Blog: Intercultural Mediation for the School-to-Work Transition among the Roma youth in Spain

March 29, 2021

This blog post will highlight the relevance of intercultural mediation in some Roma young people’s school-to-work transition, in Spain. Such relevance, however in our view, does not justify the ethnocultural framing of the intervention. It is mediator’s mentoring role, her culturally responsive guidance and caring relationship that impact young people. While her mediating role – conflict prevention/resolution, communication facilitation – appears to benefit mostly local public administration.

What can an anthropologist do with this finding in a constructive way? Findings, some of which I list below, will hopefully serve to initiate a debate among main stakeholders and beneficiaries in the city where fieldwork has been conducted.

Firstly, I will focus on the operational level – what seems to work and what challenges come up – and then I will turn my attention to broader questions of the institutional management of inequalities.

One of the most interesting figures in the Spanish field of NGOST project is the intercultural mediator (IM), officially called sociocultural mediator, though she uses “mediator of Romani culture” in her email signature. Roma mediators have been widely employed in Spanish towns and cities in the past 30 years. Intercultural mediation (IM) has always raised high expectations as a method through which communication, mutual understanding and peaceful cohabitation can be achieved (Giménez Romero, 2001). IM as a project tends to have a double focus: 1) the ‘problematic’ population that is perceived and represented as culturally different, and 2) the mediator itself. Programme evaluations acknowledge the contribution of IM to an improvement of cohabitation, communication, participation, etc. Nevertheless, if we take a step backwards and look at mediation, and particularly IM, in its wider context it triggers a plethora of questions.

In this brief blog spot, I will describe the IM programme observed in Taulell, a mid-size city at 30 km from Barcelona, where I conducted fieldwork, crosscut by Covid-19 pandemic. I became interested in this programme, as almost all my local contacts referred me to the intercultural mediator: “You should speak to María. She is the one who can explain everything about the Roma in Taulell”. Before meeting María, I was astonished by the little information city council personnel had about the Roma of Taulell. They mostly spoke about one particular neighbourhood and its Roma community, the one where María lives and works, leaving apart the rest of the districts that host a significant number of Roma families, of Spanish and Portuguese origin. Following this narrow view, here we will see what María does as a mediator in her district of operation.

Achievements of IM in Taulell

María’s words “When I receive an offer, I call everyone, here” describe well the way she operates as a gate-opener in the district she works. As an outreach agent she makes public services available to Roma young people. According to her ’the system of booking an appointment and returning in a week does not work for them’, which requires a facilitator, and which legitimates her job on the long term.

Whenever they tell me, I put them in [a training scheme]

María does not impose, push or force young people, but wherever she perceives disposition, or receives a demand from their part, she makes demands meet with offers, whatever they may be: regular school-based training, vocational and professional training courses, scholarship, job search, job practice or even short term public job contracts. Receiving social benefits often requires compulsory training. María, in her role as a facilitator may help match beneficiaries’ interest and need with the accessible training offer. Also, as a diagnostics agent she is an active listener, she collects demands and ideas from Roma young people, in order to ‘engage’ them for other actions as well. Obtaining subvention for a local, in-group sports activity is a good example for this function of the IM:

15-20 young people. The kids made this demand.

She makes the most of these processes to foster her role as training and job adviser. When beneficiaries’ aspirations target low, she motivates them to go for alternative jobs with better conditions. A Roma young man says:

Maria tells me ‘do you want to work?’. I say ‘yes’. She didn’t even tell me the position, you know. I said: ‘yes, yes’. ‘You’re going to earn one thousand euros a month, as a streetsweeper. Do you want?’ I say ‘Yes!’.

And María filled in the application form for a public work scheme for 6 months, and she used her influence to recommend him as a top priority candidate due to his family situation (he had a newborn baby and difficult housing conditions) and his positive attitude.

A Roma young woman remembers how she accessed her first job, accompanied by María:

Yes, through Maria […] she called there, I did the interview. I went there and, well, they hired me.

Also, thanks to her everyday presence in the neighbourhood and her individual social mobility trajectory, more or less compatible with the community values, she has become a role model, particularly among the girls and young women. As it occurs in other contexts, many Roma children here aspire to become an ‘intercultural mediator’ due to María’s example.

A crucial, and perhaps the most empowering, aspect of mediation is that María connects young Roma people with capital-rich professionals and NGO workers, trainers, and other stakeholders from outside the neighbourhood that young people can incorporate in their own social networks.

