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Czech project on local politics shows importance of discussing Roma issues with students

Prague, 30.6.2014 20:10, (ROMANO VOĎI)
A role-playing game about local politics in the Czech Republic. (PHOTO:  Zuzana Schwarzová)
A role-playing game about local politics in the Czech Republic. (PHOTO: Zuzana Schwarzová)

As part of a project called the "Local Politics Role-Playing Game", we have once again been encountering anti-Romani sentiment among students in Czech high schools. Are these genuinely racist attitudes these students hold, or is this about a lack of communication?

We are also seeing various local governments take different approaches to this issue. A good example is the town of Sokolov, which has taken a gamble on hiring crime prevention assistants and on holding events to generate the dialogue that has been missing between the majority society and the Romani minority.

This is the third year in which I have participated as a lecturer in this project, which is organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung e.V. In high schools throughout the Czech Republic we do our best to spark interest among students in what is going on around them, to help them engage politically at the local level, and to show them that it is not hard to get involved and that it is easiest to begin with one's own town, as students know their way around it best and also best know what they would like to change.

At first glance it might not seem that this project has anything to do with the topic of Romani people. However, students do not live in a vacuum, and we can see general trends from the larger social atmosphere developing among them as well.

We are currently seeing anti-Romani sentiment, the initial germination of racist, xenophobic, or other hateful attitudes, as well as a rising lack of solidarity with homeless people, for example. How, then, does the Role-Playing Game achieve its aims? 

In addition to providing students with basic information about how local politics works and opportunities to get involved in it, we primarily ask them what they like and don't like about their town and what they imagine when we say "democracy". Hot-button topics are raised by these questions.

Very often, from the perspective of the students, Romani people are a hot-button topic. Various opinions and approaches for solving these problems are voiced, most of which are repressive and do not take the causes of the given state of affairs into account.

That is the point at which we usually determine that we are the first people who have ever discussed these issues with the students. We are the first to ask them what they consider problematic and the first to actually engage them in discussion. 

In most cases the tactic has worked of letting the students just speak and of moderating the debate through well-calibrated questions, or by giving examples of good practice. We let the students discover for themselves that these matters are much more complex than they might seem and that solutions cannot be restricted solely to repressive measures. 

It is clear that success depends on the communicativeness of the students and on their capacity to hold a constructive debate, and naturally some of them bitterly oppose any other perspective than their own on this issue. The aim of the discussion, however, is not to create a whole classroom of pro-Romani activists - it is enough to sow the seeds of doubt, to get ideas into their heads.  

The students learn from us that the world, in this respect, is not what they first thought. They also learn that not everything they hear from the media or from those around them is necessarily the case.

Let's return to that essential moment when we learn that we are the first people to have ever discussed this topic with the students. These classrooms are otherwise ruled by an unappreciated kind of hatred, fed by impulses from the general environment and the media that often has nothing to do with any actual, specific experiences.

The fact that the students are willing to listen to us, that most of them admit that another view of this issue is possible, shows us that if they were to encounter such discussions more often and more regularly, we would be able to tap into significant potential. They could design projects for a recreational center that would be thought-through in every detail, they could present such a project to a simulated town council meeting where the mayor and the public are present (that is the culmination of the role-playing game), where they could discuss the project enthusiastically, or they could become involved in such a project in some other way.

Such is the example of the town of Čáslav, where the situation was very tense in 2011 - private landlords were doing a lucrative business in housing the socially vulnerable, and the town was unprepared for the influx of such people. While fiery debates were held at local council meetings that endlessly revolved around a stalemate, students there came forward with an idea that at least partially addressed the issue - as an example of "getting an idea into their heads", Čáslav was a good beginning.

Currently in the Czech Republic, the opportunity for students to discuss the topics they consider serious and to reflect on them depends on individual teachers (for example, of civics) and is entirely voluntary. These opportunities depend on whether school management wants to provide such a project to their students.

