Can you tell us about you and your projects?
My name is Leif Hagert, I am the chair of the Finnish Roma Association and the Roma Youth Association. I’m also a freelancer, as well as a trainer and a consultant on Roma issues. We are currently running a project for 16-35 -year-old Roma people called Studio Roma, aimed at educating them in areas such as Youtube and photography, thus giving the Roma people a voice through social media production and blogging. There aren’t a lot of Roma at the moment who make content for social media, so we want to give them the tools to be more visible.
I also do public speaking and volunteering work. I volunteer in several different organizations, such as the SPR Youth Shelter Board and the Board of the Peace Education Institute. So all my work is not just focused on the Roma, as I try to do a wide range of work for people and society.
What inspired you to be a Roma activist?
It stemmed from the need to promote the rights of the Roma. It was shocking to note that when I was trying to get into working life as a youngster, it was really challenging as a Roma, if not impossible, to get a job. Especially if one has a traditional Roma name like mine, then already from the start of the application or a phone call you will immediately notice that I am a Roma. As I got older, the more I realized the extent of discrimination present in our society. This is not just an experience of mine or my Roma friends, but it extends all over Finland and Europe. Discrimination against the Roma is normalized and it is not criticized. It’s not tackled in the same way as discrimination and racism are in general and it’s more easily ignored. So it could be said that my activism arose from this need, and also from the feeling that there is not enough discussion on Roma issues.
There is also not enough discussion on the issues that concretely affect the lives of the Roma, such as the challenges of employment. Of course, there has been activism in Finland, but it has lacked certain tangibility. Projects rarely directly pay attention to discrimination, even though it is something that has a vast impact and lowers people's quality of life in many different sectors.
Another important inspiration for me was when I was young and found the Afro-American civil rights activists and their work against discrimination. I still get shivers when I read their texts and about their actions, especially when I think about the longevity of their work. I try to follow their path in my own activism. I myself have been inspired, for example, by Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou, whose poetry I can identify with a lot. For example “Caged Bird” and “Still I Rise” are poems from Angelou which I think would resonate with many Roma if they only heard them. They comfort and encourage me too.
What do you think are important matters to raise when talking about the Roma in Finland?
One important issue that should be highlighted more is the low self-esteem of the national identity of the Roma. In a way, we have adopted the discrimination and racism we face, and thus we begin to repeat it ourselves. We have begun to use the racist nicknames and generalizations used by the majority as if they were true. The racist message and image of us have been internalized. It is also reflected by the fact that Roma people can’t value their own identity. Some seek to fade it out, as it is seen as something shameful and embarrassing.
Another important issue is racism as a part of Finnish history, as to how the Roma have been treated even before the discussion on racism. When it comes to the discussion, I come across an argument that racism would be a new thing in Finland, that it would have been brought here only 30 years ago by non-Finnish people. However, there is nothing new about it. If you look at the history of the Roma, it’s pretty rough and dismal as racism has been a clear part of it. And, of course, not only the history of the Roma, but the Sámi and Karelians have had their share. These things are easily ignored when history is wanted to be represented a certain way. Although the discussion of racism is somewhat new, this does not mean that the problem is new. Racism and discrimination against the Roma have dictated their lives for a long time, but it has been so normalized that it has not been addressed on a larger scale. Racism has been the norm and has not been addressed.
The more we get different Roma people represented in the media, the more people can see that each Roma is their own individual, just like all Finns. Many people do not have any own contact with the Roma, they don’t necessarily know any Roma people, but only read what is written on social media, where someone’s story becomes the only connection and thus reality. If there were more Roma in the media, we would see better the diversity and humanity of Roma – people would see that we are also people with different opinions, values, and interests.
There is a lack of representation of the Roma in the traditional media. In Finland we can now see that in some media channels there are one or two non-white people represented, so that not only white people are shown. But the Roma are still missing. Here, too, the history of Finland and the status of the Roma come to the fore: it may seem easier for people to choose someone other than the Roma to be represented.
Do you think that the status of the Roma has changed in one direction or another recently?
If there has been any progress, it has been insignificant. I don’t want to sound terribly negative, but this is my view on the matter. I have seen that when the asylum seekers arrived in Finland perhaps the racist insults that had previously been directed at the Roma are now more directed at asylum seekers and immigrants. However, I would not see that as progress.
