocket in the last years. There is increasingly more money made from drug trafficking and prostitution. Criminal gangs control significant numbers of people through money or threats and are able to influence elections. Corruption is rampant.  Links between those criminals and top-level politicians are sometimes public. All these come at significantly higher costs than social inclusion measures meant to prevent them.

Another reason to work towards social inclusion is the catastrophic situation of the Roma children and youth within the groups inclined to migrate. At the beginning of the 1990s some Roma made a fortune by going to Western Europe, together with their children. These children became the first of the many lost generations. Both children and adults were involved in begging, some in petty criminality, some sang for money and others collected and sold metals. A few of those started businesses dealing with second hand clothing and cars. They spend their money back home, much of it on strident signs of wealth.

For many Roma, making money became much more important than education or trying to hold a steady job. Roma were among the first to lose their jobs during the transitions from socialism to democracy at the beginning of 1990s. The success of the few that made easy money by going abroad was much more visible than the “normal” but long-term success of those that worked hard on their education. The long-term success was rendered even less visible as most of those who managed to complete their education left the ghettoes or their Roma communities. Educated, prosperous professional Roma face the choice of hiding their roots and trying to blend in with the majority populations (I personally know almost a hundred such cases) or enduring structural racism at all levels (see my previous articles on structural racism). Their achievements are never as visible as the “achievements” of those who made “easy” money.

That many of those trying to make “easy” money end up in prison is ignored, as incarceration is considered a part of the normal life cycle in these communities.

The children that made money begging or stealing in the 1990s became adults that used their children for begging or stealing. Their children, in turn, will do the same with their children when the opportunity arises. Children that steal cannot be put in prison, and some children became valuable assets for their parents, relatives or criminal networks that exploit them. The same principles apply when it comes to prostitution or selling drugs.

The focus on making money destroys generation after generation of children in the communities that live from these “trades”. It is a niche “economy” that was and in some cases still is very productive. I know a good number of families that go on begging trips by plane.

While education requires discipline and has no immediate pay off, begging or stealing can bring a child hundreds of Euros every month. Selling drugs becomes more and more the new productive “job” in the ghettoes of the big cities in Eastern and Central Europe.

The psychological damage suffered by the children involved in these “trades” is almost impossible to estimate and in the majority of the cases is completely disregarded by their parents as they think it is for the economic benefit of their children. These children grow into adults that have no chance to compete on the job market but have the skills, the networks, the support and the motivation to do well in the criminal economy. Selling drugs, prostitution, stealing and begging pay much better than any possible legal job for an uneducated (and usually illiterate) youth.

The lucky one-in-a-hundred prostitute who manages to pay off her traffickers, escape drugs and pimps, comes back with money and opens an erotic massage saloon is the only relevant model in the ghetto where I work. The stories of those that die of overdose, are beaten to death by their traffickers or their clients, or get HIV or other diseases are simply ignored by the girls that live in abject poverty and see prostitution as their only chance to get out.

Furthermore, the worst conditions in Western Europe are much better in almost every respect than living in the ghettoes or in dirt-poor communities in Eastern Europe. The welfare is better, the social services are better, the educational system is better. For criminals, beggars and prostitutes (whether they are Roma or not) the richer the country is, the better the pay. Prostitutes and beggars make sometimes ten times more money that in their own countries. Incarceration conditions are much superior and jail sentences shorter than in their countries.

It is true that there are immediate economical benefits in the short term if “Frankenstein” Roma leave their countries. But this has a disastrous effect in long term as it destroys generations after generation of their children. There may be long term repercussions: Roma have the highest percentage of young people of any ethnic group in Europe; these children must complete their education in order to compete on the job markets. The sustainability of many EU member states pensions might depend on it.

Economical benefits that come out of begging or petty crime are already much less than they used to be in the 1990s and soon enough there will be no “new markets” to be exploited. The increase in anti-Gypsyism is also a direct effect of migration and will make social inclusion harder and more expensive. The end result is a very dangerous spiraling effect that results in more and more rejection on behalf of the majority societies. Rampant anti-Gypsyism could result in inter-ethnic conflicts – the economical costs of such conflicts are impossible to estimate.

The existing flux of Frankenstein Roma migration needs to be addressed much better. It is impossible to stop it completely but using more efficiently the available EU money could lead to a significant reduction in the number of these people (and especially of children) leaving their countries.

The responsibility for many of the children, youth and adults from these lost generations rest not only with their irresponsible parents and inept local administrations and politicians but also with the aloof bureaucrats in Brussels or in the capital cities.

An independent responsible evaluation of all these bureaucracies and the way hundreds of millions of euros are spent on Roma issues is a must if we are to succeed with the social inclusion of Roma. Such evaluations are a normal requirement that these organisations impose on NGOs – there is no reason why they should not be subject to the same scrutiny.

