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How Getting Involved in Politics Transformed One Roma Village’s Future

  • Older woman votes
    A Roma grandmother from Mărginenii de Jos votes in the Romanian presidential election. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Women listen to speech
    Parents and pupils listen to a political speech by Roma activists Marius Tudor and Marian Daragiu at a school in Mărginenii de Jos. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Men talk on the street
    Roma activists Marius Tudor (left) and Marian Daragiu (right) discuss the election with a fellow activist during the last door-to-door campaign with Roma community members of Mărginenii de Jos before the final round of the presidential elections. The campaigners supported Victor Ponta, who lost the elections in the end. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • People talk outside
    Ilie Dumitru (right), former Roma local councilor, discusses improving community infrastructure with residents of Zavraci, an area of Mărginenii de Jos. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Woman on bus
    Niculina, a Roma woman, rides the bus home from work in Mărginenii de Jos. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Couple sits in bedroom
    Gheorghe Gurau, 60, with his wife Ana Gurau, 58, sit in their home located in the village of Mărginenii de Jos. Mr. Gurau worked his whole professional life as a welder, and now he and his wife are both pensioners. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Woman and man talk
    Gabriela Costache talks with Roma activist Marius Tudor in her family home in Mărginenii de Jos. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Portrait of a girl
    Twenty-two-year-old Roma student Cornelia Budrega sits in her parents’ home. Budrega is a master’s student in commercial business administration in Bucharest. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Portrait of a man
    Gheorghe Budrega, father of Cornelia Budrega, stands in his home. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • woman
    A local woman who sells vegetables on the main road of Mărginenii de Jos discusses politics ahead of the presidential election. Behind her hangs an advertisement for candidate Victor Ponta. Ponta lost the elections. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Woman carries buckets in the street
    A woman with buckets fetches drinking water in Zavraci, where there are still houses not connected to the water system. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Woman carries buckets in the street
    Roma councilor Gheorghe Tudor talks with workers about water pipe construction in his village Mărginenii de Jos. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Man walks in street
    Gheorghe Tudor walks along the road that runs from Mărginenii de Jos to the center of the commune Filipeştii de Târg. Tudor was instrumental in getting the road built. © Björn Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations

In today’s Romania, Roma are vastly under-represented politically, and many have come to find themselves divorced from democracy, something that has only deepened the community’s troubles. The story of Filipeştii de Târg shows how this kind of systematic disenfranchisement can hold back a people—and how those determined to break free of this can change their trajectory for generations to come.

Filipeştii de Târg is a commune of 7,700 residents nestled among the fairytale towns and forested hills of Prahova County, Romania. The commune is composed of three villages: Brătăşanca, Filipeştii de Târg, and Mărginenii de Jos. Thirty-five percent of its people are Roma, and with few exceptions they all live in the village of Mărginenii de Jos.

Despite the fact that more than a third of its population is Roma, until two decades ago Mărginenii de Jos had never elected a Roma person as local councilor. That changed in 1996, when a young petrol engineer named Gheorghe Tudor (father of Marius, one of the authors) was voted into office—the sole Roma among 14 other non-Roma councilors.

Almost immediately, Tudor began working to close the gap that separated the disadvantaged Roma population and their more prosperous non-Roma neighbors. He brought Roma needs to the attention of the local council, convincing them to allocate money for better infrastructure, social services, and economic opportunities in Roma areas. And he explained to his fellow Roma the inner-workings of local government, convincing them that by electing members of their own ethnic group to office, government could be leveraged to their benefit.

His constituents heard what he had to say and, in the next election four years later, voted Tudor up to county councilor, a position that affords more possibility to bring positive change for the Roma community. Once there, the former engineer achieved one of the community’s long-standing goals: connecting the Roma citizens of Filipeştii de Targ to the rest of the commune with a three-kilometer asphalt road.

As they marveled at their new paved thoroughfare, the Roma population began to understand the importance of being politically represented, of electing your own people to positions of influence. They realized that if the road between their village and the rest of the commune could be paved, then so could the roads within their village, and they soon set to work lobbying for that cause.

Idle griping about conditions turned into clarion calls for change. Groups of local citizens began proposing specific infrastructure projects, and learning how to organize.

Since then, every electoral cycle in Filipeştii de Targ has seen Roma candidates elected to office. Today, the commune has no less than six Roma local councilors, all elected by the village of Mărginenii de Jos.

It’s because of this that the Roma population now has access to the municipal natural gas system, the electricity network, churches, a beautiful kindergarten, and renovated schools. Recent negotiations also ensured that in the next six months every citizen of Filipeştii de Targ—from all three villages, no matter their ethnic origin—will have access to potable water from the municipal water system, as well as improved roads and a community center. The city hall is already coordinating resources with public loans approved by the county council.

Today, Roma people have faith in their elected local councilors. They’ve developed a trust-based relationship between themselves and the officials that represent them. In the recent run-up to the presidential elections, the Roma community of Filipeştii de Targ and their political representatives gathered to discuss the implications of the event—a discussion that would have been unfathomable just a few years ago.

The tangible infrastructure achievements in recent years are remarkable. But perhaps even more impressive is the growth of a community that’s conscious of the way it’s perceived and its place in society. After 14 years, Gheorghe Tudor is not alone anymore. His dream of a leadership community has come true.

The Roma in Mărginenii de Jos have succeeded without EU funds and without private donors; they succeeded because of their own efforts and the power of democracy. The success of Mărginenii de Jos will not appear in a neat impact report or project assessment—this is a story of 20 years of effort, determination, and empowerment.

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