The fact that individual Roma does not face as much verbal abuse as before does not correlate to the societal structures, at least not yet, as they are still as discriminatory as before.
Has the employment situation of the Roma changed?
I do not have actual research data on the current employment rate, but THL (Finnish institute for health and welfare) has commissioned a study on the matter. It showed that the level of education of Roma has risen, but that the level of employment has not followed the same rise. So I do not think that our situation has moved forward that much. In the past, it was easier to hide behind the claim that the Roma are not educated enough so they don’t have to be hired. But when they don’t get hired even after being educated we can see that the problem has been discrimination all along.
I myself have been looking for work since a young age, but I have not had access to the same jobs, for example as a cashier, like other young people of the same age in the majority of the population. Even if the Roma have education or experience in the field, the same jobs will not be available. I have a sales education, a degree in restaurant and catering, and most recently a radio journalist's degree. I assumed that with a sales degree I would get into the business, but I realized during my studies that I couldn’t even get an internship position. Because of that, my education was almost suspended as the internship was a mandatory part of my studies. I was a good student and I had a strong motivation for the field, but it was a hard blow when I realized that I may have to cut my studies short if I can’t get an internship. Of course, this concerned me because how would I ever get a job if I couldn’t even get an internship. Eventually, I found an owner of a small boutique with Swedish background who said yes, a person named Leif is fit to be an intern for us. Fortunately, the school was supportive of applying, and they extended the time for applying because of my situation. I noticed that the teachers were also shocked by my situation. Our education correspondent said we could put her as a reference on our CVs when she saw what the situation was like for me and another Roma student in our class.
I do not have any magic trick to improve the employment of the Roma, but my message is to hire Roma people for work. Many have negative stereotypes of the Roma, which I believe will hinder our employment, even if we are qualified for the job. I believe that if a Roma person applies for a job and sends an application, we don’t do it as a joke but rather with a strong motivation.
Last year, you received the Young European of the Year award from Young Europeans (Eurooppanuoret), what kind of feelings does it evoke?
At first, it of course felt good that the work I have done had been recognized. After that, it felt even better when I realized how great it is that there are people who consider the issues of the Roma so important that they wish to reward the people working with these issues. This is certainly not something to be taken for granted. In my opinion, even in anti-racist work the Roma issues often go unnoticed. When it comes to highlighting the grievances faced by the Roma, people often want to turn the conversation away from these issues. This is a quite common occurrence, and it may not be purposeful, but it can tell you something about hidden attitudes. Tackling these issues can feel awkward, so people may prefer to keep the discussion on a general level or rather talk about some other minority. When focusing on the Roma issues it is almost impossible to talk about anything without someone trying to take the debate to another direction. The fact that Young Europeans saw the importance of Roma issues and the work done for them in particular, and wanted to reward for it, gives hope that there are people who value the Roma issues. Some people want to hear about this, want to learn, and strive to act in their daily lives and positions so that they can support and promote the cause of the Roma.
This interview will be published on International Roma Day. Do you tend to celebrate that anniversary?
So far, I haven’t really celebrated. In recent years I have spent the day browsing Twitter, for example, to see if any party, such as a party leader or a company that didn’t pay attention to us last year at all, would have noticed us this year. Some companies and politicians may remember the anniversary of many other minorities, but there are not many congratulators on International Roma Day. That is one thing I usually do: I try to see if we have moved forward with our views and if someone would like to notice the Roma.
The Roma, at least in Finland, do not really celebrate their anniversary. Sure, there may be different events or concerts, for example, but this day is still taking shape. Unlike many other holidays in Finland, certain traditions have not yet developed for International Roma Day.
You identify as a movie enthusiast on Twitter, do you have any special recommendations or favorites you want to share?
I especially like movies from the nineties, but my favorite movies are from a wider spectrum nonetheless. Actually, I’d like to name more than one because choosing a favorite is quite difficult. This is quite a row of clichés: Titanic, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Stand by me are especially close to my heart.
Name: Leif Hagert
Profession: Freelancer, activist, and columnist.
Education: Degree in sales, restaurant and catering, as well as radio journalism.