Podcast Episode: Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history: Davie Donaldson
Category: Community development
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
KM - Kerry Musselbrook
DD - Davie Donaldson
KM Today I have with me Davie Donaldson, who identifies as a Scottish traveller from Perthshire. He’s a graduate of Aberdeen University, like myself, and is someone with a keen interest in culture and community relations. Davie is a social justice campaigner and is founder of Progress in Dialogue, a social enterprise that advocates dialogue between communities one conversation at a time. So today is a chance to have another one of those conversations. So welcome, Davie.
DD Thanks for having me, Kerry.
KM So can I just start by asking who are the gypsy traveller community? Can you tell me a bit?
DD Yeah. I mean it’s actually a really good question and to some of the listeners it might sound like a strange one, but actually when you start to look at who the gypsy traveller community are and who we speak about when we use those terms, it’s actually quite diverse. There is no such thing as a standard gypsy traveller, right? It doesn’t exist. When we use the term “Gypsy Traveller” in policy and when we use it in guidance we’re actually speaking about a number of different communities. Within that term you have the Irish travellers, or of course in their own language the Pavees or the Minker, then you’ve got the Romany gypsies. You’ve also got the Scottish gypsy travellers and you’ve got a number of other groups as well, including the French Manush, who travel here in Scotland. So really when we use that term it’s a risky one to use, about acknowledging that it’s about many different communities, because what it risks doing is homogenising communities into one. It’s a good question but really in answer to your question I would need to say that gypsy travellers are a diverse range of communities, each with their own beliefs and sometimes even their own origins as well.
KM But they do have protected status, don’t they, as well?
DD That’s right, yeah. So a number of the groups do have ethnic minority status, including of course Scottish gypsy travellers, who gained their ethnic minority status in 2008, and Irish travellers and English gypsies also have recognition, Irish travellers in 2001 and the English gypsies in the 1970s. So they’re all recognised under equality law and certainly under the Equality Act of 2010.
KM If I can make it a little bit more personal now, what was it like for you growing up as a Scottish traveller?
DD The honest answer is it was difficult. Growing up in Scotland as a traveller, there’s a lot of challenges you face and there’s a lot of assumptions that are made about you automatically just based on your background and your ethnic status. Growing up for me was quite mixed. So I initially went to school from my house and then we moved onto the road, and when we were living on the road it was a completely different world, right? So I remember being in primary school and I remember having friends. I remember little things. It was P1, right? So I remember like story time and all these types of things, but then I remember my first ever experience of racism, because I didn’t even know what it was. We went on the road and me and a few of my older cousins went up to a park and there was like loads of settled vans there, or as we’d say, country folk. There was loads of country folk there and they all left. As soon as we got there they left and I had no idea why and I couldn’t work this out, and then a little while later they came back and when they came back they started shouting at us, started calling us “tinks” and “pikeys”. I’d never heard those words before. I had no idea what they meant and it wasn’t until my older cousin actually told me, “Look, these folk don’t like us because we’re travellers.” I didn’t even know what a traveller was, and that was my first example of racism and sadly it wasn’t the last, but even from that young age I remember being set out as being different. I remember being set out as different and even though I didn’t feel any different to anyone else, society made me feel like I was dirty almost, there was something wrong with me. So yeah, I struggled. We were on the road for a while on and off and on and off, into different houses, and when I went to school I went back to school in phases. One time I went back to school off a camp - I tried to get back to school I should say - and I didn’t know the story until much later on. I remember this time in my life being quite happy. So I was on the camp with my cousins and all these different travellers were shifting about, and I remember just like cutting about the camp and just playing and I remember thinking, “I don’t know why I’m not at school but I don’t mind this”, and at that time I had no idea that my mum was trying to get me into school but she was failing, and the reason she was failing - I didn’t find this out until later - but she phoned a number of schools in Edinburgh, and we were living on a camp as I say, so I had no permanent address, and every single time she’d phone she’d get all the way through and it’d be perfect and she’d give all the details, and then she’d get to the address and she’d say, “Oh well we’re living on a camp”, and at that point attitudes completely changed, and in most cases there was no room at the school, where just a few minutes ago there’d been plenty of room. So there was a lot of barriers there that even I wasn’t aware of kind of growing up. When I did go to school we eventually moved into a house in Edinburgh and I managed to get into school, and I was quite a bit behind everyone else ‘cause I’d been on the road and because I’d had kind of this fragmented learning. I needed to catch up basically, and my mum was very, very keen. My parents were both very keen for us to get in education. So she put me to school and I wasn’t getting any homework back and it’d been months, right? So she was thinking that I wasn’t doing the homework. So she checked me and said, “Look, you’re really going to have to do your work. You need to catch up with other bairns. You’re falling behind”, and I insisted, “Look, I am doing the homework. I’m just not getting it back.” So my mum went to the school expecting for them to say, “No, he’s not been doing the work”, but she went to the school and the teacher said, “Oh I’ve just forgotten to mark it”, but it had been months. So my mum gave her the benefit of the doubt because she thought, “Oh maybe the teacher’s busy. Maybe there’s a lot of pressure on her”, but she kind of expressed, “No look, I really want him to catch up with everyone. Can you please make sure and mark his work?” So another few weeks passed and I still get nothing back. So my mum went into the school again and she complained to the Head Teacher, and when she did that the next day she was standing at the school gates and there was this other settled mum came up to her and said, “Look, Kirsty, I don’t know if I should be telling you this but yesterday after you went and complained at the school, the teacher came out of the school and she was speaking to another mum and she said, I don’t know why Mrs Donaldson’s making all the fuss. I know that they’re gypsies. He’s not going to do anything with an education, so why would I waste resources on him?” When I speak about challenges there was obviously the blatant challenges. I faced direct racism but there was also a lot of challenges that I perhaps wasn’t aware of as much growing up that really kind of stood as a barrier to me.
