Sites of Resistance is, in many ways, a strange book. It must also, at a personal level, have been a difficult, and painful, one to write. Whilst it is focused on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, it has a much wider resonance in terms of debates on the role of education in either facilitating or, indeed hindering, social justice. Further, it attempts to balance critical theory with personal experience and reflection in which the author is acutely aware of the tensions between being an ‘outsider’ with ‘privileged access’ to GRT communities and being an activist working with, and for, these communities; tensions which will have resonances for professional community development workers. Andrew Ryder acknowledges as much: There have been a number of ‘my life with the Gypsies’ books; some of these have been rather self-focused, with authors using Gypsies as a canvas to understand themselves or reflect upon wider society. Some of these works have been tinged with romanticism and stereotype, others have lacked sufficient critical self-reflection. The reader of this volume will need to decide whether I have fallen into these traps (pp. 135–136). On the whole, Sites of Resistance avoids ‘these traps’. The book covers almost two decades and follows the authors journey from being a doctoral student studying Gypsy and Traveller communities both on the South Forest Traveller Site and those housed on the nearby estate, on into a period of intensive policy activism with the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition in the UK and then into an academic position in Romani Studies in Europe. Ryder strives throughout to be objective (whilst questioning the meaning of academic objectivity) empathetic (whilst avoiding false romanticism) and critically conscious. Indeed, at one point he states: To some readers it might appear that I am critical of the Gypsies and Travellers at South Forest. This is not my intention, but I feel there is a need to record not only positive manifestations of resistance but also those that could be seen as negative, so that lessons can be learnt (p. 77). Sites of Resistance is particularly strong in challenging notions that GRT culture and identify is ‘fixed’ and unchanging. It confronts, head on, tensions not only between GRT communities and ‘the outside world’ but within these communities themselves: between, for example, those retaining a nomadic lifestyle, those on official Traveller sites and those in social housing – pejoratively referred to as Gorgios. The discussion on the costs, benefits and consequences of developing and maintaining life strategies which either ‘protect’ against hostility towards the community and resist assimilation or can maintain (or self-sustain) exclusion and marginalization is systematic and balanced. As Ryder (p. 75) notes, ‘[a] sense of victimisation [within GRT communities] can be an important component of maintaining identity but can also create a dangerous victim culture’. In this context, Chapter 5 (Identity, exclusion and change) uses various concepts of capital – social, economic, cultural and symbolic – as a useful framework for understanding change, continuity and tensions within GTR communities – though the discussion of emotional/cultural capital is, perhaps, rather under-explored when compared with the vivid and succinct description of the collapse of much of the GRT economy in the UK and beyond. Similarly, the chapters on activism and critical pedagogy (Chapter 6) whilst, as noted, focused on GTR activism will have much wider resonances with those involved in community development more generally. How are issues of the charismatic leader ‘balanced’ with the quieter voices of the wider community? Can competing voices within communities be reconciled? Can radical, confrontational, campaigning strategies be compatible with, or lead to, a more consensual approach to creating community change and social justice? Or vice versa? What happens when the paid/professional activist reaches a stage of acknowledging the importance of building deliberative democracy within movements – but then becomes frustrated, in the face of oppression and slow progress, and resorts to taking action themselves ‘on behalf of’ the community? All will be familiar dilemmas – as will be, for those in higher education, the description of ‘academic cage fighting’ for status and kudos in Romani Studies. Indeed, this chapter would be humorous, witnessing those struggles and arguments about the ‘legitimacy’ of the activist/academic, if it did not ring so true in the wider academy. There are areas where further exploration of key issues would have further strengthened Sites of Resistance. Ryder is particularly good on the growing visibility of women GRT activist in a traditionally male dominated field. The book would, however, be strengthened by a discussion on racism which takes in perspectives of other marginalized communities. Tensions between newly arrived Somali communities and Gypsies and Travellers are noted, vividly, in the description of South Forest and the feeling that, within the education system punishment falls disproportionately on GRT students. Ryder writes: With both groups [Gypsies and white working class] the unsavoury nature of their racism should not deflect from the fact that the primary cause of the reactionary positions they adopted was the structural inequalities from which they suffered (p. 40). Possibly – but it would have been interesting to have a Somali perspective on these incidents – and a greater acknowledgement that, whilst the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition adopted a wider understanding of alliance building to tackle racism and inequality, how could this succeed whilst some powerful voices within GRT movements maintain an idea of hierarchies of oppression, that is, the belief that GRT are the most oppressed and, therefore, face attack in ways which other marginal communities do not and could not possibly understand. This review started with a comment that Site of Resistance must have been, personally, a painful book to write. This applies particularly to the final chapter, where the author expresses some disillusion with the fragmentation of GRT movements and within the field of Romani Studies. With the growing tide of populism and scapegoating of minorities – what to do? Return to activism or move on to something completely different – away from the GRT struggle and academia? Again, in the face of the election of Donald Trump, growing – and narrow – nationalism and, in the UK, Brexit, this may well also be a dilemma for others involved in community activism. Yet, what Sites of Resistance does retain – right to the end – is, in the face of what may appear insurmountable difficulties, a belief in a pedagogy of hope. For all the tensions, fragmentations and setbacks for GRT communities recoded in the book, this is no mean achievement. © Oxford University Press and Community Development Journal. 2017All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Community Development Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 4, 2017
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