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by Haralan Alexandrov and Maya Mladenova

The training took place from 05.04. to 02.06.1996-th in a residential setting. It was comprised of 7 modules, one weekend each. The first warming up module lasted three days and took 30 hours. Each one of the next 6 modules took two days and consisted of 15 hours. After each weekend the participants went back to their home towns. There were 29 participants at the warming up module. Two of them did not show up after it.


1. Announcement The training was announced in an advertisement published in two Roma newspapers. All of the applicants who contacted the Human Rights Project were invited to an interview. 2. The Interviews. 3. There were two weekends devoted to interviews. The aims of the interview were: - to have a personal face to face contact with all the applicants; - to convey to the participants the idea of learning through experience and participation (all the applicants were interviewed regarding their own experience as group leaders and educational needs and deficiencies they have faced); - to convey the concept of leadership as a group role shared by the team members. The interview was not designed to screen the participants in terms of training and education. Two of the applicants were advised not to attain the training because of age, rigidity of thinking and a background of "professional leaders" employed by the former establishment.


The age of the participants was within the range 19-46 years old. The team's main concerns in terms of age were the emotional and not the biologic maturity of the applicants, productivity in terms of openness of mind and flexibility (acceptance of situations of uncertainty).

Women were encouraged to attend the seminar though disproportionately few had applied.

Educational level and/or attainment were not acceptance criteria. However there were people with rather diverse educational background. Information about the position of the applicants in their local communities and their indigenous experience in interactions with institutions and officials was something of importance to the team members.

The applicants came from rather different background in terms of life circumstances and location. Some of them were brought up in small secluded villages apart from the rest of the country with poor communication to the large towns, others came from the segregated Gypsy ghettoes in the towns, others have spent most of their lives with Bulgarian neighbours in Bulgarian quarters. This made the picture at the beginning of the training even more diverse.


The general impression extracted from the initial contact with the applicants led to the following working hypothesis: Due to decades of oppression, racial discrimination, neglect and authoritarian government most of the participants displayed the learned helplessness syndrome. They responded to different situations perceived to be traumatic with helplessness even when some solutions were obvious.

The participants intended to utilize the training in order to get authority for their roles of leaders from "above".

The strategy of the team was to promote autonomy, to step aside from the position of power and judgement and through the consistent behaviour of all the team members to convey the message that authority is granted by the group where you belong.

In groups affected by the learned helplessness syndrome and chronic trauma the empowering behaviour on the part of the team is often experienced as threatening and hostile. Therefore the group was expected to respond with defenses and acting out of the emotional anxiety.

The team response to that behaviour was to remain non-judgemental, ready to notice and name everything that happens and still remain open for the needs of the group.


Keeping in mind the diversity of the trainees and the limits set by this fact the tasks set ahead and estimated to be realistic were: 1. To introduce the trainees to the concepts planned in the curriculum. 2. To give a realistic picture of the problems which arise and the ways to obtain professional knowledge on the issues with all the complexity. 3. To provide the trainees with experience in groups and leadership models produced within the group. 4. To facilitate the process of group cohesion which could enable the participants to get the group support for their creative ideas on how to work with the problems their communities have to face.


The training contained the following modules:

  1. Warming up to the role of the leader - the module took 30 hours.
  2. Group relations
  3. Roma culture
  4. Human rights
  5. Conflict mediation
  6. Leadership skills
  7. Social policy

Each of the modules provided theoretical knowledge on the core of the issues and gave the perspective towards the development each of the trainees should undergo in order to learn more in one of the fields presented.

The basic idea was not to equip the trainees with superficial understanding on the matter but to pull the curtain and in case of interest to put the trainees in contact with the professional network working on the particular issues.

The working process will be briefly described with some of the major events which are considered to be important by the team. The idea being to convey the prevailing atmosphere in the training as the team members had perceived it.

I. The Warming up Module: The Anxiety of Being Together

The first session starts at 10 o'clock. All the chairs are arranged in a large circle by the team. The participants take their seats one by one, some come in groups and sit next to each other. There is a quiet whisper in the air.

The team leader stands up from her chair and presents herself saying her name, her professional interests and how she had been involved in this project. Then she gives the word to the rest of the team members who also present themselves. After that everyone is invited to present him or herself and say a few words which he finds important to share. Gradually the age, the places from which everybody comes and the relations they have had with each other before this seminar are introduced. Some people know each other or have worked together or are relatives. Some are rather isolated and know nobody from the group. Some time is devoted to look around and find someone the participants want to talk to in couples. Most participants choose to have a small talk and introduce themselves in small groups.