KM Yeah and you mentioned there I suppose some of her views and her conceptions and misconceptions. What do you believe are the main misconceptions about you as a gypsy traveller or your community?
DD I mean there’s so many. One of the main ones that really kind of gets to me and I know that it’s a common one that people believe, and I mean really when we’re talking about this we need to appreciate that there’s very seldom an alternative narrative, right? People learn about any community with their interactions with that community, but mostly through the media. That’s how we learn about other people, is through the media, and sadly in the case of travellers it’s that often times the media can be quite biased or it can lack a traveller voice, and so it can allow for these misconceptions to kind of bubble up and go unchallenged. So one of them is even the word “traveller”, right? So it’s perhaps something I should have focused on in your first question, but one of the most common stereotypes is that to be a traveller you have to live on the road, right? You have to be nomadic or you have to live in a caravan and you have to be in a trailer. Complete myths, right? It’s in your blood. Being a traveller is an ethnic minority status. We are so much more than just traveling, but the most common thing that gets put to me is I was speaking to a reporter and he said, “Oh so you live in a house?” I was like, “Yeah.” I said, “The majority of our community live in houses. There’s a very, very small percentage of us who live roadside or who live on camps, and the reason for that is because one, there’s so little roadside camps now that are legal for us to pull onto, but two as well, permanent sites, there’s only 26 in Scotland. So if you want to go and live on one of those places it’s almost impossible. There’s a massive waiting list. So most of us live in houses”, and he looked at me and he was like, “But surely to be a traveller one must travel?”, and it’s so common and I think because people are so used to that element of our identity maybe being spoken about more or now being expressed more, they think that is the full identity, and it’s not. There’s travellers who have lived in houses for generations and even if you go right back in history, in the late 1700s even there’s records of travellers living in houses during the winter because it was so hard to live on the road in winter months. So that’s quite a common myth. The other one as well is that we’re not an ethnic minority, so like the attitude that you can become a traveller, right? You can wake up one day and think, “I really like the romance of that life. I really like the appeal of kind of leaving society as it were and going on my own road and becoming a traveller”, and of course you can’t do that. It’s impossible to become a traveller. You can’t do it. You’re born a traveller and for many of us we face great barriers and challenges because we’re born travellers. So it’s not something you can take and it’s certainly not something you can give up, it’s with you forever, but I think those are the most kind of clear myths. There are of course more damaging myths and stereotypes. One of them is that travellers are criminals. It’s quite often out there. One of the most common things you’ll hear, especially in local press, is this complete myth that crime rate goes up when travellers move into an area. It’s of course particularly damaging, whilst kind of misunderstandings around our culture and how you can become a traveller and how you can’t become a traveller, all these types of thing are something that in some ways they can be overlooked by the community. They don’t have as much impact on the community, but attitudes like thinking a crime rate goes up in an area when travellers move in, have massive impacts on travellers. One of them is of course that we have so little permanent accommodation for travellers in this country, often due to local protests, for want of a better word, against traveller camps and traveller sites in an area, because they’re worried about crime, and it has to be said and I’m glad I have this opportunity to do it, but there’s no evidence that crime rate goes up if travellers move into an area, and even I’ve spoken to in Scotland and in England different police forces who claim to have statistics that actually back up the fact that crime rates can go down in area when travellers move into it. So I think that’s one of the more damaging stereotypes. In certainly my own experience I mean the notion that travellers are almost self-excluding from society and that we don’t want to be part of society, we don’t want to be part of the nine to five, and I mean to a certain extent there’s some truth in not wanting to be part of the nine to five and we do of course have our own beliefs and we have our own traditions and they’re really important to us, when society goes as far to say that we’re excluding ourselves from society it can have massive impacts. I mean in my own experience as I’ve shared, the teacher gave up on my education because she thought I would never do anything with an education.
