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Roma Leadership for the 21st Century

International Roma Day is an opportunity to realize that the major source of hope for Roma in Europe is the Roma people themselves. Waiting for the EU and governments to solve the problems of our people is not an option. This sort of dependency contributes to a deep-seated sense of inferiority. Consequently, both Roma and non-Roma alike are convinced that we have always been mentally, physically, spiritually, and culturally inferior.

Rebuilding dignity and pride, and developing confidence, competence, and self-reliance are the prime goals for our leadership in the 21st century. We have to look at ourselves, draw on strength from our predecessors, and grow through collective successes.

From the time we arrived in Europe at least a thousand years ago, our bodies and minds have been under assault. We have suffered and survived Europe’s terror, humiliation, and denial, including slavery, racial otherness, discrimination, forced assimilation, persecution, deportation, and genocide. Despite this, we have learned, created, invented, discovered, built, and thought. We have mastered a “way out of no way” and contributed to the overall development and rebirth of the arts in Europe.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw some of our ancestors’ most important steps forward in resistance, self-definition, collective form of protest, and more organized political action. Despite all the hardships and external negative forces, our critical voices present the most progressive minority leadership in 21st-century Europe.

In the struggle to prove our emancipation, many of our people have paid a high price. Thanks to those who sacrificed, we live in a time when visibility of the Roma situation is greater than ever. We made the EU, national institutions, and various international and intergovernmental organizations, agencies, and bilateral and private donors more committed to supporting change in the lives of our people. 

We have also been developing a new stratum of citizens who can help surface a more impactful leadership. We are getting bigger in number and stronger in knowledge. The number of university students and graduates, journalists, writers, artists, public intellectuals, lawyers, politicians, civil servants, doctors, and teachers has been steadily growing over the last two decades.

Besides this growing “elite,” our communities are also recognized as potential game changers. In many localities, regions, and countries, we represent a great voting power. We are also the youngest and fastest-growing demographic segment in the EU. This adds up to invaluable potential and strength that, if well organized, could transform the leadership status and the well-being of our people.

Yet anyone who looks beyond the glow of the moment will understand that neither our leadership nor the situation of our people will change overnight. The context has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. This has been a decade of paradox with enormous challenges. Attempts at bettering the lives of our people have been, to say the least, largely rhetorical and without substantial results. Yet it has also been a decade powered by new hope, as we have grown in number, knowledge, and individual achievement. Today, we are at a moment where the opportunity to move ahead has never been greater.

The key question is: how we can seize this moment and take charge of our destiny?

We have to take the risk of leadership, which means to enable others with shared values and motives, and purposefully deploy our various resources of knowledge, skills, social capital, and material means to reposition the demands of our people in the political process that shapes their future. Moving in this direction is a very difficult and complex task—impossible to accomplish individually in solitude. It requires a collective power and transformation in ethics, competence, roles, and relationships.

We need to build confidence and confront the notion that we are hopeless, powerless, and voiceless, that we need help and assistance, as well as other “gifts” from the outside. We need to create a context in which our future leadership is part and takes part of common history and struggle, as a moral source for mobilization, critical reflection, adaptation, and aspirations for collective improvement.

To engage in the distribution of wealth and power in society, we need to replace our disbelief in politics by political engagement in the democratic practices of decision making. 

If we realize that none of us can succeed alone in today’s changing world, we can achieve much more than what we have until today. Our sole preoccupation with the brilliance of personalities and isolated individuals must be overridden by the creation of collective brilliance.

Filling the need for belonging is not just a personal struggle for connection but also our collective challenge, because it directly affects the patterns of disorganization that weaken our leadership strength and impact. Our future leadership should take the path in which people can discern common interests and mobilize common resources on behalf of those interests, including those of our supporters.

“In democratic countries,” Alexis de Tocqueville once wisely observed, “knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge that depend on others.” Moving forward, we have to better understand and combine our resources. To achieve this, we need to develop mutual relationships and experiences that would support future leadership in attaining a sense of urgency, shared purpose, courage, hope, and consistent support.

We have to come to a place where every individual success will be considered as part of a collective success, and where most of the individual successes would depend on the others. Only then will we be able to exercise more effective and impactful grassroots leadership, organizational leadership, political leadership, and intellectual leadership in making democracy work every day for our people.

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