IBNA/ Interview: All children should have full access to early childhood development settings

IBNA/ Interview: All children should have full access to early childhood development settings


By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest

Magda Matache, a Roma activist now studying at Harvard, speaks to IBNA about her book on early childhood development of Romani children in which she discusses both social risks and solutions for a proper formation in all aspects of children from disadvantaged groups. She also pleads for a new generation of Romani scholars that would make a step further, from activism to academia.

Magda Matache, an activist or a scholar?

I advocate for social change and for over a decade I have mainly used activisms tools: organizing protests, holding accountable racist politicians and racist opinion makers, cooperating with institutions to adopt bills. I am currently using academia means to inform scholars and future policy makers (currently students) by giving lectures, writing papers and books, organizing conferences. All in all, I keep my focus on Roma and broadly, minority rights, but I like to explore new challenges, new approaches and so grew my shift from activism to academia.

Activism and academia seem to be two different worlds, but my objective stays pretty much the same: I argue and raise awareness about a human rights issue, opine on policy changes. It’s true though, the audiences and the means do not coincide. Also, now, in academia, I tend to be more rigorous and less passionate, more precise and less visible.

The vast majority of Roma who get in contact with the Romani movement stick with civil society, as I have also done for over twelve years. Very few move further to academia, but I think we should push a bit for forming a “RomaniCrit” wave of Romani scholars in different academic settings, learning from critical race theorists and LatCrit: (1) a Romani Crit that will penetrate mainstream academia as much as possible; (2) that would not ghettoize at the level of Roma related journals and institutions; (3) that would also be able to push for social change and able to cooperate more and contest each other less.

A few years ago I decided to transition slowly from activism to academia and it was not easy to make such a shift without resentments or fears. However, it wasn’t an abrupt departure and I continued to keep a focus on Romani issues. One of my advantages though is my field experience, witch matters a lot in academia and it makes it so much easier to make arguments and come up with pertinent reflections.

What determined you to write a book on early childhood development of Romani children?

As I state in the book, I was constantly led by my curiosity and my agenda to prove and share with others when, what and how caregivers, schools or neighborhood, society or policies affect the child developing brain, health, his/her educational performance and trajectory, or his/her job opportunities and well being. I chose to talk about Romani children, first of all because of my background, both personal and professional, but also because this is, at least it was at the moment when I started dealing with it, a pretty unexplored topic. Early childhood development as a whole, not necessary for minority or marginalized groups, and in the framework that I discuss it in the book, is a new area in Romania not only for researchers, but also for policy makers and practitioners.

What are the key ideas and messages that you are “selling” in the book?

I use the social ecology theoretical frameworks established by Urie Bronfenbrenner, and refined, among others by Arnold Sameroff or Jack Shonkoff. In a way, the book pioneers in analyzing the social ecology of the Roma children in their early years, starting fromthe nearest (family, community, peers, kindergarten) to thesocietaland political contexts. In the broader early childhood development studies, the book brings added value on the analysis of risk factors such as discrimination, stigma and prejudice on child development.

In the book, I focus especially on Romani children early experiences and contexts that lead to negative or positive life outcomes.I discuss the risk factors present in the environments in which Romani children grow up, factors that were assessed by the literature as strong determinants in establishing unequal start in life for children belonging to marginalized groups. Risk factors at such an early age include maternal and infant malnutrition, infectious diseases, toxins within the environment, psychosocial factors  (including parental interaction, maternal depression, exposure to violence, and institutionalization), or discrimination and poverty. Protective factors include maternal education, breastfeeding, early childhood education settings. Understanding and analyzing the risk factors and sources of chronic stress for Romani children, and how these interact and lead to negative or positive life outcomes is at the heart of this book.

I push for a perspective that takes into account risk and protective factors that accompany early years of life of children in socially disadvantaged contexts. I argue for a social ecology approach in building policies and for multi-expert teams in practice. Distinctly, I support early childhood education and care from very early ages, its availability for all children, and involvement of playing, reading, good nutrition, and caring, as much as possible. I advocate for policy and practice developments that consider the child development since her/his conception.

What are the solutions for the young Romani children you come up with in the book?