[1] Contrary to popular belief, Frankenstein was not a monster, but the well-wishing creator of what turned out to be a monster. Victor Frankentein was described as very intelligent and well educated. The problem was that his pride and arrogance circumvented his responsibilities.

 

About anger and hands-on solutions in the ghettoes

5 Mar

Yes, if you wonder, I am angry. In the last month alone 3 people – all under 30 -I knew died of overdose. Last one was a 13 years old; he died when I was still writing this piece. I played football with him in the ghetto and I insisted he was coming to the school. His older brother died also because of an overdose. His mother was convinced that he will never take drugs as he saw his sibling dying in front of him. The only child she has left now is five. Future for him is bleak. I know children that sell themselves for sex at the age of 9 to support their drug addiction. I saw things that nobody should see. I am angry.

During last month I received many letters for why I shouldn’t quit and advice about more diplomatic criticism and ways how I could become more successful in hunting for jobs. Nobody from those working in institutions dealing with social inclusion seemed to be interested to ask about how we can address the problems in the ghettoes.

In spite of whatever my reader will think I am mostly angry with myself. Mad that I am not able to bring about systemic change. That I do not seem to find the right way to motivate the system to address issues that if left alone will ultimately be a significant threat to societies .

The ghettoes are a huge social problem. They are exploding all over Europe. In the last years spent working in the ghetto I found also some solutions.I also failed many times. Here the solutions.

Finding the right incentives

The main problems when it comes to the social inclusion of Roma are not the lack of expensive meetings, empty rhetoric, copy-paste reports and imagined or rationalised amazing successes. Quite the contrary, we have far too much funding for these. The main problem stays with the many ghettoes Roma live in, isolated Roma communities struggling with abject poverty and a good number of Roma that leave temporary or permanently their countries in search of a better life. Some of the last ones, unable to compete on the job market will end up working illegally, abuse the welfare systems or be involved in criminal activities and networks. These problems are strident and most of the top-level European politicians talk about them (sometimes in terms that are blatantly racist). Regardless, it is paradoxically that funding is not available to tackle the above-mentioned problems.

Some of the problems are not as complicated as they might seem and there are always solutions. Not addressing these problems soon will lead to a complete disappearance of the social fabric in this places and an escalation of violence and criminality with huge long term consequences.

There are good incentives for social inclusion of families at highest risk of petty criminality, migration and drug abuse from the ghettoes. Complex socio-economic factors at work in the ghettoes result in a disproportionate number of convicted criminals and illiterates. Ghettoes are often hot-beds for child prostitution, drug trafficking and drug abuse, violence and abject poverty.

A good part of the boys in the ghetto I work in (over 40 %) will be involved in criminal activities, end up in prison or drug addicted before they reach 21 years old. Girls have a slightly better chance but still the numbers are over 30%. At 30 years old the numbers are well above 50%.

Most of the children in the ghetto that end up in prison are functional illiterates – they are unable to do basic multiplications and can not read or understand the subtitles on the TV.

Almost none of these children can take part in organized sports due to the costs involved. At the same time sports is one and for many the most important thing in their lives.

Football, basketball and street dance changed dramatically to the better the lives of many children in our case. We keep the children in the school as we condition their participation in our sport activities by their presence in school. We found out that if children from the ghetto stay in school up to the 7th grade the probability to end up in prison is nine time less than children that left school before the 4th grade.

We managed to convince some of the most famous footballers in Romania to play with our children. The hope they could become football stars is strong and a great motivation to stay in school. It is also a great motivation for their parents to support their children to stay in school.

If we keep that hope until they are 14-15 we manage to improve dramatically their chances to become functional citizens.  At that age some of them less than big football clubs will recruit less than 2% of them. The rest will have six- seven years of education and nine times better chances to become functional citizens than the other children in the ghetto.

We do the same with girls – most popular sports for girls are dancing but it will work also with handball in Romania. Music classes, art classes can also make a difference. We proved it works at a micro scale – in the ghetto of Ferentari. It could work at the big scale.

The benefits for ghettoes could be enormous. It makes work with families a lot easier and reduces dramatically the possibility of children to be trafficked and used for begging and criminal activities.

It sounds great doesn’t it ? If you consider that we won the 2012 UNICEF award for best practice in Sports and Education and we also used EU money for what we do it might read like the perfect story.

You might think it is in fact a perfect success of EU funds and a clear proof of good practice. Wrong. EU Structural Funds cannot be used for what we do. It took the significant overall disinterest of the European Commission about what we were doing, luck and stubbornness on our behalf to be able to use EU funds for financing the club in Ferentari.

I knew there will be many battles I will lost in the ghetto at the moment I started. But many are avoidable loses. Many things could have been long solved. Everything needed is there but is still used wrongly.

The purpose I write all these are not to annoy people. Is to make them aware. Sharing my experiences and thoughts might help – it worked a bit in the past. So please do share – it might bring about the change I keep failing to do it myself.

Thanks.