Community building through art-education – Realpearl

The director of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány does her job with deep humanity, but she is not willing to hide her opinion. To be human under every circumstances by Zsuzsanna Gulyás Nóra L. Ritók, as the leader of the Igazgyöngy Alapítvány has been working with segregated families in extreme poverty. She is an excellent educator. This is proven by not only the articles, studies and books written by her, but also by a huge number of professional acknowledgement and prizes. She is an amazing graphic artist; she has several works of art and book illustrations. She is an amazing person – that is what everybody says who knows her.   Her blog – The Edge of Misery – has several followers and readers. Not only good hearted people, but also people with extreme right wing views. In the past few years she got a great number of attacks and threats by anonymous commenters. Her activity is followed by political and gypsy leaders – who tend to be critical. All because Nóra L. Ritók is not willing to hide her opinion. She does what she has to do with endless humanity and with a critical view. Aren’t you afraid of the extreme right threats? Not any more. Back in time I used to think about an anonymous comment over and over again. I started to write the online diary to make a change. In my environment I experience daily that those living in extreme poverty have no chance and no hope for a better quality life. These families are mostly gypsies. Many people tend to be judgemental without knowing the actual situation. How did you end up with writing a blog? According to my first degree I am a geography-art major teacher. After the birth of my children I started to teach in Berettyóújfalu, where the proportion of gypsy students was very high, and they came to school with awfully big sociocultural disadvantages. What I learnt in college did not prove to be enough to get these children’s attention. I had to develop a new method. Thanks to this, the children started to like art and drawing. More and more gypsy kids came to extra art lessons. What did the leaders of the school say? At the beginning it was all right. This was the time when the first tenders appeared in Hungary, for example the Soros Alapítvány’s (Soros Foundation) tender which was looking for a method how to integrate gypsy children. At this time, we have barely heard about integration. At the foundation, which was looking for model schools, my application was successful. They found us. We became a model school, but only with art, and the leaders of the school did not support the idea that our whole pedagogic program should be built upon all this. This was when the conflicts started, which led to me establishing a new, foundation school. Did you have supporters at that time? Luckily I got into a postgraduate course for teachers, which was very helpful back then. That community was really inspiring for me. A teacher can have all the fantastic ideas, but if she does not get support, she gives up easily, and finds it easier to accommodate to what is already there. But it was not like this in your case. The Igazgyöngy Alapítvány and its school has been functioning for fourteen years, where you try to help children in extreme poverty and children who are multiply disadvantaged. As we found out that the children in extreme poverty cannot find a way to us, we started to look for them. At the moment we are working in six sites. Has your social program started with the segregated people? Yes. Because what can a teacher do, when she sees that the child’s clothing is not appropriate for the season? Tells it to the family-support service, who goes out for a visit, or maybe with a help of an authority, through the guardianship office, takes the kid away from this environment. If I had seen that a child did not have shoes, I got some for him. Wouldn’t it be the task of the parents? Generally yes. But it is different with those living segregated. It is not their personal choice to live in extreme poverty. They do not choose to live in misery. If they found a job, probably they would have money for shoes… If there was job, yes. If someone employed them. If they had the qualifications. If they had money to look for a job. That is a lot of “if”… We have to find a solution. The situation is absurd, the children continue the misery of the parents, sometimes going even deeper down, towards crime. We have been working for five years with the Igazgyöngy Esélyteremtő Model (~Pearl Opportunity Providing Model), whose main field is education, helping families and improving communities. We teach via art, but we also have workshops, we follow the children’s results in primary school, give extra lesson. Our extra skype-lessons are also on the way, which will serve to make distances disappear between the children. The family-helping and community-improving program’s main feature is, apart from preventing crisis situations, to focus on self-preservation and establishing workplaces. For example, our garden program and bio-briquette program, which is supposed to ease the winter cold, and the flat renovation program. It is not compulsory to co-operate with us, but only those can expect help who help us in return. What do you mean by this mutual helping? They help if they live up to their possibilities. For example, they come to our happenings. It also helps if they pay attention that their children take the extra lessons that we offer. If they take care of their gardens, volunteer at the community garden, or take part in our handicraft program. Does the state support you? Only the educational part – with the salaries. The social part of the program is based on scholarship money and donations. Would this program work in a bigger dimension? A lot of local governments, non-governmental organisations, educational institutions come to us from Hungary and from abroad too. Some parts of our program work extremely well. To be able to go national we would need the governmental and non-governmental part to co-operate. We have made a ‘problem map’. It is like a puzzle, where each piece should be taken care of a state institution – education, social care and medical care. But in between the pieces there are so big gaps that whole families disappear in them. What could the non-governmental organisations do? We are trying to fill these gaps and attach the pieces. Although I still believe that this is not our task. This should be done by the state. It is a bad attitude that the newer and newer governments always say that they are the one and only who know the solution. And they forget about those things that were functioning well under the previous one. A few days ago you have been to Brussels, where the experts of the civil society were discussing questions like that. The European Union spends a huge amount of money on Romani integration, but the result does not meet the expectations. Started by the Nyílt Társadalom Intézet Alapítvány (Open Society Institute Foundation) in 2011, the Grassroots Europe project had a discussion about integration. Eight countries were present. The reaction of the EU MPs was interesting. One of the German MPs detected the discrepancy between the governmental and non-governmental information, in the cases where legal action was necessary. Another MP working on this field however was not surprised at all. She told us to take legal action here as well. But I do not think that court can be an answer. What do you suggest? Unfortunately civil society is full of politics in Hungary. It is quite probable that the people who criticize have political aims. Of course we get invitations, we are members of the anti-segregation round-table, but we cannot trigger a change. We are present at lot of forums and conferences, we are making our voice heard. The problem is that after the politicians made their speech, they leave, and do not listen to people working on different fields. We should change this kind of attitude. You show this critical side of you in your blog posts. Your opinion based on the story of a boy who got out of segregation was really thought-provoking. The question arises: can it be expected from someone who left this life behind to come back and with his work help the community? Previously my opinion was the same: that if someone gets out of this life must return and help those who were unable to do so. There is a boy, who got out of extreme poverty and a segregated school to Pannonhalma, the Benedictine boarding school. He comes home once a month, but I can already feel that he cannot find his place at home, and even his environment gives him funny looks. Why do we have to expect a Romani intellectual, who finally left all this behind, to return? I believe that working in segregated places requires special expertise. Who is able to do this task? One does not have to be gypsy. I myself am not gypsy. Cannot even think with a gypsy mind. I have a different kind of knowledge. I know what society expects from them, and I can help with that. But I need the knowledge of those who are gypsies living in a gypsy community. This double knowledge is the main characteristic of our model. We do not want an integration where we tell what should be done and how they should behave. We need a lot of discussions to find the best way so that we can keep up this speed and set of rules. What makes you sad and annoyed about all this? When because of incomprehensible default and attitude situations cannot be solved. When there is no common sense. I understand an office clerk, if he is burnt-out, if he has problems in his private life, if he cannot act, if there is too much administration, but when they do not help “just because’ that makes me terribly annoyed. I think we should stay human under every circumstances. Those living in extreme poverty have no future, they have nothing positive in their lives, they have a bleak prospect about their situation. If we strengthen these negative feelings, where will this end? What do you rely on? I believe that ninety per cent of the problems in connection with gypsies living in extreme poverty can be treated by education. In the other 10 per cent we need the authorities’ help. With families whose income is based on crime. I think we cannot leave the kids there today, because they will just continue the criminal acts. Taking a kid out can be a solution here. But in all other cases education, patience, positive effects, carefully showing the way, understanding and tolerance can be a way out.