Pirate Party partners with Romani residents to attempt improvement of infamous Czech housing estate
"Basically there is constant activity underway to influence public opinion at Chanov. Politicians from the anti-Romani political parties are doing their best to influence local opinion, and when they do it, they appear to be friendly, they speak differently in person than they do on the billboards," commented Adam Komenda (Pirates), a city councilor in Most, Czech Republic, when we interviewed him together with pro-Roma activist Miroslav Brož, the party's adviser on community work and Romani-related subjects. Both men, together with Romani residents of the Chanov housing estate, are doing their best to prevent the relocation of the residents into "container housing", which the city leadership is planning, and are offering a different solution: That the residents themselves would reconstruct the existing apartment buildings there.
Q: Adam, how did it happen that you, as a city councilor for the Pirates, began to engage in such an unpopular, difficult issue as the integration of the Roma and addressing the situation in socially excluded localities?
AK: Because I have to. Coexistence with the Romani community and impoverished ghettos in Most, especially Chanov, are subjects that are very important to ordinary residents of this region, including those who don't otherwise take any interest in politics. That's probably exactly why many political parties in Most have attempted to somehow work on this subject during their campaigns. Unfortunately, in their campaigns and programs, they have just offered shortcut, populist measures that will resolve nothing, but that could have been appealing to anti-Romani voters in their radicalism. Everybody probably still recalls the slogans on billboards such as "We will build a village for the riff-raff", or about poison not being "strong enough" for these "pests". As the Pirates, we would like to work on actually remedying the situation, and if the solutions attempted during the last 20 years have not worked, we must look for new ones, and that is exactly what we are attempting at Chanov with the local Roma and with Miroslav.
Q: Miroslav, how did it happen that you began working for the Pirates? What, exactly, is your position in Most?
MB: I am a Pirate, and the men and women of the Pirate Party are the hope and the change [laughs]. No, seriously, I have a long history with the Pirates, in 2010 several friends of mine and I established the Pirate Party organization in Ústí nad Labem and I then led it for several years. After some time of not being active with them I came back in 2017, and for several months I worked for them as the coordinator of their volunteers ahead of the parliamentary elections. As of January I am working as an adviser to Ivan Bartoš on Romani-related subjects and community work. The Pirates are intensively looking for new, innovative methods to kick-start real change in Romani communities' situations. I am doing my best to helpful. In Most I am teaching the local Pirate cell how to work with this community.
Q: What exactly is happening at Chanov? What are you two doing there, how did you begin this collaboration?
A.K.: Several months ago we found out, as councilors, that the city plans to demolish several buildings at Chanov and to construct so-called "container housing" in their place. These are the same kind of containers that Jiří Čunek installed in Vsetín, and they will be moving the Romani residents of the demolished prefabricated apartment buildings into them. Later the city even organized a field trip by the councilors to Vsetín, so they could see the containers for themselves. We Pirates believe that people, especially families with children, should live in apartments, not containers, and we believe building a ghetto within a ghetto actually is no solution, so we decided to object to the plan along with our local coalition partners, the Greens. I met Miroslav last summer in the Předlice neighborhood of Ústí nad Labem, where he was aiding the people who had been evicted and were living temporarily in a school gym, and I brought some material aid to them there. I saw that he's like a fish in water among the Roma, he knows how to communicate with them and he has their trust.
M.B.: When Adam asked me to collaborate with them, I was very glad and truth be told, it was also good timing. The Pirates need to test new community methods in practice somewhere and methods for involving the residents of socially excluded localities into addressing their situations. We began to visit Chanov together, to speak with people there about their situations and about the planned demolition of the buildings and construction of the containers. Gradually we managed to form a Community Action Group of active housing estate residents, which meets regularly and discusses the situation at Chanov, and over time it is beginning to make plans and to come forward with its own proposals for addressing the situation. Our ideal is that gradually this group of active local residents would become a partner for the city in order to address the situation at Chanov.
A.K.: As councilors, the creation of the Community Action Group has yielded different benefits. For example, we have a direct information line to Chanov, now we know what is happening there, which may sound banal, but it's crucial to any proposal for solutions. We are beginning to find out what the needs of the housing estate and its inhabitants are. We are acquiring this knowledge of the situation at the housing estate directly at the scene, in communication with locals during common activities, not by reading reports and analyses by researchers, of which there are many on the Internet. Among other matters, it is exactly for that reason that we are doing our best to involve the Chanov inhabitants in the work to be done by the new working group city leadership is attempting to establish right now together with the Agency for Social Inclusion.
Q: It's very unusual that a city councilor would visit impoverished Romani people and attempt to involve them in planning their integration.
