A force to be reckoned with: Grandmothers, Romani history and activism

Bootcamp grad Lolo shares her story, activist journey and experiences as a young Romani woman in this personal interview below.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey into activism.

My activist journey is a very personal one. Six years ago I lost my grandmother. She faced a lot of racism whilst she was in the care system. When she died, it was discovered by the autopsy report that she had been living with three broken ribs that hadn’t been recorded by nurses, which led to her early death. That led to a whole inquest by my family against the hospital, but it didn’t rule in favour of my grandmother.

From there I became completely isolated. That’s when I got involved with an organisation called YWCA – Young Women’s Christian Association. The name refers to its roots, but it is no longer religiously associated. From there, I was able to apply to university and expand my campaign about Romani-Travellers rights.

I’m really sorry to hear about your grandmother. Could you tell us a little more about her?

She was honestly an amazing woman. I don’t think she knew what the word ‘feminist’ was, but she definitely was one. For example, we only had female coffin bearers and speakers at her funeral because she said: ‘it was women who brought me into this world, so it only seems fair that it is women who will take me out’. 

She was prepared to be loud and visible at a time when that really wasn’t the ideal for women. Nowadays we get so caught up in the idea that we have to have a worthy career to be of value. Sometimes we forget about women who were at home; women who didn’t have the opportunity to have an education, let alone work. 

She was everything to me. People described her as a force to be reckoned with. The way she shaped my family and the women within it…well, that got me to where I am today as an activist.

A woman with long black hair stands in the centre of a photograph in front of a staircase. Her t-shirt says 'Proud Gypsy Traveller' on it. She has a red flower in her hair.
Bootcamp graduate Lolo. Photo Credit: CheshireLive

You are an activist fighting for rights within the GRT (Gypsy Roma Traveller) community. What do you wish people knew about your community?

I can only speak of Romanis because that’s my heritage. I want people to know that Romani people have been in the UK for about 500 years. We participated in World War One and Two, and supported the women’s rights movement. We have contributed to a lot of slang in the UK. The word ‘pal’ means brother in Romani. 

The idea of the Romani woman is not one of submission. It is documented in history that when our people arrived in the UK, Romani women were exoticised because they had their own trades and spoke their mind. That’s why Romani women are now stereotyped as being loud, aggressive and sexually promiscuous; it started from when our women had ownership over their bodies and money. 

Over the past 1,000 years, we have had to put all our energy into survival instead of social change. Simply being visible would have meant our execution. It is only just becoming safe for us to pursue our own rights in the UK. In many other countries, this still isn’t the case, especially in the Balkans.

Can you tell us a bit more about your activism and the causes you are working on? 

A lot of councils are taking away historically Roma sites, including some that are over 400 years old. This means that Traveller communities now have to live on roadside encampments. Some of the living conditions are terrible: there are camps on top of sewers, unfit water conditions, and fires.  

Every council has a budget for Travellers but they are not obligated to use it, and many councils don’t want to have Travellers in their areas. In UK law, it is considered damaging for a child to grow up on a travellers site, leading to cases where families are not able to get custody of their children. This is a whole other process of assimilation, because traveller children are put in the care system and grow up not knowing they are travellers. 

This isn’t our creation. Travellers don’t want to be on roadside encampments. If they choose to be nomadic, they want to be on a proper stopping place. This is also a way of forcing communities to adapt to wider society, losing the culture that has been with them for 500 years. 

What was your experience of Campaign Bootcamp like?

It was such a diverse space. I felt like people were very supportive. It was honestly an experience where I felt like: ‘woah, I need to change the game here’. 

Since Bootcamp, everything has changed. I’ve taken a complete step back on a lot of projects. I was doing a lot of work for other people’s credit, as opposed to doing things that I feel is important to me. I’ve taken a lot of time to think about what I actually want.

I’m now planning a campaign called ‘The Phillis Foundation’, named after my grandmother. It aims to educate local communities on GRT issues. This centres the importance of the personal stories and experiences of oppressed communities.

This campaign will be launched through posters, stickers, canvassing and door knocking for GRT Rights, and giving out leaflets that promote a ‘Discuss to Dismantle’ program. We’ll also put on talks and open discussions in local areas surrounding GRT history and identity, with a space for anonymous or public questions at the end. 

A black and white photograph. A woman (Lolo) stands in front of a door of a trailer. She is wearing a headscarf and clothing with patterns on.
Bootcamp graduate Lolo. Photo credit: HMUA Betsy Mobey

If you’re inspired by Lolo’s journey, why not nominate an activist for a place at Bootcamp? Drop us an email and tell us who you’d like to nominate and why at [email protected]

Interview by Rhianna Ilube.

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