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Dale Farm and why we must learn to engage with Gypsies and travellers

blair-mcpherson-100.jpgby Blair McPherson, a former local authority director of community service

Dale Farm is home for 80 Gypsy and traveller families. Or at least it has been for many years but not for much longer as the local council intends to enforce an eviction notice on the site. Dale Farm has either become a symbol of the way some groups are allowed to flout planning regulations and get away with anti social behaviour or a frightening example of intolerance, prejudice and media generated hysteria depending on your point of view. 

Open hostility

Gypsies are a recognised ethnic minority group but as anyone who works in the public sector knows people are openly hostile towards them in a way that they would recognise as racist if the same prejudices and negative stereotypes were aimed at the Asian or African Caribbean community. 

Local authorities struggle to balance the rights of Gypsies and travellers against the concerns and complaints of local residents. Health agencies struggle to tackle health inequality issues Mistrust and misunderstandings characterise the relationship with officialdom.

Succesful engagement

There are some examples of successful engagement which provide a way forward for working with a range of groups who have in the past been described as hard to reach.

Esmeralda is well travelled. She has been to the Appleby Fair and travelled the length and breadth of Lancashire. She is much admired wherever she goes. Mayors, local councillors and community leaders all want to meet her.

She wears a dress made by a group of teenage girls from the travellers’ community. Part of a project run by the school’s travellers unit and staff from the Library service, the dress is made up of pictures which illustrate the girls’ life as travellers.

Esmeralda is a mannequin. In her back pocket she has a CD and a CD player which tells the girls’ stories in their own words. Esmeralda speaks with many voices. Esmeralda has long flowing hair made up of words and phrases that have significance within the traveller community.

History of prejudice

For those who made her she is the product of their creative skills and an expression of what it’s like to be a traveller and lead a traveller’s life. For a senior manager she is a model for how to go about engaging with hard to reach communities.

Gypsies and travellers are the most disadvantaged minority within our society. They are officially recognised as an ethnic group.  A long history of prejudice makes them very wary of officials.

Infant mortality and mental health rates are higher and life expectancy significantly lower (10-12 years lower) in the Gypsy – traveller community. Travellers face major difficulties in accessing healthcare.  The reluctance of some GPs to register Gypsy and traveller families has been as a result of a perception that they are demanding patients who miss appointments and don’t comply with treatment plans.

Bullied at school and a tradition of working with father means that formal education often ends at 11 with the transfer to secondary school. Discrimination and lack of formal education means job opportunities are limited. The schools travellers’ service aims to continue education and the library service seeks to promote literacy. Together they wish to present the friendly face of officialdom.

Learning from Esmerelda

So what can we learn from Esmeralda about engaging with minority communities? We can recognise that the way into communities is through those who are already accepted, that it takes time to build up trust and progress is slow so expectations should be realistic. That we need to find creative ways of listening to people and helping them express themselves. We need to find ways of helping them to educate us about their lives. 

We need ensure colleagues understand and support what we are trying to do.  Encouraging youngsters into the library and museum could have fallen at the first attempt if the staff who work there had reacted to the noise and boisterous behaviour with a ‘not in here you don’t’ attitude. Instead time was taken to raise staff awareness about this community, what to expect and why it was so important to be welcoming and understanding to people who are expecting to be rejected and ejected.

We can learn that it takes a lot of effort, creativity and time to engage with minority communities but not necessarily a lot of money.  Esmeralda was created out of a budget of just £200.

Blair McPherson is author of An Elephant in the Room an equality and diversity training manual and People Management in a Harsh Financial Climate, both published by www.russellhouse.co.uk

About Simeon Brody

Community Care managing web editor