M.B.: Maybe it's necessary to put what we are doing at the local level in Most into a broader context. The integration of Romani people and addressing the situations in the impoverished ghettos is unfortunately not succeeding in the Czech Republic. In my opinion, it is not succeeding especially because the Romani people who are the ghetto inhabitants themselves are not involved in this entire process. They are just considered to be the objects of integration, clients, not partners in the discussion. Usually, in each city with a Romani community, there is some kind of planning group of "experts", representatives of institutions, whether state ones or nonprofit ones, and together they come up with ideas for how to resolve the situations in the local ghetto. Sometimes this is a group established by the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, sometimes it is a municipal community planning group, and so forth. What is always absent from that group are representatives of the inhabitants of the locality about which the group is meeting. The "experts" from the group never consult their plans with the local Roma, and what's more, they frequently have poor knowledge of the mechanisms and situations in the locality for which they are designing solutions. For example, in Most a group addressing the situation at Chanov has been meeting for 20 years without any Romani representation. They have had no visible effect on the situation at the housing estate. Elsewhere in Europe, right now an experimental project is being tested called ROMACT, which is responding to the insufficient involvement of Romani people in the processes of their own integration and emancipation and is offering new methods and ways forward. Its essence consists of creating capacities within the Romani communities and the municipalities for communicating and planning together. In the cities where it works, what is happening is that Romani people and ghetto residents are involved in planning and in their own integration. We and the Pirates are doing our best to adapt that project to fit Czech conditions. We would like the cities that decide to address the situations in socially excluded localities to do so together with their residents and to involve them in the planning and the entire integration process, not just in the role of clients of the social welfare department and the nonprofits, but that they get an opportunity to receive methodological and other support for their intentions. In Most we have established a Community Working Group for the Chanov residents and we hope that their work and their outputs will manage to be combined with the work of the non-Romani planning groups and that together we will create a better, actually functional, consensus plan for addressing the situation at Chanov, step by step.
A.K.: The meetings of the Community Working Group and the other activities at Chanov have aided me in better understanding the mood and public opinion among the Chanov residents. Some city councilors who support the building of these containers have presented this entire matter as if the Romani residents themselves have no problem moving into container housing, even alleging that they will be glad about it. At these meetings it was demonstrated that the locals are very sharply against containers and refuse to move into them. The community group even created a petition against the containers and delivered it to a city council session. The locals also came with their own proposal for a solution - they themselves, with the aid of the city, would repair some of the apartment buildings instead of their being demolished, and they would therefore acquire dignified housing that they will value and containers would no longer be necessary.
Q: At Chanov you also organized a community day that the Roma from Vsetín attended to inform locals about their bad experiences with container housing. What was that like?
A.K.: Basically there is constant activity underway to influence public opinion at Chanov. Politicians from the anti-Romani political parties are doing their best to influence local opinion, and when they do it, they appear to be friendly, they speak differently in person than they do on the billboards. Some of the Chanov residents, unfortunately, are easily influenced. We see this, for example, when we look at the election results at Chanov in recent years, or at the scandals associated with influencing the elections. Some are doing their best to disseminate the disinformation among the Chanov residents that container housing is basically beautiful and high-quality. By bringing the Romani people living in container housing in Vsetín here to speak about it, we have "killed" that effort, as the Roma would say.
M.B.: Our community day had more than one part, in addition to the Roma from Vsetín speaking and the debate about the containers and the overall situation, we also cleaned up part of the housing estate together and in the evening we had a party with live music by a band from Předlice.
Q: What are you planning at Chanov next?
A.K.: By investigating in-depth we have been discovering other matters that need ad hoc solutions. For example, the problems with the water. At the beginning of the autumn we also anticipate an escalation in this dispute about whether to build the container housing and demolish the prefabricated apartment buildings.
M.B.: During August we eased up on the regularity of the meetings of the Community Action Group because it's vacation time, but one of the prerequisites for its successful operation is perseverance and regularity, so we need to renew that cycle of regular weekly meetings. I'm trying to teach the Pirates in Most community work methods and how to moderate this Community Working Group, because I will be moving to a different locality to continue testing.
Q: What exactly are the problems at Chanov with the water that you're talking about?
M.B. One day I was speaking with the local residents in front of one of the prefabricated apartment buildings at Chanov. It seemed to me that I was hearing the trickling sound of a little brook, or a river, and so I asked whether there was creek in the bushes behind the building. The people began laughing and led me to a space where I could look into the basement. When I bent down and looked in, I saw water trickling from a damaged pipe in the basement. That was the gurgling noise. It later turned out that the inhabitants of that building have unpaid water bills in the hundreds of thousands of crowns. Access to the basement is walled up, nobody can get in there. That building is owned by the city.
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