Working with Roma people: what can Bruce Springsteen teach us?

photo by Chris Boland

Segolene Pruvot

By Segolene Pruvot, on January 9th, 2013

> Read Segolene Pruvot's articles

By Béla Kézy, Nagykálló

On July 12 – just two weeks after the Roma-Net thematic workshop in Torrent – I travelled to Vienna to watch a concert. A live performance of a 64 year old man, who created magic for nearly four hours in front of 50.000 people! Although this wasn’t the first time I had seen Bruce Springsteen live, this concert made the biggest impact on me. No small feat from an artist who’s been standing in the limelight for more than 40 years! Now, you may rightly say, this is nice and all, but what has it got to do with Roma integration? Bruce Springsteen worked his magic with a community of 50.000 people that night. So I think ‘The Boss’ might have a couple of things to say to those working with Roma communities:

Rule No. 1: Love what you do!

It was obvious that Springsteen and every single member of his band enjoy what they do! Though playing for more than 3 hours non-stop is exhausting and requires serious concentration, the audience never felt this for a moment: the band played fantastic music that created a joyous atmosphere.
Working with Roma communities is a difficult task, with many challenges day in and day out. The only way to do it really well is if you love what you do. Without this passion, it is not possible to work with the necessary dedication, especially when things feel really hard and almost insurmountable!

Rule No. 2: Believe in what you do!

There is no doubt – Springsteen fanatically believes that he has a mission in this world: he has used his music to improve the life of as many people as possible – to motivate, inspire, give joy and faith! And he does exactly that, everyday, from concert to concert, record to record!
Working with Roma communities also requires a strong faith and belief in what you are trying to achieve, no question about it! But when we can make a positive impact on the life of so many people, every small success is absolutely worth it.

Rule No. 3: Make a real impact with the community you are working with by being with them as much as possible!

In Vienna, a “catwalk” was attached to the front of the main stage, allowing Springsteen to walk into the audience. And he did exactly that quite often: he sang most of the songs there, while the enthusiastic fans could see him up close, shake hands with him, and participate in his music. With every move he made he sent a clear message: “I am just like you, what’s more, I am one of you!”
Sometimes, those working with Roma people find that under the pressure of daily tasks, administration, project work and deadlines they have less and less time for actually being with the communities they are working with. This doesn’t work. If you want to make a real impact, you should spend as much time as possible talking and walking with the Roma community!

Rule No. 4: People trust you – trust them in return!

The “Boss” trusts his fans and believes that they will do the right thing in the end. And they do! At one point during the concert, a couple of overly enthusiastic guys sprang on stage; instead of calling for the security men, Springsteen greeted them with a smile, shook hands and let them walk around the stage. After a couple of seconds they left the stage without any force necessary.
This is an excellent analogy for how we should all work with Roma people. It is impossible to work with Roma communities without trusting them. But as the example demonstrates: the more open and trusting you are with people, the more they will trust you and demonstrating this through each other actions really works.

Rule No. 5: Listen to the people!

A concert is not a request program – the songs played are carefully selected. Fans of the Boss know that if they want a request they have to write the title of the song on a large piece of cardboard and get to the front section of the arena so that The Boss can collect it (together with many others) and hopefully play it! He can’t do every request, but he always does a few.
If you are really serious about helping Roma communities, being with them is only a good start – you also have to really listen to them! You have to understand them and their culture as well as their needs. You also have to find creative ways – even if it is difficult – to exchange honest discussion about their thoughts, ideas, fears and wishes; and to be honest about what you can and cannot do for them and with them. (In Torrent, we saw how the Local Support Group have used some of the planning processes learned through Roma-Net to be really innovative about the ways they help Roma people to openly share their ideas!)

Rule No. 6: Serve your community, but once in a while, make some dreams come true!

At one point at the concert in Vienna, Springsteen lifted a young girl from the audience on the stage and danced with her. Then he called up a boy, gave him the microphone and he sang two lines in front of 50.000 people! It was obvious form the looks on their faces that a dream had come true for them both at that moment! The Boss knows well, that he has to serve all of his audience – but from time-to-time he can also make some dreams come true without hurting the interests of the entire community. And he does it, because he knows: moments like these are really motivating for every member of the community!
Working with the Roma community is a similar experience: we have to be aware of the needs of the whole community but in making some critical changes to the way we work with our Roma communities through meeting their needs and being culturally sensitive we can actually change not only the lives of Roma people but that of the wider community too. The more we make those changes and see positive results; the more the wider community will want to engage with Roma people and help them to make further changes too.

Bruce Springsteen (and the E-Street Band) made magic in Vienna – as he no doubt did at every venue of the tour. We might say that It’s easy for him as the concerts are only visited by people who are already his fans. But Springsteen came from a difficult working class background and had a million reasons not to make it to where he is today. Only through passion, determination, commitment and dedication; as well as the ability to tell compelling stories from the heart about his background through his songwriting; he has gradually won the trust of millions. He motivates, inspires and consoles his “community” with faith, enthusiasm and with energy that belies his age. In fact, just like those of us committed to helping the cause of Roma in cities across the EU; “The Boss” knows that helping people, working with and for a community is a rewarding and beautiful service and something to be proud to be involved in for us all.

Roma Net is holding its final conference on Jan 15 – 17 in Budapest and Nagykallo.

4 Responses to “Working with Roma people: what can Bruce Springsteen teach us?”

  1. Simona Pascariu says:

    Hi Bela,

    Thanks for this article and message! I enjoyed every word of yours, especially as for many years I was involved in Roma programs (i.e. the Strategy for Roma minority, establishment of partnerships and building bridges projects between Roma communities and public administration first under the PHARE program and after under the EU umbrella) and I successfully applied many things you mention as lessons in your article.
    Do not know if you remember the CBC Hu-Ro, old of almost 14 years or so….. where we work together. How are you” How is Lazslo Roka? Hope you both are doing fine. Wish you a Happy(er) 2013!

    Warmest regards,

  2. Bela Kezy says:

    Hi Simona,

    good to see you here! And I am really glad that you – as an experienced practitioner – find my article spot on! As you have probably figured out, I was working with a small town in the RomaNet URBACT programme – and that’s how this analogy came to my mind after seeing my hero on stage in Vienna.
    Yes, of course I remember – we are still working in regional development, with an increasing focus on urban development, and certainly in cross-border development. In fact, I will sign the contract for preparing the Hungary-Romania Territorial Cooperation Programme 2014-2020 tomorrow.
    László is fine – we still run the company together.
    I am on Facebook and on LinkedIn – we can contact there as well!
    Have a happy and fruitful 2013 – and we might come across again some time!

  3. O.P.Joshi says:

    Thank you,
    I like your ideas and wish that these should be followed. I lived with Roma people
    heard their music, seen them and their art and work.
    I could many of their words and traditions in Europe.
    I prepared cards depicting their dances and carts. The Roma children and their plays are to be studied. They are close to nature and art and craft.
    On getting opportunity I will get published these cards.

  4. Béla Kézy says:

    To O.P. Joshi: then you can probably agree many of the rules listed in the post – in fact, you yourself have probably lived by many of them! And you are right, art is one of the important channels we may be able involve them stronger and it could also be a bridge between the roma communities and the wider local communities!

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