The Roma People’s Project at Columbia University
By looking at what it is, we can change what it can be.
The Roma People’s Project is a start-up initiative at Columbia University that will address how Roma have represented themselves and how they have been represented by others. It will identify, centralize, examine, and curate images and information about the Roma people in order to bring them to the forefront of academic and public consciousness.
The Center for Justice serves as the incubator of the Roma People’s Project and assists in its development. The RPP aligns with the Center’s mission of empowering vulnerable people who suffer from criminalized identities, discrimination, stigma, and lack of inclusion within mainstream society.
BACKGROUND: THE PLIGHT OF THE ROMA PEOPLE
To some, the term “Roma” is alien and unfamiliar, but the term “Gypsy” (as well as “Traveler”) often serves as a more widely recognized point of reference. Yet, this word can conjure negative images of beggars and pickpockets, or romantic images such as fortune-tellers and dancers. Hence, many people, especially in the United States, believe “Gypsy” refers only to a lifestyle and not an ethnic group. Others mistakenly assume “gypsies” are a thing of the past.
In reality, the Roma originated in Northern India and migrated to Europe about a thousand years ago. Roma subgroups went through periods of nomadism, which is an enduring part of the public perception of “Gypsies”. Today, most of the Roma are sedentary or semi-sedentary, and the population is estimated to be around 8-12 million in Europe.
Estimates vary because many Roma hide their ethnicity. Nonetheless, the Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority and sizable populations are also found throughout the world. The New York area is a particularly prominent hub for the Roma.
GLOBAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ROMA PEOPLE’S PROJECT
Finding material about the Roma presents a challenge. The Roma have never had a nation-state of their own or a geographical home territory, thus often appearing as a subject tangential to other regions or fields of study. As a result, few institutions prioritize acquiring material about Roma or organizing the information contained in their collections.
These complications—in conjunction with budgetary constraints and the scarcity of Roma experts—allow books, scholarly documents, and other material about Roma to “fall through the cracks,” depriving people of the opportunity to gain insight from the Roma experience. A digital archive would provide readily accessible resources.
Although there are large Roma populations in the United States, they are underrepresented in academia and society at large. The Roma People’s Project would hopefully counter this lack of visibility and empower Roma in the U.S. and worldwide, inspiring a new generation of Roma to feel a sense of pride in their cultural identity.
There are many meaningful and diverse Roma stories to be told, shared, and heard. The Roma People’s Project will be a forum and repository for these voices, images, narratives, and legends, both about the Roma and by the Roma.
If you are interested to learn more about the Roma People’s Project please contact Cristiana Grigore at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the development of the Roma People’s Project to follow.