An Interview With CFD Advisory Board Member Margareta Matache

Dr. Margareta (Magda) Matache is an activist and scholar who has  long been  involved in the Roma movement. She has a PhD in Political Science from the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Bucharest, and a Master in Public Administration from John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Currently, she is a Lecturer on Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Director of the Roma Program at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University. 

​​In 2017, with Jacqueline Bhabha and Andrzej Mirga, she co-edited Realizing Roma Rights, an investigation of anti-Roma racism in Europe. Also, along with Jacqueline Bhabha and Caroline Elkins, Dr. Matache is the co-editor of Time for Reparations, a 2021 volume exploring the issue of reparations across a broad range of historical and geographic contexts and academic disciplines. Her other publications and research have ranged from the structural determinants of health to the rights and agency of Romani children and adolescents, early childhood development, anti-Roma racism, reparations, segregation in education, and participatory action research.

Our research fellows set down for a conversation with Dr. Matache earlier this week.

CFD: Can you tell us more about your work and research?

Generally, the Roma Program at Harvard focuses on anti-Roma racism and its manifestations in various places across the world. We work on placing this topic on academic and policy agendas in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, and we try to achieve that through research, publications, conferences, lectures, and courses.

Obviously, a significant part of our work involves research, data collection, and analysis. To date, in the past ten years, our research has covered a wide range of topics, including inequities in education and healthcare or reparations for collective injustices against Romani people, to name a few. Our research projects aim to involve and partner up with members of Romani communities in Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world. 

One of our areas of research interest is the access of Roma to human rights. For instance, only 1% of the Roma young people make it to higher education in Europe, so we have worked on understanding and unpacking challenges and possible solutions related to that. Our study, One in One Hundred, shows that discrimination and everyday racism by peers, teachers, and others in the school environment play a significant role in the chances of Roma youth to get a higher education. Yet, Roma children and youth thrive when they receive support from peers or teachers in dealing with everyday racism and are treated like any other child, that is, when they are given support, respect, and trust. 

Aside from research, we have also been hosting an annual Roma conference for the past ten years. This annual Roma event has traditionally been a joint effort of Harvard’s FXB Center and other Harvard and non-Harvard colleagues and universities, including the CEU’s Romani Studies Program, in recognition of the International Roma Day on April 8. The 2023 Annual Roma Conference—which is being held in partnership with the BU Center on Forced Displacement and other partners—will focus on documenting structural anti-Roma racism and its health-related impacts. This 11th annual Roma conference aims to initiate a series of conversations and research efforts on anti-Roma racism as a determinant of health outcomes and inequalities and as a health stressor in itself in order to improve data and practice-oriented research and inform policy design.  

CFD: What motivated you to pursue a career in humanitarian research and activism?

I consider myself to be a child of the Roma movement. My father was a community activist in Romania. I grew up surrounded by Roma activists, and this inspired and helped me establish the necessary connections to get involved in the work of Roma non-profit organizations in college. It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly motivated me, but I would say my parents encouraged me to fight for and seek justice, and that, along with my family’s and my lived experience, guided me to do the work I do. But speaking about now, I believe that the Roma history, struggles, and realities have been largely absent from mainstream global academia, if we were to take for example, the global scholarship on slavery, and my position at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has given me and my colleagues the opportunity to put Roma related topics on the global agenda, make our oppression and contributions more known to the world. 

CFD: What were your expectations when going into this field of Romani Studies? 

I did not have any expectations at 18 years old because I did not have a career goal in mind. But I did feel that my voice had been silenced for too long and had an internal calling for justice and for fighting against the racism that has been prevalent against Roma people; I wanted Roma people to live normal, fair, and healthy lives, free from racism and hatred. 

CFD: What have your experiences been like working in this field of Romani Studies, with different types of people? 

There are many different lessons to be learned. I have interacted and worked with many activists and scholars, both within and outside Romani communities. Looking inward, I’d say that Roma people lack power and power resources, which lead to struggles within the Roma movement and the Roma scholarship; I feel that we need to be more intentional and critical with our steps and actions. In many political and policymaking spaces, we are tokenized, so we must oppose that while simultaneously fighting for a fairer distribution of power; but that it’s easier said than done. Looking outward, there is a lot to be said about the way anti-Roma racism pervades all areas of life, but I would say two things: 1) there is very little political interest in power sharing and redistribution; and 2) there is very little support and interest for Roma-led research or even just Roma related research. 

CFD: What are some research areas that, in your opinion, require more attention?

Health inequities and anti-Roma racism is one area that requires immediate attention. However, research looking at the nexus between anti-Roma racism and health, for example, is lacking and it’s also challenging, especially in a context in which many European governments do not collect discrimination data based on ethnicity or race. 

Another important topic is poverty and wealth, given that much research in Europe has focused on income poverty and multidimensional poverty, but has neglected the wealth gap and historical injustices, such as in the case of the 500 years of enslavement to which the Roma people were subjected to by the Romanian Crown, Orthodox church, and nobles until the 1850s. 

At the same time, although acknowledging that scholars come from different schools of thought and have different priorities, there is definitely a need to engage more forcefully in truth-telling about the Roma history and create archives, digitize archive, so that Roma people can access this data and learn about their family histories, especially in regards to slavery or the Holocaust. Related, a focus on the distortion and denial of slavery or the Holocaust is mandatory both in Roma-related research and policy and lawmaking.

CFD: Working and researching in this field can get extremely stressful and difficult, how do you manage this aspect of your work/research? 

I often have this conversation with other scholars and activists of color. In general, aside from our own coping mechanisms, I think there is a need for intentional and systemic change and support for scholars and activists of color. Allies can have a role to play in preventing some of that burden. For instance, in Roma related work, allies can make more space for Roma voices, take a step back and support Roma leadership, or partner up with Roma in research projects and community work.  

CFD: Can you share some tips and pointers for people starting out in this field of Romani Studies?

I think it is important to be humble, respectful, and to be ready to listen. In the Roma context, it is especially important to listen to what the members of the Roma communities have to say and what topics of research they find necessary; it is mandatory to know how to respond to mistakes you may make in working within historically neglected or exploited spaces. I believe that humility, respect, and support for the communities you work with are absolutely mandatory. And equally important are the partnership and the leadership of the communities themselves.