Getting started: How to begin Traveller Solidarity work
There are Traveller and Gypsy sites all over the UK. There is a lot of work to be done, not only helping fight evictions but trying to find other forms of mutual aid, and above all strengthening the connections between the settled and travelling community – building a movement and remembering we are on the same side. At Dale Farm we helped to resist the eviction, but also found there were dozens of different ways to help each other: from learning a lot from the way Traveller women dealt with the media to giving reading lessons.
What brought Dale Farm so prominently to the news was not only the brutal eviction, but also the unprecedented support for the Travellers from the settled community. Significantly, this went beyond campaigning to direct action and actual defense of the site for the eviction. “Every Traveller all over watched Dale Farm,” said Kathleen McCarthy, a resident. “People have been phoning us asking how we got people to help.”
If you want to start working with Travellers local to you, but don’t already know people from that community, it’s worth looking up local Traveller services, education groups or charitable organisations, to see if they can provide you with contacts. This group have lots of good links divided by area http://www.nationalgypsytravellerfederation.org/. Sometimes even local council services might be of some use, and there may be Travellers who take on the role of liaising with the council and are happy to chat to strangers. Keep an eye on local news for mentions of Traveller sites. This will also give you a good idea of when sites are facing harassment and problems.
There are many groups involved in this kind of work – Gypsy/Traveller organizations, activists from varying backgrounds, different departments in local councils and government, and the police for instance. Many of these have different ideas about how things should be run and can have slightly differing aims. Although juggling all these elements can be difficult, above all we must prioritise what Travellers themselves want. It is also worth remembering they are not a homogenous group and the different views in each community have to be balanced.
How TSN complements other existing groups is its focus on direct action. Nevertheless, there are also lots of different strands of work to be done: media, legal, and awareness raising campaigns to name a few. Many different skills and backgrounds can help.
Dale Farm residents strongly suggest that if you want to go to sites and talk to people, you prepare a leaflet or similar to explain what you’re about. The wording of any written material should be kept simple however, as levels of literacy amongst adult Travellers tend to be low.
Be aware of cultural differences, and of respecting people’s homes: even something that, at first glance, is not what we’re used to thinking of as a home. It’s a good idea to have a gender balance, as men going into trailers with women alone causes problems for everyone.
Making connections will take time, and every community will have a different idea of how they want to be supported, or not. But higher levels of communication can only be a good thing for the future of the Traveller Solidarity movement and for all the struggles intrinsically linked to it.
Remembering the centuries of persecution Gypsies/Travellers/Roma have faced from the settled community (sadly that’s us) in Britain, it’s crucial we act with real sensitivity and as a solidarity movement we should be guided by those we seek to help. This is their struggle originally, and ultimately it is not our lives at risk. Solidarity with oppressed people is both radical and powerful but linking with very different groups will always involve political compromise.
Cultural sensitivity has to extend to different ways of organising. A typical activist meeting might make some Travellers/Gypsies uncomfortable. Initially at Dale Farm our methods confused people but over time we were able to explain them and the reasons for them, and developed a successful method for organising together. Our experiences of eviction, police and the legal system might also be very different.
If your group wants to get involved in Traveller solidarity, get in touch with TSN! We may have some contacts in your local area, either among Travellers, a TSN group or both. If we don’t, we’ll want to network with whatever connections you make and support you as much as we can. Our website is www.travellersolidarity.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org.