DD So there’s a stereotype there about me being a traveller and the fact that I would ultimately go onto university and work in policy or do these things that might not be otherwise stereotypical traveller jobs. So I think there needs to be an acknowledgement that travellers have done an array of work over history, and that whilst we try traditionally to keep our trades nomadic in the sense that we could pick our trade up and go anywhere in the world, that doesn’t mean we have to be tarmackers, right? I mean I’ve got a lot of family who are nurses, who are doctors, who are surgeons, lawyers. They’re still trades that you can take with you and that’s been the case for a long time. So when we talk about travellers in society we need to kind of break this notion that travellers are only this group of people that you see in the papers who live on a camp on the outskirts of town. It’s not like that. We’ve been part and parcel of this community of our society for a long, long time.
KM Absolutely and to choose your own path I guess and have the same choices in terms of forging your own careers like everybody else.
KM We mentioned earlier that June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month. What would you say are the main benefits of this and how can it help tackle some of these issues that you’ve been telling us about?
DD So Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is a massive tool for the community but it’s also a tool for individuals to acknowledge that they might not know as much about our community and have the safe space and the opportunities to actually learn and to develop, and I think that’s really important because everyone can be shy, we can all be nervous about admitting that we don’t know a lot about our community, especially when working a professional role or in a sector which might be deemed an equality sector. We can often feel almost ashamed actually to admit that we don’t know about a community or that we don’t know that much about their history or the challenges that they face. So Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month offers us a unique opportunity to really kind of challenge that head on and provide people with those spaces to develop. I mentioned there about the history of travellers. I mean this month the amount of conversations I’ve had where I raised awareness that Scottish travellers have been here for, well put it this way, we’re older than Genghis Khan, right? So the kind of notion of us in the local press as being invaders of land in this country and just moving into communities and popping up out of nowhere is of course completely false, and so talking about that history, talking about the rich valid and folklore culture within our community, that really ingrains us. It roots us to Scotland. We’re perceived as a community without roots or without rootedness in place, but Scottish travellers and other traveller groups have a deep rootedness in place and we’re taught from a very young age about our ancestral connection to those places, and it’s very, very deep and I think settled people don’t often have the opportunity to have an insight into that. So certainly I’ve enjoyed raising awareness of that this month, but also it helps us to talk about the parts of our history which are perhaps more difficult to speak about and parts of our history which are perhaps not as positive, allowing people to speak about their own personal experiences with racism but also their families’ experiences with racism, and really trying to introduce the fact that whilst gypsy travellers provide this massive richness of culture to our communities and society, they also face massive structural barriers and it’s not a new thing but it’s been here for a very long time. So one of the points of course that I think is massively important is when we look at history, that we don’t look at it as a standalone element of our culture but actually history is played through our own identities every day and that the history of persecution and discrimination is a lived reality for people in our community. There’s many examples I could share but one that’s particularly poignant to me is when people from our community were as we call it taken away. They were taken by the cruelty. It’s very important to recognise that travellers weren’t always perceived in policy as a rich culture that we should look to include, but that they were actually perceived as a culture described as vagabonds, as people that weren’t assimilating. We weren’t fitting with the status quo and that was a problem. It was almost a threat. So one of the most important documents that we have in our history was the 1895 report, and in that report we have the church and the state in Scotland working together to find a solution to what they termed “the tinker problem”. There’s a number of hearings in that report and there’s a number of conclusions and recommendations but the one that sticks out to me and certainly was to be played out in reality was eradication as the only cure. So from 1900 right on until at least the mid 1970s - some would argue later - social work had a policy of removing traveller children from families. We have a number of cases that evidence that. From my own family we have cases in the early 1900s, so my great, great, great uncles, and there was one case in 1907 where my uncle, he had a number of children and they were living in a cave up north in Caithness. Many travellers lived in caves and especially during the winter because it was really hard to build a camp up in the highlands because of the barrenness of it basically, and during the winter it was especially hard, so they wintered in caves. My uncle was wintering in a cave and his wife was sadly swept away with a freak gale and she drowned. Then the cruelty came down and they said that because he was living in a cave it wasn’t appropriate accommodation for his children and that it was detrimental to them. So they were removed from him. Some were forcibly migrated abroad to Canada and to Australia. Some were placed in Quarriers’ homes. Some were placed into forced labour institutions in Perth. So he lost all of his kids and tragically he took it really badly - as you would - and he turned to the bottle and he drank himself and then he sadly committed suicide just above the cave. So that’s just one traumatic example of tragedy that our communities have experienced, but then if you go forward a few years into the 1970s my dad was taken. So it’s not just these isolated events in our history but rather it’s a continuation of the same attitudes impacting our families across generations. 1970s my dad was staying in a camp in Scarborough and the cruelty came again and because he was living in a tent they didn’t deem it appropriate for a child to be living in a tent, so they removed him and put him into a home in Scarborough, but because most of my family were all on the road it was impossible to get him back out of the home. So my dad was there for a while and he never really speaks about it if I’m honest, but when he does it’s horrific, the experiences that he had. Eventually my great aunt moved into a house and she put her kids to school, 100% attendance, and she managed to get my dad out of the home because they perceived her as not your stereotypical traveller or even perhaps not even a traveller at all. So he luckily managed to come back to our community and certainly back to his own family, but he was the exception. There’s many, many, many people in our community who never got back and indeed who’ve lost that connection to the identity completely.
