I should start this article by saying that I am part of a growing class of Roma intellectuals. All hopes are pinned on me and my peers to somehow solve the Roma "problem" in many countries of Europe. We are young, college educated, speak English and have a cosmopolitan attitude. Many of us are active in the NGO sector, but we are getting the sense that both our government and our NGOs are failing to improve the quality of life for our people. We are ready to help change this situation. Yet there are challenges to being a young eRider.
Being an eRider
As part of the Roma elite, I have been a target for many donor-supported programs. I have been trained in everything from political leadership, English language, debate, NGO leadership, and women's issues, to income generation. I have received scholarships and help getting my university degree. Now with the Roma Information Project, I am learning how to use information technology to address issues in my community.
My work as an eRider is different from other work. It capitalizes on my networking skills, my understanding of the NGO community, my commitment to change, and skills that often come easy to someone my age -- comfort with technology. These skills serve the never-ending need of Roma NGOs for technical assistance.
As an eRider with the Roma Information Project, I am seeking to improve the ability of leading Roma organizations to use information and communicate. My goal is to help these groups fully participate in society in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and southeastern Europe.
Unfortunately, my age and the fact that I am just half Roma has me working double-time to convince these organizations that they should let me support their work. Sometimes it is very hard to work with the staff. They assume I will be a know-it-all who is only interested in helping them for my own benefit.
My work as an eRider has been difficult, but rewarding. Roma were never before interested in computers and didn't see them as a necessity. They are resistant to using the computers for anything more then writing project proposals, and they rarely see technology as integral to their work. Computers, they believe, are in the domain of the educated and skilled.
Technology through the Backdoor
Thanks to the fact that fewer and fewer donors accept handwritten project proposals, my role as an eRider is defined very simply. I am someone who wants to help them by teaching how to use computers to apply for grants. However, as soon as I start teach the basic skills, they also learn how to use the Internet, and that's the point -- opening the gate for communication. Then it doesn’t matter if I am only half-Roma or if I am too young. Their needs are being met, and in the long run, the needs of our community are being met.
Tips for Young eRiders
1. Never tell the people you work with how old you are.
2. Break the ice by talking about their history and their work in their community. Do not jump into technology too quickly.
3. Always dress about five years older then you really are. Don't wear concert t-shirts, hip huggers, or little sundresses. Let them know you take your job seriously.
4. Dazzle them a little. Let them see you are well-connected, understand the big picture, and are supporting other organizations that they respect.
In the Field
Through e-mail and the Web, I have been able to connect with others who celebrate the Roma culture and work on Roma issues. The same kinds of connections are also being made by the staff of organizations that are addressing issues of health, human rights, cultural preservation, education, and housing. All are burning issues in Roma communities.
As these connections are made, many things in our community are changing. Government ministries are seeing NGOs as essential development partners. Their systems are online and they expect to communicate via e-mail. Application forms for grants have to be filled out electronically. The regional and international nature of Roma issues means NGOs are reaching out to partner organizations in other parts of their own countries and in other countries. Phone calls are expensive, and the mail system is slow. A demand for technology use is growing.
In the office of Athinganoi, the Czech Roma Students organization, there are three staff people and a computer for each staff person. In the offices of Dzeno, a Roma media organization, the back rooms are abuzz with the sounds of the first ever Roma Internet radio station. In many regions the Roma Adviser and Coordinator (appointed by the municipal government and based in the fourteen regions of the Czech Republic) helps groups find grants for computers and sometimes even money for an Internet connection. IT use is catching on.
Gabriel Hrabanova is a RIP eRider in Czech Republic. Gabriela is a second-year student at the Anglo-American Institute of Liberal Studies in Prague. A member of the Roma university students association, Athinganoi, and recipient of both a scholarship from her university and a Roma Memorial scholarship, she is active in youth issues and politics. As an eRider, she supports several organizations with a special focus on the growing Roma women's organization, Manushe.