Before it was only María or someone from the Community Centre or from the school that informed us, but now since we have the contact of that trainer woman from X [a feminist Roma association], we ask her and she gives us a lot of information

With respect to local public administration, María’s job is reported to be important inasmuch as she serves as a cultural interpret delivering information on the Roma ways of thinking, feeling and doing things. It potentially sensitizes non-Roma workers in their decision making. Some are particularly glad about her job and claim that they have learnt a lot from her. Nevertheless, interviews with local government employees do not reflect a generalized deep and contrasted knowledge about the diverse living and working conditions and aspirations of the highly heterogeneous local Roma community. Also, a high-school headteacher from another neighbourhood with large Roma population referred to a Barcelona based Roma NGO that held a training course on ‘Roma culture’ that resulted important for the teaching staff, rather than the city’s Roma mediator.

Challenges of the IM

While intercultural mediation is supposed to be a project including a range of actors, in practice, it solely relies on Maria’s daily intervention. As a member of the local team of social services she is in charge of the Roma clients, and many non-Roma users, as well. In the interviews I could not detect a broader plan of mediation that may target, rather than individual promotion, the global emancipation of the Roma minority.

Up to this point, I only mentioned the district in which María carries out her job, on a daily basis. The perplexing point is that local administration staff repeatedly mentions her as the referent person “in Roma issues”, the one that should be consulted in problematic cases. This generalized opinion contrasts with that of María, who admits:

There are neighborhoods which I have good knowledge of, but many others that I haven't. It is impossible for me to reach all the neighborhoods.

This is not just a question of quantity (time, number of neighbourhoods and Roma families) but also of quality. María knows what the technical staff does not seem to recognise: “Roma culture” changes from family to family, and trust and recognition – fundamental elements of mediation – is not given the same way in each contexts, even if they share basic elements of “Roma culture”.

A main challenge in María’s job is to reach all extended families in the district where she is active. An overrepresentation of her kin group in the many local training programmes and courses she facilitates, shows her uneven access to different kinship groups, and also the uneven interest for them among different kin groups. For example, Roma young people from other neighbourhoods claimed that they are not even called to participate. Spreading information across all the Roma population of the city is clearly not María’s responsibility. Rather, this is a limitation of the mediation programme as such, that does not foresee the outreach to a very diverse and heterogeneous community living dispersed in different urban sectors with scarce, if any, relationship among each other. An additional, but related, aspect is that IM programme does not seem to recognize the existence of several local informal Roma mediators throughout the city.

Another limitation of mediation is to achieve the goal of Roma young people’s participation, in the ways public administration imagines it: formally funding an association. María admits:

I tried to promote the idea but we have never managed to get young people to make associations

At the same time, she does not mentions how she tries to make local administration acknowledge non-recognized, informal spaces and shapes of participation, such as the production of popular music, videoclips or street-fights activities among groups of Roma teenagers and their older cousins, or informal tutors.

Matching needs with offers is important. However, pursuing time-efficiency (I’ll do it for you) often goes against the mid-term empowerment goals of IM programme. Filling in an application form for young people instead of accompanying them throughout the whole process deprives them of the learning process, that may enhance real empowerment, rather than just access.

These and other important limitations of María’s action do not remain unrecognised by her and her closest colleagues. Nevertheless, wider and specific objectives of the mediation programme are not matched with the great quantity of time-consuming pedagogic actions, which makes María adjust her high expectations to the reality: “I can’t do any more…” she claims.

IM depends on both public administration’s (professional, moral and economic) recognition and Roma community’s acknowledgement. Mediator’s job is conditioned by both, which, following Kyuchukov (2012), I call the dilemma of “double dependence”. Parallel with that I could observe a silent agreement: María is able to fill up less popular training courses (generally, low level initiations, or introductions to basic soft and hard skills, etc.) that city council or other administrations offer, with people from the neighbourhood. María does so, because it is favourable for those Roma beneficiaries as well, who do not fully wish to complete a difficult training course, but social benefit schemes oblige them to train themselves. I call this, the dilemma of “double complicity”. I argue that these dilemmas are closely interrelated: in order to maintain her acknowledgement, the mediator is required to give quick and “efficient” answers to complex problems, with limited resources. This way, double complicity is a strategy of coping with dilemmas, rather than a good way of resolving multifaceted situations.

What further criticism is identified with respect to mediation?

Beyond these malfunctions at an operational level, a growing volume of research critiques the very fundaments of intercultural mediation. The main argument is that focusing on Roma citizens’ insufficient ability/willingness to access ‘normalized’ services, the programmes tend to distract attention from the underlying structural factors. In this sense, ethnicization of the inequalitiestransfers responsibility (Lemke, 2001; Pyysiäinen, Halpin, & Guilfoyle, 2017) from the public administration, and political decision makers to the mediators and their direct collaborators. Insufficient resources (training, skills, time, budget) and often inadequate working conditions for the management of deep-rooted social problems trigger frustration, dilemmas, self-questioning in mediators. Ultimately, the mediators blame / responsibilise themselves for the poor or insufficient results.

