Leslie Hawke: Advocating for Diversity (interview)

Alex Fund and OvidiuRo co-founder Leslie Hawke gave an interview to ZOOT magazine earlier this year –  a very personal and powerful pledge for diversity. Her answers shed light onto the motivation for supporting early education in poor rural Romania and OvidiuRo’s role for 2017.

You’ve spent most of your life in the United States, a country which seems to have gathered all the minorities in the world. How did you perceive diversity while living in the US? What are the differences you’ve spotted between the Americans and Romanians when it comes to tolerance?

The English novelist EM Forester said that tolerance merely means “putting up with people.” And by that definition I don’t see any differences between Romanians and Americans. In fact, I think Romanians in general tend to be a very tolerant people. They “mind their own business.” But tolerance and prejudice are really quite compatible. And there is no question that Romanians tend to be highly prejudiced against people they think are of Roma descent. Right now it’s hard to see where the US is going, but our recent past had been marked by a growth from merely tolerating the other in the direction of seeking value in what the other has to offer.

You’ve chosen to work with one of the most discriminated and I would say even hated minorities in Romania, the Roma people. What drew you to their community? 

Initially I was drawn to children who were begging on the street – I was drawn to their situation, not their ethnic heritage. Most of them turned out to be of Roma descent, all of them turned out to be living in desperately impoverished conditions. Extreme poverty causes people to behave “anti-socially”, that is, to beg and steal and cheat. If I saw no other way to feed my family I would too, wouldn’t you?

Poverty has this effect on all races when they are maligned and marginalized over multiple generations. And the smartest ones usually figure out a way to beat the system – since winning through the system is not available to them.

What are the best lessons you’ve learnt from the Roma people? What about the harshest things you’ve discovered about their community?

The saddest thing I have learned about the Roma community is that it is not really a community.   It is the way that middle-class Romanians label people who are either (a.) traditional Roma, or (b.) extremely poor, under-educated people who live in urban ghettos or on the margin of typical Romanian villages and are discriminated against, more because of their poverty than their DNA. Severe multi-generational poverty makes people pretty unattractive to the rest of us, and forces such people to behave anti-socially, simply in order to survive.

I have not had much exposure to traditional Roma, meaning people who speak the Romany as their first language and engage in traditional Roma occupations. I believe they ARE a community – but a very small one. By and large the traditional Roma are not the people we work with – not the people who need what we can offer. When people estimate that there are two million Roma in Romania, they are lumping the two groups together, and the second one is much much larger.

OvidiuRo’s mission is to get ALL the children who live in Romania, regardless of their ethnic heritage, the opportunity for a good education – an education that will allow them to qualify for a 21st century job. This has made us unpopular with Roma NGOs leaders who focus on the issue of ethnic discrimination.

Roma people have had a bad reputation in Romania for decades and it’s gone outside the borders as well in recent years – they are lazy, they steal, they don’t want to work and all the other stereotypes I’m sure you must have heard by now. How do you think we change these attitudes?

It has to start by creating an educational system that puts as many resources into educating minority children as it does in educating the professional urban population’s children. That’s what Fiecare Copil in Gradinita is all about – getting the most vulnerable children into the education system at the age of 3 – so they have a chance of keeping up with the children who are born with many more advantages. When kindergarten teachers see that 3 year old Roma children are just as bright and eager to learn as the other 3 year olds, and that their parents want a bright future for their children just as other parents do, they begin to become a little less prejudiced. And when these teachers get to know the families and see the hardships they are living under, they become not only more tolerant, but even compassionate.   The whole concept of Fiecare Copil in Gradinita is to create an environment where there is more interaction between impoverished parents and the schools. This leads to teachers and parents both having less negative feelings toward each other. And that leads to children who have a positive first school experience, instead of a negative one.   No one ever “changes” another person’s attitude.   We learn through our own experience, not by being preached at or reprimanded.

How do you see the other minorities in our country? For instance the LGBT community doesn’t have a very easy life these days in Romania, neither do the other minority groups.

