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by Toma Tomov, Maya Mladenova, Haralan Alexandrov


This paper is an attempt to demonstrate how political issues are unconsciously mobilised to undermine individual development and self-authorisation of Roma community activists. It attempts to demonstrate that corporate interests have a disruptive effect on the fragile links established for the performance of realistic and meaningful tasks in the precarious situation of post- totalitarianism.

The issue will be explored by drawing on Group Relations Theory as applied to the experience of an educational event with a group of Gypsy leaders and activists. Conclusions will be drawn about possible approaches and steps to be taken in order to provide a safe and sustainable setting for the fulfilment of training and educational tasks, aimed at developing skills for democratic living.

This analysis is based on our feelings of frustration, disillusionment and hope, experienced in the course of an educational event, designed to develop leadership skills in a group of Roma community activists. In writing this paper we were motivated by our understanding that the exploration and articulation of the unconscious dynamics, underlying social and political realities in Bulgaria, can largely enlighten and foster the painful transition in our society.

Consistent with this belief was the method we used in the course of the seminar:- to regard the experiential learning event through the paradigm of Group Relations, as developed by Wilfred Bion and his co-workers and followers. The approach we adopted constitutes a continuous effort to come to grips and utilise the emotional experience of the team in order to find meaning in what was happening in the here and now, to conceptualise this experience in terms of group dynamics and to share it with the participants. This we assumed to be a condition for the fulfilment of the primary task of the group, which was defined as leaning about leadership. The extend to which we succeeded or failed in this undertaking can be considered in the light of the lessons that both the participants and the team have learned. Here we will try to reflect on some of these lessons.


The employer: The event described was part of a joint project which took place in four Eastern European countries (Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria). It was sponsored by a NGO called Autonomia which is devoted to the promotion and development of skills for living in the new social and political conditions of the Roma minorities throughout the former communist world. The basic funding came from the Council of Europe. This activity was part of the effort of the Western democracies to facilitate through investment and know-how the emerging of civil societies in these countries.

The explicit ideology of the sponsoring foundation was to foster developments which were expected to become self-reliant and sustainable. The key-word was AUTONOMY.

The contractors. The Bulgarian partner of Autonomia, who was responsible for organising the event, was a Roma NGO, the major activity of which was searching out, investigating and documenting cases of violation of the human rights of people of Roma origin. These facts were made public by them to the international community and pressure was exercised on the responsible institutions.

The organisation of a training seminar was a new venture for the contractors, which was invested with a lot of expectations - "this seminar is going to open the eyes of many people" - shared one of them.To our understanding, these expectations were consistent with the messianic phantasies of the young, ambitious and upwards striving leaders of the NGO, who were looking for alternative ways of strengthening and legitimizing their political position among the numerous and rivalling Gypsy organizations in the country. This context proved to be of greater importance than the team expected, for it immediately mobilised corporate affiliations and clan loyalties inherent in a patriarchal culture and reinforced by communist despotism. Thus most of the applicants were already entangled in relations of dependence with the contractors in the role of their powerful protectors.

The team. The training team consisted of five members, each responsible for one or two of the modules. One of the team did most of the contracting and was available for supervision in the course of the whole event. One of the trainers was of Roma origin and therefore most sensitive to the group. The trainers 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, group relations and Roma culture.

The trainees. Most of the applicants were interviewed by a team member in the presence of a representative of the contractors. The age of the 29 participants was within the range 19-46 years. The team's main concerns in terms of age were the emotional and not the biologic maturity of the applicants, their openness of mind and flexibility (capacity to accept situations of uncertainty). Women were encouraged to attend the seminar though disproportionately few had applied. The educational level and attainment were not acceptance criteria and members were of 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 of importance to the team members.

After the initial interviews the team members had found three of the applicants inappropriate for this kind of experiential training. However, only one applicant was refused participation due to the pressure on the part of the contractors.

The applicants came from rather different backgrounds 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 ghettos in the towns; still others had spent most of their lives with Bulgarian neighbours in Bulgarian quarters. This made for an even more diverse picture at the beginning of the training.