As I said, contemporary developmental studies place the child in a multiple number of social contexts that influence her/his life trajectory. Parents, family, community, school and peers, and geopolitical situation are seen sources of socialization and influence on the child development. These contexts permanently influence and interact with the personal characteristics of the child.

Broadly, I suggest that all children should have full access to early childhood development settings and the policy makers should invest more in building infrastructure, training teachers, making this service available for all. I also argue that young children are under the responsibility of their families, as well as of the society as a whole. I speak about a moral societal responsibility of ensuring equal start to every child. I am not a fan of an equalitarian system, I am advocating for an equal start for all children and for availability of services.  How many day care centers do we have in the rural area? A very few, so therefore, the chances of those children to benefit from elite education and career and well-paid jobs are very small. So what I am saying is make the services available and then adventure the children in a fairer completion.

One of the best ways to combat extreme poverty and inequality is to invest in young children, especially those who belong to disadvantaged groups.

I propose several solutions in the book. I conclude that would be advisable to explicitly require that kindergarten teachers have at least a university degree and specialize in early childhood development, cultural diversity and some, where necessary, on bilingual education. Another obvious recommendation is to introduce cultural diversity elements in the ECD programs.

A solution that can positively affect the education pathway of a Roma child or of a poor child is to build the social capital, namely family and community resources. The adults, the parents, who can invest time and effort to support children at the community level are strong resources and networks able to support the children. School and health mediators have been and may be part of such networks as well. I also suggest that schools and local authorities should come up with solutions to actively involve parents in their children’s education. Pilot programs involving parents and giving them the skills and the chance to read books, for example, may have many positive effects. There is a need for creating a pool of human resources at the community level to fill the gaps at home, such as toys, access to information, practicing writing and reading, discovering skills, food.

Finally, I propose in the book a model based on the claim that the social and economic inclusion of Roma will happen only if a new perspective will be acquired by decision makers, advocates and scholars along. The policies, in my opinion, should pursue both the reconciliation with the past as well as reparations for the oppressive policies Roma were exposed to, but also equal opportunities and building foundations for a true democratic values.

All these require political will, expertize, and a lot of financial investment. Their benefits will be visible though in a few decades, especially from a financial point of view, as shown in other developed countries.  If not for other reasons, at least for the economic argument early childhood development should get on the policy agenda…although I believe it is for so many other reasons.

Somehow, I do hope that my four-year research journey will contribute to a new agenda for Romani children and for early childhood approach in Romania.

What authors and people have most inspired your reflections and thoughts in the book?

From a theoretical point of view, I was definitely inspired by Urie Bronfenbrenner, Arnold Sameroff or Jack Shonkoff for the social ecology framework. Amartya Sen and James Heckman shaped by ideas quite a lot.

At the level of more personal interactions, my PhD coordinator, Iulia Motoc and professors and colleagues at Harvard made a big difference in my writing and thinking. I worked and learn a lot during these past two years from Jennifer Leaning, Jacqueline Bhabha and Arlan Fuller. I attended courses and discussed or confirmed ideas with amazing professors, such as Jack Shonkoff or Monica Yudron. However, I am grateful to many other people who helped me during this writing adventure and I wish I could talk about them all in the book, as well.

Do you have other writing projects?

At Harvard I work with the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.  It’s the main Harvard center with a distinct Roma agenda and we try to share our work as much as possible with the student body and the other departments with similar research interests.

I was involved in several writing projects already (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/margareta-matache/key-publications/ ). I am currently co-editing a Roma focused book together with prof. Jaqueline Bhabha, whom I like to believe is my mentor and my friend, and Andzrej Mirga, a well know Roma scholar and diplomat. Together with our Director, Arlan Fuller, as well as Sarah Dougherty and Vasoula Digidiki, we are writing a case study report on desegregation practices in six EU countries. Most exciting for me, we have just finalized data collection in a pioneering participatory action research project in Serbia that involves Roma and non-Roma adolescent researchers. Therefore, soon, we will come up with a few papers and events showing the positive impact of using such a methodology, both in terms of data, but also in terms of empowerment and giving a voice to the Roma families themselves.