Exclusive interview with Leslie Hawke, New York advocate for Romanian disadvantaged groups: “My secret wish is to be given honorary Romanian citizenship someday”

May-30-2009 | Mirela Ciucur

You are a New Yorker, mother of well renowned celebrity, Ethan Hawke. In 2000, after 20 years of management experience in US hi tech companies you chose to join the Peace Corps and established yourself in Bacau, Romania, to support with raising funds for community social service programs. Most Peace Corps volunteers come to Romania for two years and then go back to the US. What convinced you to stay, after your assignment with Peace Corps was completed?

Staying in Romania never felt like a decision I made, it was more like a prediction I observed coming true. I knew enough about international development to know that I couldn’t possibly accomplish anything significant in a couple of years – and from very early on, I felt like I did indeed have something to offer.

And what was that?

The first thing that bothered me when I arrived in Romania was the small children who were begging on the streets, sitting alone on in pairs on the sidewalk, holding out their hands to the passers-by in front of modern banks and beautiful churches. I quickly learned that most of these little kids on the street were supporting their families.

I decided to try to start a training program for the mothers of these kids. It was based on a program in New York City that rehabilitates homeless men, many of whom are ex-convicts, through a residential training program. I figured if it worked with homeless men in NY, why not with impoverished mothers in Romania? At the time I was not aware that most of the women were of Roma descent – because they weren’t the traditional Roma you always see in the media.

That was nine years ago. Since then one thing has literally led to another. I met an experienced, dedicated teacher named Maria Gheorghiu; she and I started an education program for the children to work in concert with the mother’s program. We paid the women to come to training – conditional on their children going to school every day. Eventually we founded our own NGO, Asociatia Ovidiu Rom; over the years we made the programs better and we were invited to start new ones in other locations.

Over the past five years our main focus has been on getting children in school early and helping them succeed so they will STAY in school, and not drop out after four or five years.

OvidiuROm, the organization you founded in 2004, established you as a renowned advocate of the marginalized communities in Romania, in offering access to education, work prospects, and equal opportunities. How are your efforts invested today?

Our goal today is to get the government to implement on a national scale the measures we have been using over the past nine years to get and keep disadvantaged children in school. For example, in order to be successful, you have to go door to door in the poorest parts of town to recruit the most vulnerable children for school. You have to gain the trust of parents. You have to help them with the increased financial burden that school entails. You have to help them get over their fear of school authorities. You have to train teachers to deal with an influx of ill-prepared children. It’s not rocket science, but it is multi-faceted, and requires different government agencies to work in concert. This is not something they are accustomed to doing.

How are you trying to influence the government to get more actively involved?

In June, Ovidiu Rom and Telefonul Copilului will launch a public awareness campaign using famous Romanians to emphasize the importance of school and to publicize a children’s hotline whereby parents can report problems they encounter registering or keeping their children in school and where concerned citizens can report children who are not going to school.

School abandonment is actually rising in Romania and the literacy rate is falling. Devastating consequences in Romania’s job market will result unless this trend is reversed. Romania’s poorest children enter school late, attend sub-standard schools, and drop out early. I do not believe blatant, rampant discrimination is at fault. The cause is that the poor have gotten poorer and there’s no national effort to help them register their children in kindergarten and to successfully integrate them into mainstream classrooms. Everyone knows that school is not truly “free”. There are many associated costs – clothes, shoes, supplies, extra workbooks requested by teachers, periodic presents for teachers, class donations, and so forth are necessary for SUCCESS IN SCHOOL.

Romania pays parents an extra stipend if their children are labeled as “special needs” (i.e., handicapped). Thus, an incentive has been created that inadvertently encourages poor parents to send their children to “scoali speciale” instead of mainstream schools – which ultimately DOES handicap their children. The government should be providing incentives for poor people to send their four and five year old children to kindergarten – regardless of their ethnicity.

As young Romanians living abroad we are often distressed about the condition of street children and about the negative image this situation projects about Romania. How do you think people like us can get involved in supporting initiatives to improve this situation?

Street kids are a direct result of poverty and lack of education. Encourage people back home in Romania to push politicians to address the education issues. Every political party should have a policy statement about what they will do to reverse the negative trend in educational attainment. They all talk about “the importance of education” but none of the parties has a concrete plan. And that in itself is a plan to do nothing. NGOs cannot reverse this trend alone. The government HAS to take the lead, as it finally did in the US in the 1960s.

Is there any one element in the constellation of interventions that you consider the most important?

