The role of Organization Drom in the process of educational desegregation in Central and Eastern Europe

January 28, 2022

Interview with Bernard Rorke, Editor at the European Roma Rights Center-Budapest on the role of Organization Drom in the process of educational desegregation in Central and Eastern Europe

Bernard Rorke was born in Dublin and lives in Budapest. He has an MSc in Politics and Sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London and a PhD from the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He worked on Roma issues with the Open Society Foundations from 1998 until December 2013. He currently teaches the “Roma Rights” course at the Central European University in Budapest and works at the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, Hungary.

When and how did you meet Organization Drom and Donka Panayotova, what first impressed you?

More than twenty years have passed since I met with Donka and her colleagues in Organization Drom. I remember what impressed me was the professionalism and commitment of the team at Drom; as for Donka I was struck by her determination and vision, her charisma and ability to lead, and her capacity to make change happen around an issue that was always close to my heart – school desegregation.

You were the Deputy Director of the OSI/RPP. Wasn’t the educational desegregation project proposal of Organization Drom a bit out of the focus of the Foundation at that time?

RPP and the ERRC sought to combine strategic litigation with community-based mobilization to fundamentally challenge what we considered the institutional obscenity of racial segregation; we wanted to break the silence around the scandalous and systemic discrimination that denied Romani pupils their fundamental right to education. The project proposal from Drom combined the ideals of a civil rights movement with the kind of attention to practical detail to create an ‘actually existing model of desegregation’, and set the scene for wider mobilization around the issue.

This marked a wonderful departure from the typical projects around Roma education, where fortunes were spent in pursuit of gradual, incremental, ‘step-by-step-by-step-by-step’ improvement of conditions and outcomes within segregated systems, approaches that neither changed nor challenged what is now belatedly recognized by the European Union as institutional discrimination.

As a member of the management of a funding institution and as an expert, did you think that the educational desegregation project of Organization Drom organization was too ambitious?

I certainly would not have called myself an expert back in the late 1990s; and twenty-five years on I am still allergic to the idea that I am any kind of expert! The Drom desegregation plan was indeed ambitious, it reset the agenda, and put the rights of the child first, it changed the conversation about access to education for Roma, it transformed what passes for ‘common sense’, and stressed the system by revealing what had been hitherto accepted as normal for what it really was – racist segregation. That was what was inspiring about the Drom project which, within a couple of years, came to be known all over Europe as the ‘Vidin model’.

You have visited Vidin several times, as well as other desegregation projects. Is there anything that impressed you very much and that you will not forget?

What I won’t forget is the feeling of elation, riding one yellow bus from the mahala to the school, and seeing the schoolyard thronged with eager schoolkids, Roma and non-Roma playing together and ready to learn together. Knowing how much preparation was involved; how much advocacy, persuasion and sheer effort RPP Director Rumyan Russinov had invested; and how much painstaking work Donka and the Drom team put in with authorities, teachers and parents to make this possible – to witness the reality of it at the beginning of an ordinary school day gave me a fleeting glimpse of what a Europe beyond racism might look like.

How did the OSI leadership in Budapest and New York react to this project?

OSI leadership in New York made all the difference. Debbie Harding was committed heart and soul to supporting the DROM project and wider desegregation efforts across Central and Eastern Europe. George Soros and OSI President Aryeh Neier were both hugely important allies, and indeed school desegregation became one of the key priorities of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015.

Were there any educational projects in the Open Society that had been implemented up to that time that conflicted with desegregation?

OSF was by definition a pluralist enterprise, comprised of a variegated network of organizations, foundations, programs and special initiatives, united by a loosely-defined but firm commitment to justice, democratic governance, and human rights, and a mission to help build inclusive and vibrant democracies. So of course, there were differing and often conflicting notions about what constitutes the public good.

Across Europe, it was OSI that took the lead in insisting that only Roma can emancipate themselves, and that Roma must take a leading role in the design, implementation, and monitoring of policy interventions that impact upon their lives. So, OSI leadership backed the first Roma-led, community-based mobilization around school desegregation, the first intervention that put Roma rights first. As with any first step that is profound, worthwhile and emancipatory, it is bound to, and certainly did, ruffle feathers, upset powers that be, and call time on those with a vested interest in business as usual.

There were opponents to desegregation among the experts, donors and various civil society stakeholders, who claimed we were too radical, and too inexperienced to comprehend the complexities of education. They caricatured the Drom desegregation model as simply bussing children from departure point to destination point, and labelled us personally as extremists.  

Within OSI, the agreed position was that all Roma-related education programs would be guided by a commitment to school desegregation and the promotion of equal access to quality integrated education for Roma. No future funding would go to projects working within segregated schools that maintained the delivery of separate and forever unequal education for Romani children.

Until sometime in the middle of the first decade of this century, Roma issues and desegregation were relatively high on the agenda of the European institutions. Our impression, however, is that in the second decade a step backwards was taken in this respect. Signals have started to come from the European institutions, which can be paraphrased as ‘We give them billions for integration, but nothing happens’. Do you have any comment and explanation?

The second decade of this century kicked off with the launch of the EU Framework for National Integration Strategies up to 2020, and the European Commission, despite a packed policy agenda driven by crisis after crisis, still kept its word and lost no time launching a new “EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusionand participation for 2020 – 2030”.  Ending school segregation had been a priority in both Frameworks.

From a time when faux liberals cautioned us and other Roma activists against being too ‘confrontational’ or even using the word ‘desegregation’, the demand to end racial segregation of Romani pupils in schools is now part of the mainstream European policy agenda; figures prominently in every communication from the European Commission, and has been vindicated repeatedly in the European Court of Human Rights; and is the subject of ongoing EU infringements against three member states (Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics).

So, I would be less inclined to blame the European institutions, rather it is the Member States that continue to oppress their Romani citizens; and it is national governments that need to step up and certain leaders need to behave less like racist thugs and more like democrats, as they are primarily responsible for the rights and well-being of all of their citizens, and others who reside within their borders. I don’t know of any signals from Brussels, about fatigue over ‘billions wasted’ on Roma inclusion.

What I have seen, in terms of political rhetoric from the Commission is a clear recognition that anti-Roma racism needs to be combated effectively and that institutional discrimination remains a barrier to Roma inclusion across the Union. In terms of action, there is dissatisfaction about the misuse by state authorities of EU funds, and recently the EU has put out calls for proposals that will make funding directly available to civil society organizations to defend democracy, fight racism and discrimination.

Do you think that the European Union and the international community have the capacity and the will to have positive policies on the Roma issue in the near future?

As I have said earlier, there are limits to what the European Union and the international community can do – I would of course like them to push those limits – I would like to see funding conditionalities kick in against states that don’t uphold the rule of law and continue to discriminate against Roma and other racialized minorities. I would like the Commission to become a more robust ‘guardian of the treaties’ when it comes to Article 2 and Member States such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia failing to uphold values such as “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” I would also like to see the Race Equality Directive actually make a difference in eliminating the institutional racism that Roma face.

But there is no getting away from the basic fact that it is at national and local level that we need to see political leadership and political will to make a difference. There is no secret about what needs to be done, there are piles of recommendations on every conceivable policy area to do with Roma inclusion, there is no shortage of EU funding for ‘explicit but not exclusive’ interventions to address the socio-economic exclusion of Roma. We can’t wait for policies to fall into place, we need to close the gap between what is and what ought to be; we must continue to struggle, for racists must never prevail; and we must always hope and fight for a better future especially in those EU Member States, where corruption, racism and contempt for the rule of law corrodes all that is liberal and egalitarian in our democracies.