At some point in every social research project, the inevitable question arises: what is the point of all of this?
I'd done 28 interviews, two focus groups and spent untold hours listening in on conversations and simply observing life in Roma community centres. I felt at last that I understood the intersecting social assumptions and systemic barriers that kept many members of the Roma community in a position of relative disadvantage: Roma patients were not getting the necessary language support in health services; children were facing racist bullying in schools; and the UK government was formulating a new post-Brexit immigration system that would likely leave many Roma behind.
I understood the issues, but I couldn't do anything about them.
Fortunately, this is when - by way of my work with Roma community organisations - invitations to meet with civil servants and parliamentarians began rolling in. Suddenly I was consulting on education, employability, bullying in schools, immigration and racial equality, and gradually a picture began to form of the way in which often unheard community voices can gain a place in policy development.
To explain this process, perhaps a case study is in order:
As the UK prepares to leave the EU, the government has been scrambling to devise a plan for granting settled status to the approximately 3 million EU citizens living in the country. As part of this process, the Home Office consulted with organisations representing vulnerable groups, and the Roma were included in this number. The government is proposing an online settlement application, in which EU citizens will need to demonstrate 5 years' continuous residence in the UK. While the process may be designed for simplicity, it fell to me to explain that many Roma applicants will face disproportionate barriers in making applications and documenting their residence. I presented Home Office official with a series of cases: the man who has been working in the UK for nearly ten years, but only in cash-in-hand jobs, thus leaving him without the documentary evidence of his residence; the older woman who is illiterate in any language and is unable to use a computer, thus making the application completely inaccessible; the large family with low income, who will be unable to pay the £65 per person application fee.
The issue of evidence
By alerting government official to the nuances of people's personal situations, I am able to lay the groundwork for policy decisions that account for the needs of disadvantaged communities. When it comes to ensuring that more equitable policies are actually implemented, however, policy makers often want hard data demonstrating need, and this is where things get complicated. In the case of Roma communities, for example, only schools collect data on Roma ethnicity (and, even then, these statistics are unreliable at best). Roma are not represented in the UK census do not appear in health service monitoring frameworks.
Without hard data on the size of the UK Roma population and their levels of representation in public services, policy makers are more likely to underestimate the extent of community need and to deprioritise policy decisions that will benefit Roma communities. While there are moves to improve Roma ethnic monitoring in the UK, community advocates pushing to influence policy still rely largely on narrative accounts of individual lives to underline the need for change.
Harnessing personal narratives for policy impact
Narrative accounts underlining social issues have recently been gaining traction as a category of evidence for policy development, and this is good news not only for Roma, but for any group with concerns that are reflected in statistical datasets. This provides community members and their advocates with a pathway into spheres of public influence, allowing them to confront policy makers with the harsh realities of their situations and to demand action. And from my perspective as a researcher and community advocate, telling individuals' stories to a policy audience creates the potential for meaningful incorporation of minority groups' interests into policy development, moving attention away from statistical data gathered and interpreted by those already in positions of power.