Engaging and Empowering minorities
Anti-racist work with young people (and in general) does not make a lot of sense without engaging and empowering those who suffer the most from racism. Even if in our anti-racist educational activities are mainly targeting representatives of the majority – because as a rule they are best positioned to both perpetuate and benefit from racism – we still need to make sure we don’t leave communities behind in this process. As a minimum, racism can only be fully understood when the experiences of those who suffer from it are given proper space and their voice is heard. At the same time, because of their vulnerable situation, young people from minorities should be better equipped to react whenever they witness or suffer racism, and also have the courage and the support systems to do so. Third, engaging young people from minorities communities in our educational activities normally results in intercultural dialogue, deconstruction of stereotypes and prejudice and building trust among communities, all of which are in turn contributing to an antiracist environment. And finally, due to the broad take we take on racism (i.e. not only limited to skin color, but making references to other types of oppression), this allows us to open a conversation about the situation of ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, women etc. in various communities, where such conversation might be very much needed.
Who are minorities?
For linguistic reasons, we often define a minority as a social group which is smaller in number by another social group – majority. However, this can be very misleading and in social science other approaches have also been taken. In our view as well, what determines a minority group from the majority is not their number, but their limited access to power (see sub-chapter on power). Access to power is usually linked to how big the group is, but not always. One sad example is the apartheid in South Africa, where for decades a group that was much smaller in number (white people are estimated to be 20% or less during the time) has practically full power and thus suffers no minority-related exclusion whatsoever. Women, who usually represent a bit more than half of the population, are traditionally suppressed in their access to power – even if they have the numbers, they don’t have the power. Finally, let’s take the perspective of wealth: according to Oxfam’s inequality report (January, 2020) the world’s 2153 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people who make up 60% of the population on Earth. Even if very small in number, this group of people has unprecedented access to power and thus cannot be considered a “minority”.
In European context, and particularly in the context of our STAR initiatives, minorities will then be black, brown and other non-white people, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees and migrant groups (including second and third generation), LGBTI people, people with disabilities among others. Gender equality remains transversal issue as there are still gender-related oppressions in place in our societies.
Barriers for minorities to engage in youth and antiracist actions
Youth work has been repeatedly called to improve its outreach and work with minority communities, even if youth workers are often not properly trained and equipped with tools to do so. However, if youth workers and youth trainers and facilitators are to better engage in antiracist education and action, they also need to reflect on how to better engage young people from minorities in the process. This is easier said than done and we will try to give at least some practical directions in the process. The first step however is to always consider what might be the barriers that young people from minorities communities might face to engage in youth antiracist initiatives. These are well summarized in How to Engage with Ethnic Minorities and Hard to Reach Groups. Guidelines for Practitioners (Parnez, T., 2005, p.1):
[Minority groups] may experience language difficulties, difficulties in accessing information, they may think that service-providers do not care about them, do not listen or even are irrelevant to them. On the other hand, it has been recognized that on the side of service-providers there is often limited or ineffective interaction between the different stakeholders, limited knowledge of multicultural guidance and education, lack of resources, political uniformity and restricted funding that result in lack of suitable services.
As hinted by this quote, engagement is a two-way process, but the burden of it is in youth workers, organizations and bodies, as we are in the power position to take measures and try our best to overcome these barriers.
Case-study: the Antiracist Wave in Bulgaria
Within the framework of the STAR project, Bulgarian partner Pro European Network undertook an initiative called The Antiracist Wave in the period of November 2019 – January 2020. It consisted of three parts:
1) 2-days launching seminar, open for young people and youth workers from across the country to prepare the Wave;
2) A series of youth-led community events, organized by the seminar participants in their own communities;
3) Reporting and evaluation seminar.
The call for participants was announced through the website and the Facebook group of Pro European Network and was shared in a number of existing Facebook group for Roma and young Roma. As a result, 2/3 of the launching seminar participants (33 in total) identified as coming from the Roma community. This had than a significant effect on the following Wave: out of 191 people who participated in 12 community events across the country, more than half were Roma. The community events had an educational aspect, although in one case they have led to action right after. They took place in the premises of local organizations, schools, community, social and cultural centers. In a couple of cases, they engaged young people from communities which are particularly excluded as they are in rural areas and/or there are no active organization on the ground that has previously worked with them. In other words, the initiative reached people that has not been reached by similar initiatives before, which is assessed as particularly valuable. Overall, the initiative had a big breakthrough in the Roma community.
For many organizations, youth workers and antiracist activist the main questions is how to reach communities which might seem “how to reach”, so that we can engage them in our activities. This will of course depend a lot on the specific context, but based on our experience, we would like to provide some overall guidelines on that. In many cases we will be coming back to the presented case study for examples.