KM What does that do to you, Davie?
DD It’s hellish, right? You hear about these traumas growing up because we’re a storytelling community, and that’s not to romanticise our community in any way, but the way in which we gain knowledge and pass on knowledge is through oral means. So our whole world is made up by storytelling and a lot of that is about the personal experiences of our family. So growing up I heard these stories, right? I heard about the fact that my granny was taken. I heard about my uncles being taken. I heard about my dad being taken. So I was terrified of social work. I was terrified of anyone who looked like they were an authority, let alone who spoke about child protection, ‘cause those words to me didn’t mean protection. Those words meant I was getting removed from my home and my culture and I’d perhaps never come back. So there’s still a massive fear in our community and the relations have never been rebuilt, and I think that if we’re going to move forward at all in terms of community trust in authority to be honest as large but especially in social work, we need to have an acknowledgement of that history and we need to recognise that it’s not just, “Oh that happened in the past. It’s not like that now”, because in our narrative and in our own personal identity it is still like that and it’s never been apologised for, it’s never been fully appreciated, and as a result of that many travellers will still think that social work is the exact same and they have the exact same attitudes and the same things will happen to them. So it’s really important that we look at that, but for some listeners they’ll be aware of this terminology but it’s quite new to me, this notion of cultural trauma. Cultural trauma is in layman’s terms basically the notion that trauma, PTSD, can be passed down through communities and it can be done through generations through a variety of means, but one of the key ways that they know it can happen is through stories and through oral telling and oral teaching, especially within communities that might be self-reliant or might be somewhat marginalised within wider society. So one example of this is with Native American communities, where the trauma of colonisation and colonialism is still a lived reality with a lot of Native American people, and if you’re outwith a community it can be a difficult thing to comprehend but we know statistically and the data is there from North America at least that a number of people, especially with the Cherokee people, there’s been a lot of research done and they’ve found that the cultural trauma their grandparents faced in terms of the institutionalisation, the reserves, the crackdown on languages, the crackdown on their culture, it’s still a lived reality for a number of young Native Americans and it can lead to substance abuse, it can lead to mental health difficulties, and we see the same stuff in Scotland. We talk about the practice that was used in North America, a lot of it happened here. We do have examples of reserves being built for travellers. We do have experiences of having the language cracked down on in school or even in my dad’s generation there’s folk in that generation who can remember having to eat in a separate hall to settled people, or even in my generation there’s signs that ban travellers from shops still in this country today. So a lot of these kind of attitudes that permeate segregation and exclusion are still very, very real and apparent. So when those attitudes are still very real and apparent, our automatic at least subconsciously even is to go back to that trauma which we’ve heard of, and we then live it, right? So we’ve got evidence that people can suffer from PTSD despite never having went through the actual trauma directly themselves, but just from hearing about it. So that’s something which really spoke to me, that theory, and to me of course it was a lived reality and I thought, “Well that explains it. That’s terminology for how I feel, how the rest of my community feel.”
