Britain’s gypsy women can claim to be the first rural social
workers and counsellors. In times past, their door-to-door trading
and fortune-telling gave rural women a chance to offload their
troubles as well as their housekeeping money.
Yet travel across Britain today, and you’ll be hard pressed to find
a single gypsy woman within the ranks of the modern caring
But a growing number of Romani women are attempting to change that.
As youth and community development workers, they have concluded
that their community’s social exclusion will be overcome only when
travellers start talking and providing for themselves.
Shirley Barrett is community development worker of the
Cambridgeshire Travellers Initiative run by the charity Ormiston
Children and Families Trust. She says the UK’s 100,000 Romanies are
not just the most marginalised ethnic group in Britain – they are
also the most unengaged and least recognised. She is among a new
generation of gypsy women, who, after 500 years of mutual suspicion
and distrust, are building bridges between the Romani and Gorgia
“After 500 years in this country, we know what our problems are and
it’s time to move on,” she says. “But travellers are even
disengaged from the disengaged. They will never, for example, join
ethnic minority forums. They say ‘it’s nothing to do with
Yet after 18 months working for the initiative, Barrett has helped
local travellers become politically engaged. Having successfully
established two travellers’ forums in Cambridgeshire, she has a few
tips about how to work with her community.
“You’ve got to approach travellers and ask ‘what is it you want?’.
It’s time to start working with us. Don’t do things to us – do
things with us. Unless travellers themselves take the lead role,
they will never become engaged with wider society,” she says.
Last month, the Cambridgeshire Travellers Initiative organised the
first in a series of conferences to discuss best practice with the
traveller community. The conference was attended by as many
travellers as social care professionals because Romanies and
travellers themselves were invited as the experts. Service
providers from across the UK could attend only if they took a
member of the local travelling community with them.
Sherry Peck, a Romani and co-ordinator of the travellers
initiative, says: “I’ve attended lots of conferences about
travellers, but no one from the community was ever invited. We
wanted to organise a conference that was different – one that
genuinely gave them a voice because we need travellers to inform
One woman who has found her voice is Emily Clarke. As a community
development worker for the Workers Educational Association, a
Teesside-based voluntary provider of adult education on Teesside,
she has travelled across Europe promoting best practice among
Romanies – Europe’s largest and fastest growing ethnic minority.
Since starting a residents’ association on the Metzbridge gypsy
site in Middlesbrough nine years ago, she’s been on a steep
learning curve. Like many traveller women of her generation, she
has learned to read and write in her fifties to help her community
access the public services they have so often been denied.
“When I started, the council and the gypsies were enemies,” says
Clarke. “None of the people knew how the council was run. They were
taking their problems to just one place. So I had to explain: ‘Just
imagine the council as a supermarket. If you want vegetables you
don’t go to the baker’s store’.”
Given her own struggle with the written word, she is particularly
keen to teach computer and literacy skills to travellers. Like the
Romani women in Cambridgeshire she points out that travellers are
not the only ones who need to do some learning.
“Gypsies and travellers are proud and independent people, so they
won’t tell you they can’t read. They’ll just say they can’t be
bothered. If you are going to work with travellers the first thing
you should do is go on a cultural awareness course.”
In Cambridgeshire, Lisa Miley says her confidence to speak up has
been boosted so much by the travellers initiative that she has been
considering a career as a youth worker. “When I was growing up my
mother was never spoken to. But we do exist and we are still here.
Everyone else is moving on, and it’s time we did too.”
– Fenland Council, in Cambridgeshire, runs traveller-led
cultural awareness and best practice seminars. Contact 01354
654321. The Cambridgeshire Travellers Initiative can be contacted
at the Ormiston Children and Families Trust on 01223 426 148.