Coinciding with this line of arguments, I observed how the mediator becomes a symbol of individualised responsibility for one’s ‘social integration’ or social mobility. She embodies the ‘ideal ethnic minority subject’ for the majority: the one who cultivates her cultural identity, expresses her ethnic proud, but develops aspirations that correspond to the working class and that target middle class jobs, consumption and living conditions. A central motif in this ideal role model is that it does not call for a collective action, and its terms of empowerment and emancipation are filtered through the ‘normalized’ use of public services, responding to the mainstream expectations, ideals and legitimation, while neglecting other options of good life (Kóczé, 2019). This relates to the representation of minority populations in general, and the Roma in particular, as an inactive group, that needs activation (van Baar, 2012) to overcome intergenerational dependence, and to become active, entrepreneur, creative, available and flexible with respect to the emerging opportunities (Rose, O’Malley, & Valverde, 2006).

A widely accepted criticism focuses on the instrumentalization of mediators for the mainly unilateral transmission of ideas and the retention and management of conflicts within the local context (Kyuchukov, 2012). Some even apply the metaphor of Trojan Horse, to describe their role as an acculturating agent who can exercise their “civilizing mission” from within, from a position of trusted member of the community. Within this role, the mediator may use epistemic violence (Petraki, 2020) inasmuch as it frames the problems of the neighbourhood (cohabitation, poverty, unemployment, early school leaving, irregular work, etc.) in an ethnocultural explanatory framework, rather than describing them as aspects of broader structural inequalities. Eventually, this action depoliticises (Ferguson, 1990) the community’s struggle and centres attention on the individual, calling for a self-work or self-improvement.  

How can criticism inform practice?

These and other criticisms are clearly detectable in the Spanish NGOST fieldwork, and they make it difficult to see mediator’s daily work with optimism, even if she undoubtedly plays a key role in the school-to-work transition (STWT) of several Roma young people in the observed neighbourhood. Disjointing mediators’ complex mix of roles would help us recognise what works more and what less. For example, her mentoring role, her culturally responsive guidance and caring relationship shows some positive results in a sector of young people, while her mediating role – conflict prevention/resolution, communication facilitation – appears to benefit more local public administration than Roma people themselves.

This fact brings up a series of questions to which I will search answers in the remaining part of the project through engagement actions.

Given that intercultural mediation has some positive impact on STWT, how should I transform criticism into a constructive pack of recommendations? Through what methodology can such findings be transformed into comprehensive knowledge for all the public and private stakeholders related to Roma young people’s STWT? Would the everyday dilemmas be bearable for the mediator, if she was fully aware of the scholarly criticism? What are the possibilities to improve mediation into a more empowering and emancipating programme both for public employment and the local Roma population? Is the central problem well identified and correctly framed? Can we offer alternative framings with the aim of bettering the mediation project in a broad sense? 

In the close future NGOST efforts will be focused on the engagement of different stakeholders to discuss how mediation could improve STWT among the Roma young people in this and other neighbourhoods of Taulell, the city where NGOST Spanish fieldwork was conducted.


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Kóczé, A. (2019). Illusionary Inclusion of Roma Through Intercultural Mediation. In H. van Baar, A. Ivasiuc, & R. Kreide (Eds.), The Securitization of the Roma in Europe (pp. 183–206). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan & Springer.

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Lemke, T. (2001). ’The birth of bio-politics ’: Michel Foucault ’ s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality. Economy and Society, 30(2), 190–207.

Petraki, I. (2020). Roma Health Mediators: A Neocolonial Tool for the Reinforcement of Epistemic Violence? Critical Romani Studies, 3(1), 72–95.

Pyysiäinen, J., Halpin, D., & Guilfoyle, A. (2017). Neoliberal governance and ‘responsibilization’ of agents: reassessing the mechanisms of responsibility-shift in neoliberal discursive environments. Distinktion, 18(2), 215–235.

Rose, N., O’Malley, P., & Valverde, M. (2006). Governmentality. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 2, 83–104.

van Baar, H. (2012). Socio-Economic Mobility and Neo-Liberal Governmentality in Post-Socialist Europe: Activation and the Dehumanisation of the Roma. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38(8), 1289–1304.

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Photo and painting by Kata Soos,

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 845196.