DD So I think that once we start to look more into the impacts of trauma on whole communities and our whole cultures, we’ll start to disentangle the issues that come with that. One of the things that are very, very important to recognise is the notion of self-hate. So especially relevant to social work. A lot of the young people who were taken into care from our community, obviously they’re a lot older now, when you speak to them one of the main challenges that they’ve faced is an identity crisis. A good friend of mine, Martha Stewart, she speaks about being scared of travellers and she speaks about when she was a teenager. She was taken very young from her family and she was told her whole life that her family were alcoholics and that they were bad to her and that’s why she was taken away, and she believed them of course ‘cause that was all she was ever told, and then she can remember - and it was horrible to hear her say it - but she said that when she was a teenager she can remember passing traveller camps and being terrified of them, being scared of that people, because she believed all the stereotypes. So I think that when we actually think about the impact of social work relations with the traveller community historically and certainly in the past few decades, I think that we need to start noticing the patterns of self-hate that that’s produced within the community and how we can actually work together to disentangle that self-hate and actually kind of take away the trauma and build cultural resilience, because the only way that we can move forward as a culture and certainly in terms of relations with the settled community, is if we have the opportunity to work with the settled community and with institutions specifically to co-produce cultural resilience and cultural confidence in ourselves.
KM Yeah and just to go back you were talking about self-hate, I mean it is true, isn’t it, that mental health and mental ill health is a significant issue within the traveller community?
DD It is, yeah. We don’t have specific statistics in Scotland but the closest statistics we can get is from the Irish traveller community who’ve faced similar barriers and similar challenges, so we would expect the statistics to be similar in Scotland, but we do know that travellers are more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to suffer from substance abuse and more likely to suffer infant mortality. I think the last statistic I saw was over 20% more likely to suffer from infant mortality. We have some statistics saying that we’re eleven times more likely to commit suicide, something that’s a big problem in our community. So the statistics are there and anecdotally there’s so much evidence that our community is really struggling, and because we’ve got kind of this perfect storm for want of a better word, where we’re actively being marginalised in society, so services don’t actively reach out to us, especially when we talk about health services, mental health services. There’s often a massive gap in terms of travellers being able to access those services and support, but whilst you have that you also have this pervasive cultural trauma which is everywhere within our community, and so you have that all combining into this perceived erasure of culture and erasure of identity, because another common phrase is that travellers don’t fit into a modern world. We’re in an old way of thinking. We need to move with the times, and sadly I’ve heard some travellers say it. Some travellers have said, “Look, we need to move with the times. We’re not shifting anymore. It’s an old way of being. We’re not doing that anymore. Modernise. Do these new things.” That’s massively impactful, especially upon young travellers, and when you’re growing up and you’re being stigmatised and discriminated against it can lead to a massive identity crisis, right? I mean a lot of travellers will talk about coming out as a traveller, and it’s a phraseology I’ve used myself but I hadn’t ever thought about how impactful that phraseology was until I was told. We used it all the time because when I was at school I was told that if you go to school and you say you’re a traveller and you’re open about the Cant - which is our language - and you’re open about the fact that you are a traveller, you will face barriers. The school won’t want to take you seriously in terms of your work. You’ll face bullying. You’ll get called names, and I had that. So it was backed up with experience and so for a long time when I went to school, there’s a level of shame attached to it but there’s also a level of acknowledgement, that any traveller who I have met who’s at this stage in life where they’ve been to university like myself and they’ve kind of went to secondary school and done that, they’ve all had the same experiences. They’ve all had this notion where they’ve thought, “Look, just to make it easier for myself I’m going to just not tell anyone I’m a traveller”, and I can remember the moment that that happened. We’d moved to different schools and we all faced issues, me and my sisters, and we moved to this other little school in Aberdeenshire. I was going into primary seven and I remember my dad sitting me down and he said, “Look Dave, when you go to school don’t tell anyone you’re a traveller. Don’t speak the Cant. When we shift in the summer don’t tell them you’re shifting, make up a holiday.” He said, “Just don’t tell them.” He said, “Never ever be ashamed of who you are. Never ever deny who you are. If you’re ever asked if you’re a traveller, never ever deny it, but just don’t make it obvious to the country folk and your life will be better for it”, and I did and I have to say that was the last time I faced any sort of bullying, any sort of name calling. I didn’t get anything. I excelled at school in terms of academically. I struggled a lot at the start of secondary school with that, having to hide your culture and not being able to be open about who you are. It’s a massively difficult