First decisions

Then a discussion is raised about the time schedule. There is an intense argument about the length of the sessions. Some of the participants prefer the sessions to be 45 min. long, others insist on 90 minutes' sessions. The participants are invited to divide in groups, find arguments for their preferred choice and negotiate. No decision is reached within the frame of the first session. The team does not take part in it. When the appointed end of the first session is reached the team leader announces the end of the session.

Who is responsible for decision - making?

At the start of the next session more than a half of the chairs are empty. The team leader asks who are the people absent and does anyone know anything about them. The anxiety gets higher. A group member leaves the room, saying he is going out to call the rest. While coming in the participants are invited to sit addressing them by their names.

When all the group is gathered the issue of time schedule is raised again. A group member asks: "What do you think about it?" Another group member takes the word saying: "Is the team a part of the group or not? How could we start working if you are not a part of us?"

The response on the part of the team was to relate these questions to the role of the leader and the expectations this role creates in the other group members. This decreased the anxiety and a state of thoughtfulness was reached: "We will always try to find reasons to avoid taking responsibility..." a group member said.

Social atoms - the world inside

One of the sessions was devoted to presenting social atoms. All the participants were invited to arrange the important figures in their lives: people, animals, ideas etc. Then one of the group members volunteered to show his social atom on the stage. Most of the audience was giggling. The face of the director remained serious. Gradually everyone was emotionally involved in what was presented on the stage. After he did that feelings of closeness and putting things in order were shared.

The small groups

There were four small groups with constant membership each led by one of the team members. They were composed by the team and the basic criterion was to have together people who do not know each other.

The small groups held four meetings. They dealt with the following issues: trust, the feeling of being manipulated, the pain of being of Roma origin and having to live among an intolerant majority, the feeling of being sacrificed and unloved. Some group members shared situations in which it was hard for them to be in the position of leaders, they spoke about what the price is and how they had coped with the difficulties.

Gradually the people felt more at ease in the small groups and were able toshare more personal issues.

A farewell to the module

At the end of the module the participants expressed hopes, expectations and curiosity about the future.

After the end of the module the anxiety in the group was estimated to be rather high and the team decided to provide the participants with more theoretical knowledge about the group processes.

II. Group Relations - The Pain of Being Together

The module consisted of lectures, discussions in the large group, task groups working on different cases extracted from the experience of the group members.

One of the themes was dropped out (Culture and ethnicity as transitional phenomena) and replaced with the issue of the individual and his mode of functioning.

The following problems were explored:

The individual and his mode of functioning - Large groups and their unconscious life - The working task and how is it influenced by the group's unconscious - Institutions and institutional defences - Groups and their boundaries

The role of the leader for managing the boundaries - Trauma, victimization and the learned helplessness syndrome

One choice is not to choose

The evening session was devoted to a task set by the team. The participants were invited to think of their ideas for creating organizations or institutions they would like to work in. While the exercise lasted most of the participants were leaving the room and coming back. Some refused to join any of the organizations. Was it too early for this kind of work? Or did the participants perceive the exercise as a choice imposed on them?

The morning session started on time. The team shared their doubts about the evening exercise and asked the group members for a feed-back. What followed were numerous painful experiences with the state institutions. One of the group members shared his experience of being scolded by a teacher for being late which had later affected all his attitude to school and promptness. Another shared the difficulties his daughter had to face when first went to school and nobody wanted to sit next to her at the desk.

This was the first time when the participants told the team what the Roma word "das" meant. The frustration and anxiety were overcome and a working atmosphere was established again in which more of the issues related to large groups and organizations were explored.

III. Roma Culture - What Would You Sacrifice if You Care at All?

This was one of the most emotional and exiting modules. Three guest-lecturers were also present. One invited to share his experience as a person of Roma origin who works in the field of culture and education and two other experts in Roma culture and history.

The group demonstrated genuine interest in the issues presented challenging the concepts of Roma culture with questions: "Can you tell us the names of some prominent people of Roma origin? Why do you always mention only the names of musicians and artists when speaking about our culture?"

The basic issue the group was dealing with was the issue of Roma values and how they are imparted in the concept of leadership.

Gradually in the course of the module the idea was reached that Roma culture is a culture of living, relating to each other and it is not rooted to some piece of land and not limited within certain boundaries. The idea was followed by relief coming from all the group members.

One of the hottest problems raised was the problem of school and education. The school institution with its rigidity and lack of tolerance to the different culture was described as traumatic.