I have come to believe the single most significant thing we can do to get disadvantaged children in school early and keep them in school is to provide economic incentives to the parents. That has always been an important element of Ovidiu Rom’s programs.

There is a growing body of research that shows that rewarding poor parents in tangible ways does indeed change ingrained behaviors. A great simple example of this is a study in India that was summarized in a recent Economist article: “mothers are three times as likely to have their children vaccinated if they are rewarded with a kilogram of daal (lentils) at the immunization camp. The result is useful to aid workers, but puzzling to economists: why should such a modest incentive (worth less than 50 cents) make such a big difference? Immunization can save a child’s life; a bag of lentils should not sway the mother’s decision either way.” But it does – because the benefits are immediate and tangible.

Integrating Roma people tends to be a rather delicate issue among European countries. Although, the history of the United States shows that they have been successful in dealing with so many different ethnic groups. Based on your experience, do you find it more challenging in their case than of other minorities?

No, it’s exactly the same. Only the names have changed! My biggest frustration here is that so many otherwise intelligent people think there is something fundamentally inferior about “Gypsies”. They apply the same labels that many whites attached to blacks when I was growing up in Texas: unreliable, lazy, dirty, loud, violence-prone. Anti-social behavior is a consequence of multi-generational poverty, not of defective genes or a primitive value system. It is the same all over the world! So much has changed for the better for minorities in the United States since I was a child. It can change here too. But it absolutely has to start with early childhood education. By the time a child is 7 or 8 the die is cast.

It’s extraordinary how many Romanian people see no parallel between the situation of blacks in America and Roma in Eastern Europe. “The issue in America was bigotry and prejudice, the problem in Romania is Gypsies.” That is the prevailing attitude. And it reflects an appalling lack of insight.

What do you think can be done to change people’s attitudes?

I don’t think prejudice is something that you can talk or shame out of people. My son recently made the observation that you don’t ‘change people’s minds’, at best, you imperceptibly erode their confidence in their staunchly held belief. Invariably people are prejudiced against impoverished groups because poverty tends to bring out the worst in people. Extreme poverty may be photogenic but it’s not hygienic or character-building. It’s deeply destructive to the human spirit. Climbing out of multi-generational poverty is a matter of beating a whole constellation of odds.

People with four years of school don’t have many job options open to them. Once when I questioned a policeman about why he let children beg when it was illegal, he asked me, “And which would you rather have them do – steal or starve?” People will continue to beg and steal until they can qualify for jobs offering decent wages. And that won’t happen until they are educated at the same level as the mainstream population.

In 2005, you have been honored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the ‘Outstanding Citizen award, for your work with Roma street children and their families in Bacau and Bucharest, Romania. Did you ever feel that this sort of recognition was actually due to arrive from Romania?

Our work has been recognized by quite a few organizations and companies in Romania. I have to admit, my secret wish is to be given honorary Romanian citizenship someday. That would be an incredible honor!

Your son, Ethan has been an active ambassador and supporter of your programs. Could you tell us a bit more about the impact of his contribution for the benefit of children in Romania?

Being related to a celebrity gets people’s attention. It was definitely an asset in the early days when nobody had heard of Leslie Hawke or The Alex Fund or Ovidiu Rom. So just by being “Ethan Hawke” he helps the cause. He also donates financially and with his time at fundraising events. My 10 year old granddaughter is also a big supporter. I can’t wait to get her here this summer and show her our programs.

What was the most rewarding moment of your career in Romania?

Wow, that’s really hard to answer. I believe, as the American poet Walt Whitman said, “from any fruition of success shall come forth something to make a harder struggle necessary.” Whenever things are going well, I brace myself for the next hurdle. I guess that’s just my Puritan American roots.

Are there things about Romania that you have become attached to, after living almost a decade in Romania?

I am completely in love with my cottage in the wine country west of Buzau. I go up there almost every weekend. The local people are so kind and honest and hospitable; as my grandmother would say, “real salt of the earth”. The comuna where it’s located, Merei, reminds me so much of the little town where my father grew up in West Texas, and where I spent my summers as a child. No running water, very little money, but lots of wonderful food, natural beauty, and good people – and some rascals too. Basically I think human nature is the same everywhere. It can get corrupted by circumstances, but people are people.

I like rural Romania better than Texas because there aren’t any rattlesnakes, tarantulas or scorpions to worry about, it doesn’t get nearly as hot in the summer, and there are still more horse-drawn wagons on the road than pickup trucks! Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same.