thing and I remember having massive bouts of aggression and just being angry all the time, and so my first few years at high school I was on behavioural cards constantly. I was getting sent out. I was getting excluded. I was fighting constantly and that wasn’t in my nature, right? I’m quite a quiet going person. I’m not that violent but at that stage in my life I was just finding it so difficult to not be who I was, and it was almost like in the summer I would go on the road and I’d be with my cousins and I’d be this person and then I’d come back in the winter and I’d be this completely different person, and it was trying to in my own head bridge the 2 identities, was massively traumatic. When I came to the stage of going to university and being able to be open about who I was because it wouldn’t impact on my sisters ‘cause I moved away, so I didn’t have to worry about them getting bullied if I came out as a traveller, if I publicly said something in support of travellers, and when I did and I had that experience of coming out and I remember saying it to my friend first, I had this really close friend, still a good friend of mine, and I told him I was a traveller and I remember the anxiety pumping in my chest and thinking, “I’m going to lose this friend. He’s not going to want to spend time with me anymore. He’s going to turn off to me entirely and he’s going to move away”, and he didn’t. He stayed there and I was lucky ‘cause it sometimes does happen, but the anxiety that I remember in that space and coming out as a traveller, it was normal to me in that I knew a lot of travellers who’d been through similar experiences to me had faced that, but I’d never made the connection with the LGBT community, and when I went to government and I used that terminology and I said, “I came out as a traveller”, it resounded with people because it crossed movements. They were used to being told about the narrative of how hard it is to come out as LGBT, and I’m not LGBT and I wouldn’t claim to have the experiences of someone who’s from that community, but what I can say is I went through a very similar feeling or what I can imagine would be a very similar feeling. Using that terminology helped greatly in trying to build understanding within the settled community because they weren’t used to thinking about travellers in that way. They were used to being told about LGBT people in that way. So I think that in some ways it’s about recognising the history, it’s about recognising the trauma, but it’s also about recognising the trauma today and how young people actually experience their own identities, and I think if we can do that and if we can really kind of take a step back from the identity of someone, if you take a step back from the fact that that’s a traveller or that’s whatever they might be assumed to be, take a step back and look at the actual situation, and I think through that we can tackle unconscious bias, we can tackle personal prejudices that we might not even be aware of, to try and look at the situation for really what it is.
KM Because we all have biases and prejudices whether we like to think we do or not, and I suppose it is that. How do social workers, social service staff, build that into their practice to ensure that they’re not jumping in with any assumptions, that they understand the past, they understand where they’re starting from with the traveller community and how they move forward with that?
DD Yeah. I think that the main thing is the acknowledgement of personal prejudice. It’s the notion that you should seek first to understand then to be understood. We can all fall victim to putting meaning on things before we actually know the full situation or before we know exactly what the meaning to that person or how that’s being lived exactly is. So what I advocate is that people consciously separate the person and the issue. So a good example of this is say we have a newspaper report - and this is quite a visual exercise and I’d encourage everyone to if you’ve got a pen and paper to do this yourselves - but if you look at local press and look at the headlines which surround travellers, and all you do is you remove traveller and put in a different ethnic minority or protected characteristic and it automatically separated the person and the issue for you, and it can help as an exercise to build in that practice within your own frame of mind. So if you are working or when you are thinking about situations or resolving conflicts, you can actually teach yourself to consciously separate the person and the issue. Now this is the first step, and the first step is if you write down a headline, so one headline that I use quite often is “Travellers Invade Local Park”, because it’s common. We see it all the time in local press. That might sound quite normalised and it might sound, “Eh, there’s nothing really wrong with that headline. It’s just a headline”, and that’s what some people might think. Take away “traveller” and put in any other group, right? So let’s put in “Jews”, right? It’s similar. It’s an ethnic minority. They’re protected. Putting “Jews” there, it automatically sounds so much worse, right? “Jews Invade Local Park”. Obviously subconsciously we’re taught at school to recognise the history of the holocaust. We’re taught to recognise anti-Semitism and subconsciously we’ve been taught or we’ve perhaps taught ourselves to notice that and separate the issue and the person, but we haven’t been taught to do that with travellers because the curriculum often omits traveller narratives, we often don’t hear about traveller history, and so it can be very difficult to separate the person and the issue. So this is a good way of doing it and you automatically know that that headline is anti-Semitic. That headline, it’s wrong. It’s actively trying to marginalise, exclude people. Some would say it might even be promoting hate speech or racism, discrimination towards that community. It’s the exact same for travellers except we don’t