Even though many such projects run under the auspices of the Education Ministry, the question arises as to whether such projects should become a mandatory part of the curriculum, for example, during "project days" when the school could choose from the many such workshops available, whether focused on political engagement, cooperation with members of minorities, media literacy, or other topics. The situation in our society shows us that we must communicate and discuss things with one another in order to prevent outbursts of displeasure.

What students appreciate the most about these role-playing games is that someone listens to them and that they can finally state their opinion and discuss it.  Without such an opportunity, the students' opinions remain hidden, boiling inside them until they bubble to the surface in the form of marches, protests, and a tendency toward radical, rapid, simple solutions. 

Example of a positive approach by local government:  Sokolov

Just as we encounter various opinions and approaches among the students we work with, we naturally also encounter different approaches taken by local governments. Here I primarily have in mind local concepts for working with minorities. 

From my perspective, a good example is the town of Sokolov. Its evidently best-known move is the creation of four crime prevention assistant positions, staffed by Romani people, who are tasked with ensuring contact with the Romani community and are connected to the School Department, the schools themselves, and the Social Welfare Department, where they help solve any eventual problems by taking an approach that is not repressive.

It is interesting to review how and why this idea came about. In 2011, Sokolov commissioned a survey has part of its "Safe Town" project evaluating the sense of threat experienced by residents in various localities.

Subjectively, the most dangerous place in town was reported as U divadla Street, which is mostly inhabited by Romani people, as were other similar places. Here it is worth noting that from the perspective of crimes and misdemeanors reported to police, these localities are among the calmest, with a below-average number of conflicts reported in them.  

In this case, therefore, the subjective feelings of most of the town's residents were genuinely the issue. The local government responded to this public feedback by holding more meetings and by negotiating with representatives of the Romani community from whom the four assistants were then selected. 

During 2013, CZK 900 000 was spent on this project, most of it (CZK 800 000) provided by the Czech Interior Ministry. Despite initial mistrust, it seems the project is succeeding. 

Not only is the ministry presenting this as an example of success, but positive reactions to it are coming to the local council as well, and in a recent survey more than half of respondents said the situation has improved. It is necessary to point out that 20 % of respondents also reported that the situation is worse now, because people are being moved out of the main train station if they have no business being there. 

The question is to what degree we can take this most recent survey as valid, given that it was essentially a self-selecting one (not random) - only people with clear opinions express themselves on thorny issues in such cases, so the opinions will therefore probably be either significantly negative or positive. However, the project is also being positively evaluated both by Mayor Zdeněk Berka and local police commander Petr Kubis. 

This year the town is counting on expanding the number of assistants by two, adding a woman who will visit families and schools directly, and another assistant who will visit neighboring villages. According to Mayor Berka, the town hall has not received any feedback from local Roma, but Kubis says police have received positive reactions from them. 

Thanks to the assistants and the improved communications with the Romani community, local authorities were able to convince the community not to hold a Romani march against police brutality and instead to hold a two-day event called "We Live here Together - Open Streets". This event included debates at the primary schools, film screenings, a conference, and the temporary closure of the much-feared Divadelní Street so that children from nursery schools, irrespective of their ethnicity, could decorate the sidewalks there with chalk.  

The event culminated on 5 October with a Romani culture presentation, primarily of cuisine and music, directly on U divadla Street. While Municipal Police reported that participation was high, students from the local college prep high school said not many people were there.

Kubis says there were 300 people attendance, which is no small number. For the time being, however, some residents may not have much trust in such events.

We can only speculate as to whether the event was not properly advertised or whether it just takes a little time before others will give it a chance and start attending it. Be that as it may, in the example of Sokolov we can see that a positive approach by local government significantly contributes toward peaceful coexistence between the majority and minority parts of the population.

We constantly hear about marches through the towns of northern Bohemia "for decency" these days. We will not be hearing of any such unrest from Sokolov.  

Zuzana Schwarzová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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