By: Kenny Ong / Visual Editor
Pitt’s music department held its first Symposium on Romani studies in the William Pitt Union from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday. During the conference, 12 students, mostly from Pitt, presented their final projects from the maiden voyage of the Romani Music, Culture and Human Rights study abroad program.
The program took students on a tour through the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia to learn about the current state of Roma affairs in Eastern Europe. Students attended Khamoro, a Roma music festival in Poland, to learn about the culture and then visited Lunik IX, a Roma ghetto in Slovakia, to witness Roma human rights violations.
Adriana Helbig, the mastermind behind the trip, planned the symposium as a bookend to the study abroad excursion.
“It’s important that we’re not only doing a study abroad program, but also following up with all these presentations,” Helbig said.
Although the program was organized by the music department, it was open to students of all majors and interests. The variety of attendees was evidenced by the variety of final project topics, ranging from social networking to fabric art, all contextualized by the students’ interactions with Roma culture, people and human rights issues.
“I think that’s the only way to really study. Everyone always brings the framework they already have, and then all the classes expand. The reason that it’s music-based is because music plays a central role in how Roma are perceived — negatively, positively, politically,” Helbig said.
She said Romani people, commonly known by the sometimes-pejorative term gypsy, are often accused by some right-wing political parties in Eastern Europe of burdening national economies and increasing crime. Such governmental affirmation of negative stereotypes promotes negative perceptions, racial violence and discrimination against Romani people by non-Roma.
Instead, Helbig said that systemic discrimination against Roma individuals has deprived generation after generation of proper education and skills needed to achieve gainful employment. In Slovakia, Roma children are often wrongly placed in special needs classrooms due to disadvantaged preschooling. Issues like these are common points of political debate in Eastern Europe, but not in the United States.
Dylan Crossen, a senior music and anthropology major, titled his presentation “Perceptions of Roma and Their Music.” Crossen took classes in Roma music with Helbig, which gave him extensive, yet secondhand knowledge of Romani issues.
“People definitely need to be made aware of Romani problems, especially now, with reality television creating more misconceptions,” Crossen said, referring to recent TV shows, including TLC’s “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” that depict a dramatized version of Westernized Romani culture.
Christine Lim, an undeclared sophomore, joined the program to pursue her interest in music but had no prior knowledge of the human rights issues.
“It wasn’t something I had ever thought about before. I didn’t know they had so many struggles going on for them, and I think it’s good that we’re spreading awareness of that,“ Lim said.
Lim, who was considering pharmacology, titled her final project “Reducing Tuberculosis Transmission in Europe by Minimizing Romani Homelessness, Discrimination and Other Stress Factors.”
Kristen Fox, a 37-year-old Pittsburgh native from Centre Township who recently received her master’s degree in Romani studies from Carlow University, was also in attendance.
“Not very many schools have Romani Studies, and they’re the biggest minority in Europe,” she said. “The unemployment, the health and the housing is already a crisis.”
Fox also runs Dontsaygypsy.com, a website that promotes commentary and discussion on international Romani issues. She often attends other events concerning Romani human rights.
“I’ve been to other conferences, and they’ve said, ‘Please, we need Americans. We need Americans because you can influence things, and you can bring change,’” she said.