subconsciously, we’re not subconsciously taught to recognise that, and really the long-time aim and ambition would be that we can ingrain that in school and that when we go to school we’re taught about the history of travellers, we’re taught about the history and prejudice, but at least for now we have a duty and a responsibility to teach ourselves that, and that’s a really good exercise to do. There’s a recognition in my own work that dialogue is so important, right? I mean we’re having this conversation now but dialogue is really the foundation of any degree of social change, and I think that if communities are wanting to build relations or if services are going to build relations with service users, it needs to be done through dialogue, and traditionally we saw a shove for want of a better word. We saw a shove. So people were shoved into school. “No, you go to school because that’s the best thing for you”, and it was very top down - and this was to everyone - but we were forced. We were shoved into that and travellers were shoved from place to place. We were shoved into reserves. We were shoved off the road. We were told, “No, that’s wrong. You will live in houses.” You’re shoved into houses and all of the systems which were ever written in this country were done through a settled lens. They were done for settled people, be it for good or for bad, that’s the situation. So when you look at the voting system it was written for settled people. It was written for people that don’t move around. So if you want to vote, you’re shoved into a house or you’re shoved into a permanent accommodation. If you want to go to education, if you want to get health care, you’re shoved into a house. You’re shoved into permanent accommodation. So it was always shoves. It was never done through dialogue. It was never done through a handshake, right? So what I recommend for professionals to develop their own practice is that they replace that shove, that traditional shove, with a handshake and they actually go into communities and they ask themselves, “What do I not know yet? How can I work with this community?”, and one of the key questions is of course, “What am I assuming right now?” So it’s talking about this kind of unconscious bias, this unconscious prejudice that we all might have and stereotypes that we spoke about, that we might have ingrained in ourselves that we might not recognise. So don’t assume, always ask. So go into that community, ask the community. When you’re doing that of course you’re going to come across barriers. There’s going to be barriers to dialogue but what I insist is that they aren’t deemed as a wall but rather they’re deemed as a gate. When you go into a camp you will face barriers to dialogue because people are scared. They have this history of trauma, especially if you’re working for social work and you go down there and you start to talk about child protection, using these types of jargon words that the community doesn’t fully recognise but they recognise in terms of their narrative of trauma. So you want to go into that camp and recognise that there’s going to be tensions there. It’s not against you personally. It’s just how the lived reality of that trauma is coming out, and appreciate those barriers. Talk about it. Talk about that history. Really acknowledge that that exists and that you know that exists and be really plain with people, and that way we can take down these barriers to the dialogue and we can actually promote the relationships building between people.
KM And this is where I can see a role for some of those organisations that help bridge that gap, so like your own Progress in Dialogue. There’s also traveller Women’s Voices Projects. There’s initiatives to work more collectively with traveller young people. Well you’re involved with those, apart from your own Progress in Dialogue organisation, aren’t you, Davie?
DD Yeah, definitely and that’s exactly it, and the last point I wanted to share was it’s exactly what you’re saying, Kerry, is who engages with the community and is it proportionate? So we need to think about are we working in partnership with the community or are we parachuting in and expecting to be embraced with open arms, and in a lot of ways if you parachute in you’re not going to have the same dialogue - if any dialogue - as if you work in partnership with the community. There’s a lot of opportunities for people out there and professionals to do that. You have my own organisation, Progress in Dialogue, that is founded on the points that I’m expressing to you, but we’re really about empowering community members to work with service providers to engage in that dialogue and to support that to happen. You also have the Women’s Voices Project. You also have Article 12 in Scotland. All of these organisations support with gypsy traveller engagement. You also have Romano Lav, who support with Roma engagement. So there’s a lot of people out there who can help. So you don’t have to take what I’m saying today and run with it personally without any support. There is support out there that you can also use to compliment this, but I think it’s about acknowledging first the history and about learning yourself and developing yourself. There’s some fantastic resources from yourself, Kerry, at Iriss as well that I would really like to highlight, and especially when we’re looking at the likes and the resources that were done with Shamus McPhee and Rosanna. They’re fantastic and they cover the history in a really succinct and digestible way and I think that everyone should seek to develop themselves that way.
KM So I’m hearing there’s lots of things we can do. We can educate ourselves, we can work with the community, not do to them, and then I suppose there’s also advocacy, isn’t there? So I’m conscious with this and standing alongside people. I’m also conscious of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is standing alongside people and challenging prejudice when you see it, as a privileged person.