It goes without saying, that building trust is an underlaying stone, without which any work with minority communities would not be possible. Usually navigating in an environment, which is hostile to them, young people from minorities have a good reason not to trust public and private bodies that seek their attention. The process of building trust is long and usually takes years, while it can be broken in just a day. Investing in a long-term process of engagement and trust-building, also proves that we are genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of the minority community rather than taking a tokenistic approach and seek to engage them, because our project has some quota to meet. If we come back to the example above, Pro European Network as an organization has spent years working with young Roma in Bulgaria and has gradually built its name as such. This includes being active in public debates on Roma issues, partnering with Roma organizations and Roma leaders and the publicly taking pro-Roma positions. As a very practical example, the organization is active on sharing Roma-related information and opportunities on their social media. The organization maintains similar line of action to the LGBTI community and is a vocal supporter of Sofia Pride and other LGBTI campaigns and initiatives.
Youth organizations should always strive to provide equal opportunities in terms of employment (or other types of selections, e.g. participants in projects, trainings and exchanges). However, this is even more important when they are actively trying to engage minority communities. Staff members from these communities can both contribute to this process with their personal and professional networks, and in the overall process of building trust. In the case study above, as the chair of Pro European Network is Roma himself, while he and other staff members are actively engaged in Roma-related activism, advocacy and empowerment processes. This has supported a lot the outreach of the organization within Roma communities. The organization also has a record of involving Roma and LGBTI trainers in its educational activities, including the STAR summer schools.
If an organization has not previously engaged with a certain minority community, announcing its project opportunity on its regular information channels will most probably not give results. In such cases we need to do our research and make sure we use communication channels which will actually reach the young people from minority communities. This will include thematic Facebook groups, but also might make us consider more efforts in offline communication. Finally, even if our outreach strategy is well-targeted, in case trust has not been built, there is still a chance it will not fully work.
Acknowledge and celebrate culture
There has been many guidelines, which advise youth organizations and youth workers to take into consideration cultural differences when planning their activities and events, e.g. don’t plan events during Eid the same way we don’t do it during Christmas time. However, we can do more than that – not only consider, but acknowledge and celebrate minority cultures in our activities. This will not only allow for intercultural experience for non-minority participants but will also give a clear signal to minority youth they and their culture is appreciated. Doing so however, we need to make sure we don’t fall into superficial view on culture and/or additional stereotyping. Coming back to the case study, during the launching seminar, Pro European Network facilitators used counting in Romanes (Roma language) when dividing people in small groups; or played Roma music during breaks. In the past, the organization has also included a Roma band concert in the cultural program of their seminars.
Point out to self-interest
While many of the points covered so far can be more generic and can also relate to other spheres, this is a bit more specific to the topic of antiracism. Suffering the most from racism, minorities have a clear self-interest to engage in initiatives that fight it. However, this might not be consciously recognized by young people from minority communities, which leaves it up to us to point it out in a respectful way. One way to do that is to also acknowledge the contribution of minorities leaders in the past and present in the antiracist movements, as well as of “ordinary” people from minority communities who give voice to their experiences of racism. In the case study presented, it was because young people realized how important the topic is for them, that they stay engaged and moved the process further voluntarily.
Engaging young people from minority communities in our antiracist initiatives is a need step for their empowerment but does not lead to it automatically. Neither does training, which is crucially important. Even if we equip young minority leaders with certain competencies, they might not always be in position to use them in their communities and spread the message and action further for various reasons: lack of confidence, lack of guidance, lack of funding (e.g. to cover some minor costs). We need to have empowerment as a clear mission in planning our action and make sure there is enough measures to reach it. In such situation empowerment would mean at least three things:
We need to trust young people from minorities that they can take over the process;
We need to transfer control from our hands to their hands;
We need to create a support system that they can use, whenever they feel they need it.
If we come back to the case study above, the empowerment strategy is well reflected in the way the Antiracist Wave is structured: young people (many of which Roma youth) are the main vehicle of the local community events. They are the ones that decide on the form of the community event and on getting participants to come. However, they relied on some support on behalf of Pro European Network in the form: written guidelines with possible training exercises and other event; access to consultation and guidance; financial support for room rental, training materials and snacks; evaluation. In a couple of cases, staff members were also invited to participate in community events, but even when they did, they did not take over the process, which remained youth-led. Pro European Network staff acknowledged that some youth minority leaders lacked full preparation to run educational activities on their own, as the 2-days seminar cannot be sufficient. Yet, they decided to trust young people that they will do great, and they did.
By Vladislav Petkov