Blog: Lights and shadows of community engagement in the Spanish fieldwork

September 6, 2021

Due to COVID pandemic, engagement with local communities has not turned out as planned. Although in all three sites I have managed to contribute in one way or another with respect to the Roma communities, I could not conduct a systematic set of feedback and engagement activities.

On the contrary, and particularly in the Spanish fieldwork, I managed to engage members of the Roma community through contracting them as co-researchers during and after the fieldwork. Certainly, working together with two Roma young women, both with university studies and long experience in NGO work, was an enriching experience. We all have learnt from it, and we plan to continue work and develop opinion papers based on the knowledge we gather from the interviews, their analysis and the discussions we have on each aspect of analysis from different points of view, related to diverse personal experiences and theoretical standpoints.

In the following I describe some reflections, one of the co-researchers, Noemí F. had on the project in a recent conversation.

As we wrote earlier, Noemí had already participated in research projects with me, such as the evaluation of the Catalan Regional Roma plan in 2012. In that occasion, she was active in conducting interviews and energizing and leading focus group discussions. This time she was in charge of conducting interviews with Roma young women and to participate in analysing team discussions.

“I loved to participate in the project, from the very beginning you mentioned you would launch it.” says Noemí, as our collaboration in research and activism has a decade long history. “I did not do it for the salary, I’m a well-paid NGO worker. I did it because I felt like doing it”. “The fact that I can collaborate in a project hosted by the Central European University, or the fact that I can work with experts, researchers… it offers me new experience, and makes my CV more diversified as well.”

This is how Noemí describes her motivations to participate. This is undoubtedly a good start, even if COVID pandemic hit several members and Noemí as well, which made her absent in some periods of the project.

“I was also very much interested in the topic of the research project: ‘why Roma study or not, and how they get to work and why’. And I really enjoyed it, actually”.

I believe that this latter point is crucial in our collaboration. At the NGO, she was in charge of legal issues concerning families and smaller local Roma associations, but also of training and skill building activities, where Roma young people often asked her about training opportunities, and possibilities to get to decent jobs. This is how, and based on her personal experience of struggling to advance in the education system, she became particularly interested in educational research of minority groups.

In fact, the interviews that she conducted get deeper into interviewees’ concerns and achieve a better understanding of individual dilemmas and difficulties. In these interviews one can better identify conflicts with local ethnic community, as well as complex issues with respect to traditional and changing gender roles within the Spanish Roma families.  

“I would’ve liked to conduct interviews in person, because people are more receptive and responsive when you do it in person. But I know that the conditions of COVID pandemic made it impossible in those months. I regret not to have seen the people, not to have had eye-contact with them, only through the screen”.

In terms of the team meetings, Noemí mentions that she was eager to participate in person.

“When we had the in-person meetings and we were analysing the interviews, and you took our contributions into consideration… I really liked them. Discussions were very enriching for me. I learnt a lot from them. How to analyse data and all this. It would have been better if I could have done more Atlas.ti analysis.”

In fact, these meeting were time-consuming long meetings but, the two Roma co-researchers’ comments opened up new aspects of analysis. They were particularly sensitive about interviewees’ omissions, generalising sentences or “I don’t know” answers. They offered contextualisation to these situations, based on their own personal and professional experience. But also, they both made sure to learn from the corresponding theories of anthropology and sociology of education.

I could always add some extra information to the interviews: “she says so, because it has to do with this and that”, when we got together to analyse the interviews, I think that the brainstorming brought up new aspects to focus on, new ways of contextualising what people say.

Also, Noemí was active in making the most of the data collection in terms of influencing the young interviewees. She registered their contacts in order that she could offer them training or job opportunities that would emerge later.

I think that I contributed to the project, but even more to our interviewees, whose life is after all the goal of the project. During the interviews I could clarify their doubts, questions, saying ‘well you can find resources here and there, and this and that’. For example, XY after that enrolled at the GESO (certificate of elementary education) course. I’m not sure whether she was doing it anyway, but I insisted and acknowledge that she did it.”

This latter quotation highlights Noemí’s commitment with the community and underlies the projects’ commitment “to give back” results to the participating Roma young people.

Also, the fact that they could see that there are Roma people, like me, who are not that different of them: one who goes to the street market, attends the worships, her family is known by other Roma people. But also, one who was allowed to study, and she did. I think that this is a major contribution of me as a co-researcher, and the project in itself.

In terms of dissemination of the results, Noemí goes further and, even on a voluntary basis, she proposes to organise community meetings to reflect on our findings.

It would be necessary to get back to the community and let the young people know what we did with the interviews. We have already set the link with them, their numbers, and we said that we’d organize feedback meetings.

Unfortunately, despite our efforts, we could not engage city council and its public services, probably because they prefer not separating the “Roma issue” from other thematic issues (education, employment promotion, housing, public transport, social services, etc.). Based on this, Noemi proposes to organise events something with those young interviewees.

Also, while there are many campaigns that make Roma university students visible, there are no campaign about Roma students in the vocational studies.

We saw successful trajectories through VET, and I think we could use these meeting to make their trajectories visible and to dignify their efforts.

This conversation with Noemí, is a further proof for us that increasing the participation of Roma young people in any research project that concerns their wider ethnic community is a must, not just for ethical but also on methodological reasons. Their insights and commitment mean a significant added value to planning, data collection, data analysis and also to the dissemination of main findings.

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Photo and painting by Kata Soos, katasoos.com

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