I am troubled by how many young Romanians are still queasy when it comes to sexual identity issues. The people I know who are part of the LGBT community are some of the bravest people I’ve ever met. I admire them enormously because it is very hard to be a trailblazer on this issue. In some ways, I think is harder than being a member of an ethnic minority – because It makes you different from the other members of your very own family. And the risk of being rejected by your family is not a risk most people want to take.

America was a leader in the gay rights movement because active gay communities developed in major cities in the second half of the 20th century, and that sense of community gave its members the confidence to go public. When everyone knows someone – as a friend or a relative – who admits to being gay, then attitudes will change, and they will change rapidly.   I predict that there will be, in the next 10 years, a critical mass of gay men and women who will ‘come out’ to their parents and siblings – and then general attitude change will follow.  

What was the thing that you’ve found most difficult in all the actions you’ve done not only for the Roma people, but also for the poor people?

Personally, I don’t make any distinction between “wretchedly poor” and being of Roma descent. I realize there are Roma who are not wretchedly poor, but I’m not an anthropologist, I’m a justice-seeker for the poor. The most difficult thing for me has been to not lose my temper when well-educated Romanians tell me:

  • You’re wasting your time trying to help those people,
  • The children’s lack of education is all their parents’ fault, and
  • They’re just different from us – you’ll see!

I have been working with ‘those people’ for 17 years and I can tell you unequivocally, they are EXACTLY the same as us, they just have had very different experiences in the world.

Was there a particular story which struck you as memorable while trying to change lives with your colleagues at OvidiuRo?

OvidiuRo’s mission is pretty narrow: to get every child in gradinita.  I don’t presume to try to change lives; we are simply trying to change the circumstances poor children live in so they have a fighting chance to make a better life for themselves than their parents were able to do.       

The Roma women I know who have gotten a university education and escaped poverty did it for themselves! And it was not easy. Our organization might have helped them on the first rung of the ladder but climbing the rest of the way was their own monumental achievement. I know several women who fit into that category and it was very very hard for them – because often their families resented their success and interpreted their efforts to integrate into the larger society as a rejection of their own community. And often their Romanian colleagues resented them too.

You’ve involved your son, Ethan, in OvidiuRo’s charity actions. Do you think that celebrity can be a tool to help fight against discrimination, to help spread the message amongst masses?

To be perfectly frank, I’m not that impressed by celebrity endorsements. Most celebrities’ knowledge of the causes they espouse is very very shallow. What celebrities do that is to get other people’s attention. And that is very helpful when you are trying to sell tickets to a benefit event. Being the mother of a movie star has opened a lot of doors for me and I am deeply grateful to Ethan for taking the time out of his super-busy life to “stump for” me, as the saying goes in English.

But I don’t expect him to change anybody’s else’s opinion about Gypsies. People’s opinions change when their personal day-to-day experience changes. If you don’t know any Roma people on a personal level, you’re probably going to hold the same stereotypic opinions that the people around you hold, particularly your parents. But if you ever have a close friend who is Roma, you will probably be less judgmental.

It is quite interesting that in villages where the Roma households are interspersed throughout the main village, there are way fewer social problems than in communities where they are isolated on the edge of the village. It’s the “we vs. them” phenomenon. In fact, if I were in charge of Romanian housing policy, I would insist on integrating all apartment blocks. Like having an actual quota for Roma, Hungarians and ethnic Romanians. And I would NEVER create segregated housing blocks.

This is also why integrated classrooms are so important. And by integration I don’t mean putting the well-behaved middle-class Romanian kids in the front of the class and the Gypsies in the back! I mean throwing everybody together when they are 3 or 4 years old.

I realize integration is not easy – because people are just naturally drawn to people who are like themselves. (“Birds of a feather flock together”) I’m always amazed at how even in a corporate board meeting the women tend to sit on one side of the table and the men on the other. It’s natural selection in a most fundamental way. Communities need to actively provide opportunities for people from different groups to work together on a common cause. That’s what Fiecare Copil in Gradinita is all about. It gets the social workers talking to the teachers and the teachers talking to the parents and the school director talking to the mayor. And all in the service of the same objective: getting every child in gradinita.