The initial hypothesis and plan of work

Following the officially stated guidelines the team had designed the seminar in seven modules, one weekend each, in a residential setting, with the expectancy that at the end the participants would develop a group culture which would support the individual development of each of the members in terms of ability to assume authority and initiate community projects. Having in mind both the history of the Roma minority in former communist Bulgaria - a story of manipulation and abuse of power disguised as care for the underprivileged and providing equal opportunities - and the findings of the initial interviews with the applicants, the team constructed a working hypothesis about the difficulties which the members of the minority groups face when encountering the necessity of assuming leadership stance. The preoccupation with survival was manifest in most of the interviews as an expectation to utilise the seminar as a opportunity to establish clientelist relations with people in the position of power. At the same time the propensity of the contractors to take the role of a patron became obvious from the very beginning. The general impression from the initial contact with the applicants led to the following conjecture:

Since the participants intended to use the training in order to get authority for their roles of leaders from "above", the answer to that expectation on the part of the team would be 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 one belongs. In groups of members who have had traumatic experiences, (for example, as a result of abuse of power), the empowering behaviour on the part of the team could be experienced as threatening and hostile if relations of trust are not established securely. Therefore the group was expected to respond with primitive defences and acting out.

The contents of the course

The contents of the training included the following issues: warming up to the role of the leader; group processes; Roma culture; human rights; conflict mediation; leadership skills; social policy. Each of the modules provided theoretical knowledge on the core of the issues and gave the perspective on the development the trainee should undergo in order to learn more in any one of the fields presented. The basic idea was not to equip the trainees with superficial understanding on the matter but to expose them to the available knowledge in the field and, in case it stirs interest, to put the trainees in contact with the professional network working on the particular issue.


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, participation (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 was grounded in the understanding 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 trust and group cohesion are fostered, which are necessary for the group members when confronted with living with the insecurity. Therefore every time the performance of each of the members was evaluated through the group and the team restrained from giving explicit assessment.

The difficulties faced

Discrepancy between the ideology of the team and the cultural patterns. In post-totalitarian Bulgaria the values of autonomy embodied in the philosophy of the training are not shared by the majority of the population (independent of their ethnic origin). Most of the time the group was involved in a basic assumption mode of functioning and displayed various primitive defences against getting into a working phase, such as 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 was invested with the expectations to be a turning point in the history of the Bulgarian Roma community. In addition, 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 hidden agenda. Besides the official working task of the seminar there was a hidden agenda on the part of the contractors to develop their own clientelist network throughout the country in an effort to acquire a leading political position among Gypsy organizations in Bulgaria. For example, the team was put under pressure to accept some and reject other of the applicants for reasons which had nothing to do with the acceptance criteria. At that point we became vaguely aware that some of the participants had a history of relations with the contractors, which, as a matter of fact, had brought them to the seminar in disagreement with the official recruitment policy through the advertising of the event in the Roma newspapers.

Control, power struggle and violation of boundaries. Another instant of intrusion was the aspiration on the part of the contractors to a special status in the event: as participants attending some of the sessions, on the one hand, and, on the other, as observers, who monitor the performance of the team and provide it with feedback. Caught unprepared for this demand the team reluctantly agreed to re-define the rules of participation and was forced to be constantly alert to collusive involvements with the unannounced agenda of the contractors.

The first lesson we had to learn was how to cope with the persistent demands for control and how to keep two parallel accounts of our work - one "for ourselves" and one "for the contractors". In such a way the team entered a game of trying to outwit the contractors offering a countermove to each of their moves. For instance, the contractors were offered to join the team meetings, rather than attend the training sessions, and thus satisfy their strong need to be in the course of, and contribute to, the work from a one-up position. The team devised this move to render their idea constructive and at the same time to protect its boundaries. The proposal of the team was however rejected, and in stead of it two of the contractors withdrew altogether, whereas four others stayed under the disguise of "regular" participants. Upon interviewing this second group of the contractors for joining the training an awareness of acting in a pretence mode and paying lip service only to the procedure became apparent. The violation of boundaries on the part of the contractors became a recurring pattern of interaction throughout the event. The efforts of the team to maintain secure boundaries for the sake of the working task were repeatedly challenged. At the very outset the contractors required the incorporation in some of the modules of presentations, delivered by outside lecturers, known as experts in the respective fields. The team coped with this demand by conducting talks with the lecturers to secure that their inputs will not be too inconsistent with those of the team. Then, without prior announcement at one of the sessions an outside person was introduced as an "expert on Roma culture". He was granted time without asking the team's permission to expand on his private views of the appropriate ways of becoming a Gypsy leader demonstrating arrogance and lack of concern for privacy. The answer of the team was an attempt to integrate this experience through verbal and non-verbal sharing with a recourse to psychodrama.