Should we attend Roma schools or Bulgarian schools? Are our children better educated in the Bulgarian schools and isn't the price for that too high - rejection, humiliation and pain? Are the teachers in the Roma schools prepared to work with Roma children? Who is to teach them? Are there enough Roma teachers who could be healthy role models for the Roma children?

The last exercise of the module was practical. The group members had to role play a situation in which the son of a Roma leader who had attended the leadership course had to start school at the fall. The whole family had gathered to think over the possible choices. Should the child go to a Bulgarian or to a Roma school? The group members invited the team to play a Bulgarian family who had to decide where to send their child having in mind that the closest school was a Roma school.

All the Roma families took the decision to send their children either to a Bulgarian school or to a French Gymnasium. The team members could not reach a final solution.

The whole module raised many passions. Ideas were shared how the Roma children could be facilitated in their desire to study, how school could become more attractive to them and their families and how programmes should be tailored after their needs.

IV. Human Rights - Is This a Foreign Language?

Before the first session started books concerning the problems of human rights were delivered. One large and attractive edition, printed in English and a tiny brochure designed for Romas, written in Bulgarian.

Are the problems of human rights so largely denied in Bulgaria and is there a way to put an end to that situation?

The human rights project

The problems of human rights were illustrated with the work of the Human Rights Project. This was both a lesson in how to defend human rights as well as a lesson in team work.

One of the sessions was devoted to case work. Four group members presented cases of violation of the human rights of minorities. One case was chosen by the group. Then the group worked out some creative solutions for the case.

At the final round the group member who presented this case from his personal experience shared some feelings of hope and relief. "It is sad I never knew you before that happened. I was really dispirited at that time," he said.

This hope was shared by most of the group members. At the end of the module some of them expressed their relief that now they know more about their rights and the organizations dealing with cases of their violation.

V. Conflict mediation - Is This a Part of Your World?

At the beginning of this module the number of participants was sharply reduced to 18. The group members tended to leave the room and come back and the membership was never constant.

The lectures delivered raised many questions.

The demonstration of the team approach to conflict mediation failed due to the constantly changing membership which broke the continuity of the exercises. When trying to find explanation for the situation, the team was informed that it is a celebration day (May, 06-th) and the group members had to go back to their home towns.

VI. Leadership - The Different Levels of Reality

The problems of leadership were the red line of the whole course. Now that the group members felt more secure and confident the process was started of exploring their ideas of working on projects.

Four ideas were presented and four leaders of teams stepped out. The next step was to explore the human processes within the teams created. This was a new experience and the anxiety in the group was once again raised. The members af the different teams started defending their projects at the expense of the others. Instead of searching for their roles within their own teams they avoided this through fights between the different teams.

Another level of reality was introduced through the visit of Mr Andrash Biro - this was the reality of Western standards - it became clear that what is required from the group members was even higher than initially expected. The feelings of frustration were directed to the team. One of the group members said in an angry voice, "You should stop asking us how we feel and teach us practical stuff!"

The next session was devoted to writing projects - the foundations in Bulgaria were presented with their requirements. The session was marked by sadness and lack of interest. Gradually new ideas for projects emerged which seemed to be targeted at smaller groups, had more modest objectives and were tailored to the needs of the community. (An idea was presented of providing an already existing building with some kitchen equipment - then communal kitchen could be developed for the poverty stricken in one of the neighbourhoods. Unemployed people from the same neighbourhood could attend some courses and start working there.)

When given the word for feed-back on the projects of the other teams, the teams were creative and offered valuable ideas. None of the teams attacked the ideas of the others. The culture of tolerance to the diversity entered the intra- group space the way it was first established in the inter-personal space.

At the end of the module the participants were asked to think about other ideas and bring written projects which would be discussed on the following module.

VII. Social Policy - Planning The Future

One project was brought to the last module. When asked why they had neglected the task the participants shared what they now knew they do not know. This fact was subjected to discussion and some of the educational needs of the participants came to the fore: how to find out what the needs of some particular groups are (dynamic interview), how to be able to develop projects not for the people from the community but together with them, how to intrprete the needs of the community in the language of the funding organizations?

One of the group members told how many projects he had written and how he first started working on projects with an elder man from his community. He said he was available to help other group members who felt new in the field.

In the last evening session the participants received their certificates and each of them delivered a speech about his experiences in the group and future plans. One of the participants took notes of everything that was said.

Most participants shared the sense of being supported. They enjoyed their work in a friendly environment, the feeling of being accepted and being able to accept the others. What seemed to be most valuable was the experience of learning among and from peers.

One group member expressed his desire to follow the future development both of the group and the team members.