How do you feel that the world is currently embracing diversity? Are we actually doing it? And here I’m thinking about what’s happening on an international level (the immigrants crisis, Donald Trump’s election in the context of his commentaries towards women, Muslims & all the others he’s made, the religious conflicts and the terrorist attacks, Brexit & so on).

The thing I love most about New York City is that it truly does embrace diversity. It’s not that people are unaware of ethnic or racial differences. It’s not really a “melting pot”. It’s more like ciorba de legume.

Have you ever felt discriminated? Have you ever discriminated against somebody (even subconsciously) just because that certain someone belonged to a certain group?

I feel discriminated against by certain Roma NGO leaders.  They hold a negative stereotype of me as an ugly American busybody who has invaded their territory.   It definitely is an unpleasant feeling because it seems so unfair.   We are both fighting for the same thing, just in different ways. But the slippery thing about prejudice is that when we are under its influence we never recognize it as prejudice. We think we have perfectly valid, sensible, justifiable reasons for our stereotypes.

I am definitely prejudiced against people who voted for Donald Trump. I know that I really do need to get over that. But I honestly don’t know if I CAN get over it because I feel so threatened by what he stands for. I think prejudice invariably boils down to fear. I fear Donald Trump. I don’t fear black people or Roma people – although I am wary of anybody who looks like they might want to steal my purse! I have been mugged twice on Calea Victoriei by young adolescent boys. The cops always asked, “were they gypsies?” Now how would I know that? They were kids dressed in jeans and hoodies. Am I prejudiced against street kids in jean and hoodies, yeah, now I am.

OvidiuRo has done amazing things to help integrate less fortunate children in the educational system. However, hate is learnt in the family from very young ages. My generation, for instance, grew up fearing the Roma people; “if you’re not nice, we’re gonna give you to the gypsies” or “don’t talk to gypsies, they will steal your possessions” are phases our parents would often tell us to scare us and most of us have had some bad experiences as well with the Roma people later on – from stealing, to swearing & so on. What can we do and what should they do so that we have a decent cohabitation?

It all boils down to the same thing: providing authentic opportunities for people to get to know each other as individuals.

You’ve compared various time Romanians’ attitude towards the Roma people to that of the Americans towards the Afro-Americans. However the Americans have elected a black president twice (although Afro-Americans still don’t have the easiest life there). In this context, where Romania is way behind in terms of tolerance towards minorities, does this comparison still stand?

Yes, the similarities are huge. The one big difference is that in the US, successful black people continue to be perceived as black. Even if they are ¾ white, other people consider them black – because it is much harder for them to pass as white than it is for Romanian Roma to “pass”.   Thus, in Romania, successful educated people of Roma descent are just assumed to be ‘dark skinned’ Romanians. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “He looks like a Gypsy, but he’s not” when they are talking about a friend or colleague. And I always wonder, “And how exactly do you know that? And what difference does it make?” I think the difference that it makes is that by assuming they are not Roma, you don’t have to question your prejudices against Roma.

What would you tell someome who has a negative attitude towards the Roma people or any other minority? How would you try to persuade them to change their preconceptions?

Ideally I would take them to a Fiecare Copil in Gradinita program on “Read Aloud Day” when the parents have been invited to be there too. They would see for themselves that the Roma mothers loved and delighted in their children just as much as you and I do. The big difference is that nobody has ever told these mothers that they should read books with their kids (or look at and discuss them together if they can’t read) and nobody has ever given them a picture book to take home until today!

What is your ultimate goal you plan to achieve till 2020, when you’ll leave Romania?

My ultimate goal is for OvidiuRo to help make the Fiecare Copil in Gradinita law a national success, and that will happen when the villages that need it the most have made early education of ALL the village’s children a major community priority.

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