Substitution and obfuscation of meaning. When the team faced the contractors with the subversive nature of their intrusions in relation to the group integrity, this was partly recognised but justified as a necessary counterbalance to the emerging group culture, which, according to them, tended to lose touch with the "brutal" reality. The group silently complied with that explanation and the team members suffered an intense feeling of being betrayed. In such a way the very possibility of establishing a different mode of relations - trust, support and confidentiality in a peer group, if only within the boundaries of a temporary institution - was seriously questioned. On another level, this reflected the mistrust in leadership, based on self-empowerment in the process of supportive relations with the community, (and not on power, vested by an outside authority),an attitude of mind, which is deeply entrenched in survivalist cultures. A self-effacing notion of survival as contingent exclusively upon complying with forced circumstances, was voiced a number of times, in opposition to the messages of the team about respect for human dignity. One of the members, for example, commented the lecture on Human Rights: "We Gypsy people are inextinguishable, because we breed like rabbits".

Traumatic identity and survivalism. Many of the participants shared painful experiences of discrimination, rejection and humiliation on a daily basis throughout their lives. A picture gradually emerged of an extremely threatening, totally insecure world on the edge of survival. One young member confessed, that the dearest fantasy he was craving for years was to become a man of property and power in order to promote gifted Roma musicians, although he was ready any moment to adopt the career of an assassin, since he was skilled in the craft of murder. "I can destroy a person in 24 different ways", he said. He would be happy to be able one day to sponsor such events as the ongoing seminar, because he felt this was something very different from what he knew. Later he shared a continuous traumatic experience of severe physical and psychological abuse in the army. The pain and agony in his recollections was overwhelming. The team interpreted his message as a representation of a turbulent, unpredictable inner world, populated with fears of persecution. In order to afford oneself to be compassionate and creative in such a world one needed to have a guarantee for survival, that was to be achieved either through dissolving in a impersonal collectivity or through acquiring a powerful patron. As in this participant's fantasy, individuation was synonymous with becoming a patron himself: a benevolent one, perhaps, but always keeping open the option of shifting into the oppressor role and applying violence. What the team refers to as "traumatic identity" here, increasingly appeared to be a major impediment to embark on the path of individual growth and development, long-term commitment and investment in communal causes.

Catastrophic phantasies. Almost each of the modules was an opportunity for the participants to bring out again and again as if on some kind of weird play-back the phantasies of impending catastrophe in relation to the seminar. One of the first occasions - and indeed a dramatic one - was expressed on the second night, after the beginning of the training, when the group had heard voices screaming outside the hotel. This led the group to the idea that one of the team members and one of the contractors had being attacked and were in need of help. All the group had rushed downstairs in their anxiety and determination to fight with the unknown persecutors.

When this event was discussed openly in the morning session, one of the group members shared: "Even if it was true and we had tried to save the two of you, it would only have taken a few minutes for the police to come and arrest us. No matter who was to blame. And that is how the whole training initiative would have ended in disgrace."

On another occasion one of the contractors tried to justify his controlling behaviour with the following words: "I have organized all that and in case it fails the image of our organization will be greatly damaged. We will lose our eyes and ears in the country - the people who inform us about the violation of human rights."

Thus the success or failure of this rather modest educational event was associated with effects that went far beyond the tasks and responsibilities undertaken by the team.

Damaged parental figures and attacks on linking. The issue of the numerous Roma parties and organizations, entangled in rivalries and strife, was repeatedly introduced in the discussions. None of them seemed to be perceived as legitimately representing the genuine interests of the community. The impression of the team was that the conflict of the ethnic minority with the majority was used as a defence against facing the reality of the inner tensions between subgroups with different status and the internecine feuds between clans. The communist policy of brutal interference with the internal processes of the community through arbitrary promotion of protégés and corruption of established leaders had built on the patriarchal patterns and had resulted in deep erosion of trust in leadership as such. The imagery of failed parenthood - impotent, unreliable, neglectful, if not abusive fathers, haunted the whole event. An implication of this fantasy was the difficulty to establish and maintain long-lasting relations, to stay in touch without being summoned from above, or, in sociological terms, to form entities, different from "natural" groups - families and clans, based on blood links and corporate interests. In this context the aggressive intrusions of the contractors, which occurred every time the team was about to establish affective relations with the group, was interpreted as attacks on linking, a primitive defence against the anxiety of losing control of the situation. From that perspective the attempts of disintegrating patriarchal order to restore its grip on power and perpetuate itself in the new conditions through suppression or distortion of the tentative moves of emerging civil society, can be viewed as attacks on linking, the processes in the group being isomorphic to those in the society at large.

The response. The principle response on the part of the team was to remain non-judgmental, ready to notice and name everything that happens and still be open for the needs of the group. The adequate way to meet the continuous challenges was for the Bulgarian team members to step out of their Bulgarian ethnic identity for the time of the event and to act in the role of consultants available to the Roma community and its needs as expressed by the 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 co-operation, 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 with time the participants started gradually 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 various kinds of support to the younger members (including a scholarship for a student). Thus the group grew 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.