The situation of the classroom which puts the trainees in the position of obedient pupils was abandoned from the very start. Most of the methods applied were relevant to the different mode of learning used in adult education. Most lessons were taught through the participants' own experience with the issues.

The trainers who came from different professional backgrounds were not only prepared to teach the material in a flexible way and deliver the appropriate information taking in mind the group dynamics but had special expertise in group work, psychodrama, anthropology and group relations. Therefore their special qualification was to find the meaning of the group behaviour and utilize it by naming and exploring it.

It turned out necessary that more than half of the time had to be devoted to the exploration of the emotional experiences of the participants. For example, the fact that all the trainees except one did not prepare projects which they were supposed to do on their own before the last module, was not so much due to their inability to do it or lack of understanding of the way in which bureaucracies function as to the lack of belief that they are able to defend their own rights and needs. For example one of the trainees, a disabled woman, was seeking authorization to apply for a wheelchair which she was in bad need of.


The techniques used in the course of the training were applied in the following formats: small groups, work task groups, plenary sessions (lectures and discussions in the large group).

The techniques applied were: lecturing, guided discussions, allocation of working tasks, case work, recoursive approach (demonstration of theoretical issues with examples from the trainees own experience in the group and in their everyday life), psychodrama and sociodrama.

The emphasis put on doing versus speaking about the issues was grounded in the concept that when the group members are engaged in activities they disclose themselves in both sparing and authentic ways and thus the rest of the group can quickly come to know them. Thus are fostered the trust and group cohesion necessary for the group members when confronted with living with the insecurity. Therefore each time the performance of each of the members was evaluated through the group and the team restrained from giving explicit assessment.


It is our belief, that the skills and knowledge acquired will be helpful in coping with everyday dilemmas. Encouraging evidence was supplied by some of the participants, that the things they learn have come at hand in the very course of the training (for example one of the trainees shared positive experience of applying the newly acquired understanding of community leadership in conducting a meeting of activists in his organization).

Such evidence supports our hypothesis that the more interactive aspects of leadership are elucidated, the easier it will be for the trainees to assimilate the instrumental aspects, since they will experience less anxiety in entering the social role of a leader.

The unrealistic expectations of some of the participants, that as a result of the course they will acquire status of leaders gradually gave way to the alternative view of leadership as an ongoing meeting of challenges of circumstances and demands of the group you belong to rather than a single act of initiation.


In the post-totalitarian Bulgaria values of autonomy espoused by the team members are not shared by the majority of the population (independent of their ethnic origin). The usual response on the part of the group was to feel threatened and it was acted out at times in ways that were destructive to the lessons and the educational process: suspiciousness, attempts on gaining control through administration, attacks on the boundaries, an air of uniqueness and grandeur of the event, and the feeling of impending catastrophe if things get astray. Thus a routine group event is invested with expectations to be a turning point in the history of the Roma community.

The team had to cope with the recurring message on the part of the group addressed at the team: "Let us assimilate you in order to be able to learn from you!"


The adequate way for the team to respond to this challenge was to step out of the Bulgarian ethnic identity for the time being and act through the role of consultants available to the Roma community and its needs as expressed by these Roma participants. This was possible only because the Roma member of the team, due to the shared understanding and trust established in the course of a long cooperation, was also able to take a professional stance.

The result of this strategy was that the Roma team member was identified as a positive role model for the trainees and gradually, in the course of the training the participants started to shape themselves after him. The last closing session was marked with the group producing leaders of their own: one of the trainees offered assistance and expertise in project development and all kind of support for the younger members (including scholarship for a student). Thus the group grew up to be less dependent on the benevolence of outside authorities and was able to focus, reconsider and utilize in a creative way its own resources and the potential dormant in its members.

At the end of the training the participants exchanged their addresses and expressed the desire to stay in touch, to meet again in the same group and follow the individual development of each of the group members and thereby a network was established.


One of the important conclusions is the necessity for the Human Rights Project (in its role of a training organizer) and the training team to adapt themselves to the role of crosspoints of this emerging network. They should prepare to provide and maintain an environment for cooperation and educational opportunities meeting the participants' individual needs.

In technical terms this means curriculum development in several key directions and providing further opportunities for Roma activists. One possibility is to employ the system already established in the New Bulgarian University (preparation of textbooks and developing teaching and examination through correspondence with individual plans).

Copyright: The Authors

Address for correspondence: C/00 Toma Tomov, Medical Academy, 15 Dim

Nestrov, 1431 Sofia, Bulgaria

email: (Mental Health Centre)  

The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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