The challenge of engaging with marginalised Traveller, Gypsy and Roma communities

In March 2018, a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report found 13 systematic concerns about Traveller accommodation, suggesting that Traveller communities are subject to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality from local authorities and service providers. You do not have to look far to find more research, from across the whole of the UK, which highlights similar challenges for, and attitudes towards Traveller communities. Attainment, school attendance, unemployment and community cohesion are all shown in research as being consistently lower among Traveller communities.

Research from IRISS shows that Traveller communities are subject to regular racial, social and cultural discrimination and feel isolated within a society that they feel does not respect them in the same way as other minority groups. Some even feel that it is more acceptable to make a derogatory comment about a Traveller than someone who is from another ethnic group.

Commentators repeatedly highlight that there is very little knowledge or understanding of nomadic lifestyles, and that this can contribute to the racism, abuse and stigmatisation of Traveller people. However, some projects are trying to address the view of Traveller communities and improve their treatment and engagement with other members of non-Traveller communities.

An erosion of traditional lifestyles and cultures

A lack of flexibility around housing arrangements means that, to a large extent, Traveller families are often forced to choose between either poor accommodation sites which allow them to maintain their traditional way of living, or giving up this traditional lifestyle (which is not just a way of living, but also an entrenched part of their heritage and culture) to live in mainstream traditional social housing. One major criticism of local authority and central government supported services is that they are very inflexible to nomadic living; health, education, housing and employment support are all usually reliant on a fixed address. As a result, third sector organisations, charities and specific engagement bodies usually end up taking the bulk of the pressure and responsibility for supporting Traveller families, or Travellers are left to fend for themselves. This can lead to them becoming isolated or reluctant to engage.

Those who make attempts to assimilate often do so at the cost of their traditional way of life, with some even commenting that there is a level of cultural erosion and almost cleansing, and that Travellers are being forced to choose between suitable accommodation and living standards, and their heritage and traditions.

Challenges span generations, and create entrenched barriers

Many Traveller families have poor education and health experiences and there are multiple barriers to Traveller families accessing these services. In schools, it has been well documented that Traveller children have lower levels of attendance and attainment, with higher levels of exclusion and a higher incidence of bullying, discrimination and racist abuse while at school.

In social work, Traveller children are more likely to be engaged with a social worker and taken into care. It is clear that professionals working within these environments need to be trained to react and respond to the needs of Traveller children in a culturally sensitive way.

Practitioners need to be sensitive, aware and flexible where possible to accommodate needs, but this is not always the case and it can make Traveller communities reluctant to engage directly with local authorities on issues. However, there is a growing body of research which looks at art and culture-centred practice to try and engage Traveller communities with their wider community, and to enlighten other members of the community in a positive way about Traveller culture.

Could art be the bridge to build understanding between communities?

Many Traveller communities do not readily have access to art and do not participate in “cultural activities” like attending the theatre or museums or using libraries. They also don’t have any relationship to most art produced. There is very little Traveller representation in art, music, theatre or museum exhibitions and it can be the case that Travellers feel art and culture in the mainstream is not representative of them or their culture, which can also hinder them from engaging.

However, using art and art-based interventions can help to break down entrenched stereotypes and can create a level playing field for people to participate and contribute, particularly among children who may not be as effective at communicating using words or language.

Engaging young children (and their families) through play and cultural activities can help break down some of the barriers and mistrust that communities feel towards one another. Community engagement initiatives enhance trust and can improve relations, but this must be done in a sensitive and inclusive manner. Traditional crafts and arts are something that can be shared across the whole community, not just within Traveller communities.

Non-Traveller children also are at a cultural disadvantage from not having Traveller communities portrayed in mainstream cultural activities. Greater representation in art, TV and books would help integration, help to break barriers, reduce stereotypes, increase understanding of a unique culture in Britain and (it is hoped) lead to greater integration and less hate crime.

Art also has the potential to be used as a tool to engage adults within the community. Using art as part of consultation exercises can make the process accessible and can allow people to be involved who may not usually contribute, helping them to feel they have had a say in decisions made within their community. Art can also be a useful strategy in community cohesion and neighbourhood building activities, with people able to express their opinions and fears through other mediums such as painting, drawing or acting – although establishing the initial engagement can be challenging.

Final thoughts

Art-based practice can be an accessible way to engage and create a dialogue between communities, and help to build a level of trust between Traveller communities and local services. However the activities must be culturally sensitive, and staff within local services must be willing to be flexible and creative with how they engage if they are to create meaningful relationships with Traveller communities.


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