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 mode of adult learning widely utilised by adult education. Most lessons were taught through the participants' own experience with the topics concerned.

It proved to be necessary to devote more than half of the time to the exploration of the emotional experiences of the participants. For example, the fact that all the trainees except one had failed to prepare the project proposals which they were asked to do and bring to the last week end seminar, was not so much an expression of their inability to write proposals, or of their lack of understanding of the way in which bureaucracies function, as of their belief that they were unable to defend their own rights and needs. For example, one of the trainees, a physically disabled woman, was seeking authorisation to apply for a wheelchair which she was in bad need of and legally entitled to. It is our belief, that the skills and knowledge acquired in the course of the event will be helpful to the participants in coping with everyday dilemmas. Encouraging evidence was supplied by some of the participants, that the things they had learnt had 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).

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 establish a network. Such evidence supports our hypothesis that the more the interactive aspects of leadership get elucidated, the easier it will be for the trainees to assimilate the instrumental aspects of leadership, 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 that leadership is an ongoing meeting of the challenges of the circumstances and demands of the group you belong to rather than a single act of initiation.

Conclusions and suggestions

One conclusion we would like to convey regarding trainings with groups of people, largely affected by traumatic experiences, is that the hunger for knowledge and the desperate need for skills are in sharp contrast with the ability for spontaneous and creative participation in experiential trainings. On the other hand the experiential training format is one of the most promising if not the only one through which such people could be able to regain their positive self-perception.

Therefore, it is an important task to develop strategies to meet at least the most widespread destructive attitudes, behaviours and phantasies residing within such large groups, relying upon the knowledge about the primitive aspects of groups which group relations studies provide. In practical terms this can be operationalized in several suggestions:

1. The team as an instrument for understanding.

The training team should develop the ability to monitor and reflect upon the emotions of its members and to build upon them hypotheses about the unconscious group processes that they mirror. We would recommend the inclusion in the team of members of the professional, ethnic or social group of the trainees (in our case that was the Roma team member) whose sensitivity to the issues involved could be extremely helpful, if utilised by the team.

2. Exploring the context and establishing safe boundaries.

In case that the organisers, who are expected to maintain the boundaries, are not part of the professional community and do not, at least partly, share the approach, special efforts need to be made to contain their anxiety and thus neutralise their potential disruptive actions. These effort should include: - Careful exploration of the conductors' ideological affiliations, political agendas, expectations and phantasies about the forthcoming event.

- Negotiating clear rules, roles, responsibilities and authority.

- Recruitment of representatives of the conductors for collaborators by preliminary exploration, together with the team, of their special function in securing the boundaries.

In this way the possibility for arbitrary political intrusions will be reduced as much as possible.

3. Developing effective communication.

The team should evolve a language, with the help of which the hidden agendas and their disruptive effect on learning and development could be named and pointed out in a way, that will not result in paranoid rejection of the team and thus end the co-operation.

Establishing appropriate proportion of group work versus didactic training.

Having in mind our experience we are increasingly convinced that group work and understanding group processes is crucial to the achievement of any educational goal. Most of the efforts are to be invested in establishing a proper setting so that the messages of the educators could be conveyed to the audience undistorted.

Therefore the undertaking of exploration of the unconscious dynamics of groups is worthwhile.

Time and commitment.

Our work with the group of Roma leaders was burdened with unrealistic expectations in terms of time. It was a problem - and still unresolved one - to make both the funding organization, the contractors and the group acknowledge that leadership skills are not something you can acquire for a period of two months. In our view, the issue of how long it will take for a certain training to attain its goals should be open for discussion from the very beginning.

It should be clarified at the time of the initial interview that some trainings are time-consuming and demand commitment and sacrifices. Thus the applicants will have the opportunity to decide for themselves if they would like to join or not.


At the end of the seminar the idea was introduced by one of the participants of a follow-up meeting to inform about the development of each of the members. The idea was not supported by the contractors, though the team welcomed it. The attempts of the team members to maintain lasting relations with some of the participants have not so far led to a new joined initiative.

Note: This account was made by the authors on behalf of the whole training team, which included in addition to the authors also Galina Markova and Josef Nunev, all from Bulgaria. An advisor to the team with special contributions to its activity was Nancy Cook von Bretzel, San Francisco, California.

Copyright: The Authors

Address for correspondence: c/o Professor Toma Tomov, Medical Academy, 15 Dim. Nestrov, 1431 Sofia, Bulgaria

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

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