Personal Reflections of our Colleague Ana Arenzana about her Experience Arriving at the RoMoMatteR and [J]ITANA Projects during the Pandemic

«El texto que he escrito se debe a que un profesor de mi Erasmus, que se jubiló este año, quería tener un detalle compartiendo en su fiesta de jubilación cómo su alumnado ha acabado dedicándose a campos relacionados con los que él enseñaba. Compartir las historias de su alumnado le hacía ilusión, así que me pidió que yo escribiera una de esas historias. En concreto, me pidió que explicara cómo mi trabajo en CESPYD contribuye a la emancipación del pueblo gitano (en mi caso), a través de la educación (que era lo que él enseñaba, Education and Society, donde se repasaba una gran variedad de teorías y aplicaciones a las políticas públicas). El trabajo que hice para su asignatura fue lo que me movió a aplicar para el trabajo en CESPYD», Ana Arenzana Rodríguez (Erasmus student 2017-2018).

El texto de nuestra compañera Ana fue el siguiente:

My name is Ana Arenzana-Rodríguez. I’m from Tomares, a town in the outskirts of Seville, Andalusia, south of Spain. A few years ago, as part of my Psychology studies at Universidad de Sevilla, I could take part in an exchange program during the academic year 2017 – 2018. So, I’m also a KU Leuven’s Erasmus+ Psychology alumna, who was lucky enough to enrol in a course taught by Prof. Nicaise: «Education and Society».

I was 20 years old, in my 3rd Bachelor’s year, and taking a Master of Education course in English. I remember it being a big challenge for me. Not only because the content was further in depth and analysis regarding inequities in Education than the rest of what I’ve already learnt – plus, not in my mother tongue – but also because it was one of the first times I could see “the bigger picture” of how Policy-making could help with problems affecting people’s education all around the world.

We had to write an assignment for the course evaluation, and when looking at the topics offered, I remember being especially curious about educational policies and ethnic minorities. What is one of the biggest ethnic minorities where I live? Well, nearly half of the estimated 725,000-750,000 Spanish Romani live in Andalusia. They came to my mind very quickly, as the artistic and cultural contribution of the Roma community to Andalusian and Spanish culture is salient – yet not always recognised. Also, in Spain, 70% of Roma girls drop out of school around the age of 12. Has this situation always been the same, or has it changed? Why? I saw this as the perfect opportunity to learn a little about educational policies and strategies carried out having them in mind, because I never had discussed such themes during my Bachelor – until that day. So, at the end of the 2nd semester, I submitted a paper entitled «Tackling educational disparities faced by the Roma – a review of the current situation and planned strategies in Spain & Andalusia».

Thanks to that assignment, I started getting in contact with the National and Regional Strategies being carried out in my country and region related to Roma children and adolescents’ education. The National Romani Integration Strategies (NRIS) were an important topic of discussion of the assignment, part of the Romani Decade in which European member states developed Romani-targeted policies. These included goals within education (on which I focused), employment, housing and health. One of the conclusions I wrote was that school-failure rates in Spain were higher for Roma children compared to the whole population, a gender bias appearing when moving from Primary to Secondary school – and increasing during adolescence. Academic continuity was difficult to achieve, especially in girls – as it was hindered by early marriage and early maternity. I remember there were specific objectives planned to raise awareness of this issue and to foster girls’ emancipation through education, but – did these initiatives involve girls in their own process of raising awareness? At that moment, it was a question yet unanswered.

I finished the assignment, my Erasmus+, my Bachelor. When I started looking for a job, my former university was offering a research assistant position in two projects involving the participation of Roma children and adolescents. And thinking almost three years later about that course, about that assignment, I thought I wanted to learn more. Therefore, I took a shot in the dark during times of pandemic and I applied for the position.

September last year, I got a job as a research assistant at the RoMoMatteR and [J]ITANA projects. These are carried out by the Center of Community Research and Action of Universidad de Sevilla, called CESPYD – Spanish acronym for “Coalition for the Study of Health, Power and Diversity” – together with other partners. The context was not very favourable: finalization of the RoMoMatter Project at a European level (Spain, Bulgaria and Romania) and implementation of the [J]ITANA Project at a Spanish level have been extremely difficult, due to the pandemic. But first, let me explain what these projects are about and why we are implementing them.

The psychosocial development of Roma adolescents is linked to the value their communities attached to the roles of wife, mother and caregiver. In favourable social circumstances, those provide emotional stability, good physical health, self-esteem, acceptance, recognition and responsibility. However, the conditions of exclusion and poverty in which many families live tend to make marriage and motherhood the only future option before they are prepared. This often exposes them to greater risks of domestic violence, job insecurity, economic exploitation and discrimination in social protection systems.

Both RoMoMatteR and [J]ITANA projects are based on the premise that Roma families and their adolescent daughters have the talent and capacity to advocate their rights and build a better future. In turn, it assumes Roma associations should guide and accompany them. A Community-Based Participatory-Action-Research process aims to engage all stakeholders (including families, adolescents, the community, associations, researchers), recognizing the capacity of the Roma community itself to generate knowledge, skills and resources allowing them to prosper. Through Photovoice – a common methodology used in Participatory-Action-Research – participants, based on camera pictures taken by themselves, find out about what they want to discuss, about their lives and their community (using their own voices). They would reflect and discuss their realities, needs and desires; and take up their role in the community.

The period of the covid-19 pandemic has been incredibly difficult for Roma people throughout Europe, including in Spain and Andalusia. 80% of Romani people already live in absolute poverty, and in these turbulent times their situation worsened further. They are faced with increasing racism, fear of the pandemic, lack of proper housing, and lack of resources to follow distance education – to mention a few. The implementation of our projects was interrupted by lockdowns and quarantines. As one of the facilitators from the team said to us one day, “RoMoMatteR is a safe space for the girls to be girls”, meaning they could share and hear each other’s interests and dreams for the future. Without this space, the girls were in greater risk of dropping out from school: if they don’t have a safe space to think about any future perspectives, how could school even show up as a meaningful resource?

Fortunately, the RoMoMatteR project could resume in the Spring of 2021, with a public exhibition – in each location – of the pictures taken by the girls during the project. Researchers, policy-makers, politicians, facilitators – and of course families – were encouraged to attend. This gave the girls a forum to put on the table what they want to do, with the people that are supposed to help them achieve it at different levels. The Final Conference of the project, which initially aimed to allow all the girls from Spain, Romania and Bulgaria to meet in person, had to be re-organised in a hybrid format. The girls in each context shared their dreams and their reflections via Zoom – a facilitator in Spain told us that it was heart-warming to hear a 13-year-old tell her “Am I being translated into three different languages? Then, I must be very important!”. And yes, they are.

The JITANA project will start in the following school year. Partnerships are being formed in the places where it will be implemented: Catalonia, Andalusia, Navarra and the Valencian Community. In the meantime, we are disseminating the preliminary results and the lessons learnt from RoMoMatter through workshops and communications. I’m really looking forward to next school year, as I will be a full member of the fieldwork team and be able to share the girls’ lives, and learn more about their dreams and what do they want to do to achieve them.

More information:

Liber Alumnorum