Romani Voices

Romani Voices was a participatory project that aimed to understand and capitalise upon the potential of digital technologies for giving voice (seen as expression, communication and knowledge production) to minority cultures, taking the particular case of the Romani minority.

Romani Voices snapshots in Podoleni, with the hearth Roma community

Context and participants. The project involved the members of two communities in rural Romania, who co-designed and co-developed digital communication artefacts that could meet their collective needs for expression, representation and communication. The two Romani communities are located in South-Eastern Romania, Galati county, in the villages of Podoleni and Munteni. On virtue of their being part of different Romani groups, there are notable socio-cultural differences between the two. The Roma in the village of Podoleni are part of the assimilated Roma, who have embraced most of the traditions and customs of the Romanian. The social and cultural moors, such as rites of passage, celebrations, holidays, and social norms are closely similar to the Romanian ones or framed by Christian principles. The Roma in Munteni maintain, on the other hand, a vivid Romani identity. They are part of the Kalderash (Coppersmiths, or “Caldarari”) group, nomadic until the end of the 1950s, when they had been settled by force by the Communist authorities. They maintain specific rules regarding rites of passage (such as weddings), social organization models, rules of conduct, and gender roles. A distinctive feature of this community is that they are semi-nomadic: people travel during the spring and summer in the Romanian countryside, to sell cauldrons and metal products created by themselves. Both communities are marked by poverty and scarce economic possibilities. With respect to education, the Roma children can pursue primary and secondary school in the villages. In Podoleni, education was considered by members a value of utmost importance, and some families went through strenuous efforts to send their children in nearby cities for high-school, and, more rarely, university studies. In Munteni, on the other hand, access to education was hindered by various factors and especially the frequent travels, early marriages and the perceived lack of importance of education beyond basic literacy when leading a traditional lifestyle.

Romani Voices snaphots in Munteni, where the Kalderash Gypsies dwell

Methodology. The project employed a methodological framework based on ethnography and participatory action research, used to co-design with local people a context-specific method for documenting community knowledge and tradition. The project was centred on content production activities, in which video and photography were used to record events, stories and testimonials on community-relevant themes. The design of the content production experience was based on the Inquiry Cycle by the Community Informatics Initiative at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. This was customized and refined in each community based on participants’ response. The Inquiry cycle was used to motion an iterative process by which members documented their traditions, history, and present-day priorities and gradually brought them to life in digital media, contributing to the design and development of a community website with rich oral narratives. People used video and photo cameras under the facilitation of the field researcher to gather community stories and testimonials that illustrated traditions, values, as well as issues faced collectively. The recordings were visualised in groups, commented upon, and the most important community themes were tracked. Edited recordings were used to create short movies with single powerful messages and stories, which were organized in relation to these themes and published in two community websites.

Results. The main results of the study can be synthesized as follows:

(1) Context-Responsive Action (CoRA): a methodological framework for the design, implementation and evaluation of community media initiatives.
(2) Conceptual contributions: an examination of the conditions for community involvement in the design of technology-enhanced communication processes and artefacts.
(3) A web design format: a template for websites supporting collective expressions of minority communities.
(4) Two community websites: two specific instantiations of the design format for the rural communities involved in this research.

Learn more about the project and its results from my PhD thesis, or visit the two community websites produced.