DD Yeah. You’re right, and that’s really about taking an equality-led approach yourself, and I think that the Black Lives Matter movement, whilst it’s tragic to be honest that it has to take place in 2020 and that we’re still seeing horrible tragedies like obviously what have sparked Black Lives Matter with the number of black people who have sadly died, we need to recognise that the Black Lives Matter movement is so important to the black community and for people of colour, but it’s also really, really important to other minority communities as well because they’re giving a voice to a number of the challenges that a lot of us face, and not just through giving that voice are they empowering people to talk but what they’re actually doing is they’re highlighting it as an issue. So people are starting, you know, “white privilege” is starting to become a term that’s used by most people and it’s getting acknowledged and we’re starting to think, “Well what prejudice do I have?” No one is holier than thou, right? We’re not born without prejudice. We’re not born amazing people. When you grow up, whether you want to or not, you will take on prejudice, you will take on stereotypical assumptions, and so what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing is it’s allowing us to recognise that and develop that. Through working with gypsy travellers what I would say is to take an equality-led approach there are five key steps. The first one is recognise. So like what we’re saying with the Black Lives Matter movement, recognise your own prejudice and actually reflect on that. Second one is promote. So promote traveller culture within mainstream discourse. One of the issues that we have as travellers and as traveller advocates is that everyone knows about our crisis but they don’t know about our culture. So whenever we get a chance to speak it’s often about the bad stuff in our culture. It’s often about the difficulties we face, the challenges we face, and whilst that’s important what it does is it creates a narrative that exists without the positive natures of our culture, and so what we need to happen is that travellers have the opportunity to raise that positive nature, but that non-travellers, settled people, have the opportunities and take the opportunities to actually share that culture within the mainstream media, and I’m not saying that you have to be an academic and know all about the history of violence in our culture or the contributions we made or all these things. You don’t, right? It could be something as simple as, “I went to school with a lovely lassie called Sally. She was a traveller. She’s a good friend of mine.” It’s putting out positive views. Third step is challenge. So challenge what is portrayed in the media and challenge the last acceptable racism, and what I mean by that is, well it’s 2 points, but one of them is the media often puts out stuff about travellers but excludes traveller voice. Challenge that. Challenge, “Well why are we not hearing the alternative side to the story? Why are we not hearing from the community that the story’s about?”, but also challenge everyday racism, everyday prejudice, words like “tink”, “mink”, “pikey”, “gypo”. These words are used in common parlance in a lot of places sometimes without the acknowledgement that they’re even racist. I’ve heard the word “tinky” used in Dundee a number of times to describe black tea, or “tinky tea”, but it is, it’s a racial slur. So we have a personal responsibility as well - like we would with other communities - to challenge that and to raise awareness of the fact that that’s not okay to use those words. So the other step is partner. So partner with travellers to retain their heritage, and I suppose this is most applicable to the notions of travelling and if there’s a traveller camp in your area, don’t automatically think, “Oh well how can we evict them?”, but rather think about, “How can we partner with those people to help them retain their nomadic nature and their nomadic lifestyle, but that it’s fair for everyone and that everyone’s supported?” So if there’s issues with rubbish in your area - so this is a common thing - it’s not because travellers leave rubbish everywhere we go, okay? That’s not the case. I’ve been told that. It’s not the case. The reason that there’s sometimes rubbish is because there’s a lack of service provision. Travellers can’t go to a skip. It’s often told to me, “Oh well why can’t you go to a skip?” We can’t. We travel with commercial vehicles, so you’re not allowed to access a skip with a commercial vehicle. If you are and they allow you in with a truck or a van, you have to sign a piece of paper that has an acquirement of a permanent address within that local authority area, and the majority of the time that’s impossible for a traveller to give. So we want to be seeing more practical solutions with bins being provided and these types of support. So think about your own local community and how you can partner, and the last step is support the inclusion of travellers within your own maybe individual nature, but also when we’re talking about services, within your service delivery. So when you’re engaging with communities are you engaging with the traveller community? If not, why? When you’re working and creating inclusion strategies or engagement strategies or action plans and when you’re thinking about, “Well next month I’m wanting to do this”, are you thinking about travellers, and if not you should.
KM Maybe to end I suppose I want to ask what are your hopes for the future?
DD My hope for the future is that my bairns, when I eventually have them - my wife will insist we’re not for a few years yet - but when I eventually do have my bairns I want them to grow up in a society where they don’t have to hide being a traveller at school, where they can feel free to talk about shifting in the summer and they can feel free to talk about the stories that their grandad shared with them with their friends, that they don’t have to have that bubbling anxiety that I had when I wanted to tell my friend that I was a traveller. I want them to live in a society where they don’t have to worry about being turned away from a restaurant when they go for a party maybe, or they don’t have to worry about the shame of being turned away from a nightclub and all their friends get in, or when they have to look at signs banning travellers from services. I want them to live in a society free from all that, but not just a society that’s free from all that, but in a society that recognises the rich heritage that they have as travellers in this country. There’s a famous quote - and I love it and I often refer back to it - but it was said by Belle Stewart, a famous traveller ballad singer from Blairgowrie. She was asked one time by a reporter, “When will travellers die out?”, ‘cause she was seen as kind of the last of the travellers to sing, which of course wasn’t true but this was how a lot of people perceived her and she was quite old, and she looked at the man and she laughed and she said, “Son, travellers will be here until doomsday in the afternoon”, and I think there’s a lot of strength in that comment and there’s a lot of strength in the resilience that we have as a community to keep on keeping on. So I think that we will get there eventually. There’s a lot of work still to be done.
KM Thank you, Davie. Keep on keeping on. I love that. I’m with you.
DD Thank you.
KM Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. It’s been really fascinating, really interesting, and all power to you. Thank you.
DD Thank you, Kerry.
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