“Poverty and social exclusion are always signs of power abuse” – interview with Leslie Hawke, ambassador of the European Year for combating poverty and social exclusion.
Maura Anghel, 18.09.2010
– Dear Mrs. Leslie Hawke, you have been appointed Ambassador of the European Year for combating poverty and social exclusion. From this perspective, what events will you organize to combat poverty or to raise awareness among the community that a changing attitude for a beautiful life is needed?
— We are planning an award ceremony at the Halloween Ball on October 30 that will highlight this issue and our belief in how Romania can best combat poverty: Early Education for ALL!
– You have been living for many years abroad. What was Romania’s image over the Atlantic? What kind of messages did you receive about us, Romanians? What about the people from Moldavia, whom you met in your first visit to Bacau?
— When I first arrived in Bacau I started an American NGO called The Alex Fund, named after the first begging child, Alexandru, whom I met on the street. I started The Alex Fund so I could raise money in the US for helping impoverished children get an education. In the beginning, most of the people who supported The Alex Fund were friends of mine who knew very little about Romania. However, today, most of The Alex Fund supporters are young professional Romanian Americans who care a lot about the future of Romania, and who are quite knowledgeable about social and political issues in Romania. Alas, they are sometimes more positive about Romania than the young people who live in Romania. I think that is because they are focusing on the opportunities here, which are still enormous, whereas people living here tend to focus on the drawbacks and to feel powerless changing things for the better. As long as you feel powerless, you ARE powerless.
– Why were you interested to get involved in charitable activities? How important are they in your life?
— I believe that if a person is not “part of the solution”, meaning contributing to making the world a better place, then they are a part of the problem, i.e., they are just using up resources and adding no value. It matters to me to feel that I am contributing to the common good. I can’t think of anything more important than that, at least not at this stage of my life. I got an education, I raised a family, I had a career, I traveled. What better thing to do with my life now than try to help poor children get an education?
– Why Ovidiu Rom?
— Maria Gheorghiu, a Romanian teacher, and I started Ovidiu Rom in order to expand the programs for impoverished mothers and children that we started in Bacau. We named it Ovidiu Rom after the Roman poet Ovidiu, who wrote the Metamorphoses. We thought it was an appropriate name because our goal was to help people make personal metamorphosis.
– Have you also thought about supporting other associations who fight for the rights of the disadvantaged people?
— We work WITH other organizations. For example, we have a partnership with the Fundatia de Sprijin Comunitar in Bacau. Sometimes we share projects and resources and The Alex Fund contributes in a small way to their work. I am very grateful to FSC for its support in my early years here and I believe it is one of the very best run NGOs in Romania.
– What do poverty and social exclusion mean, in fact?
–Well, poverty and social exclusion are always a sign of the abuse of power. Just as in a family, parents have a responsibility to see for the welfare of ALL their children, a society has a responsibility to look after the welfare of all its citizens. That means making sure that all children have adequate health care and an education that will prepare them to be productive members of society when they grow up.
– What do you think about Moldavia? How can you help it, as an Ambassador of the European Year?
– I loved the four years I lived in Bacau. There was a real sense of community there that you do not find in a big city or a suburb. Ovidiu Rom still runs programs in Bacau but it is much more practical for me to be based in Bucharest because Bucharest is the seat of government and business.
I am aware that Modavia is considered the poorest region in the EU and I am hopeful that we can start several new projects there through our “national contest”
– If you had universal power, what would be the first three measures which you take to help Romania and, especially, Moldavia?
— That’s easy! I would make sure that every three, four and five year old child in the country was attending kindergarten, and that their teachers were well-trained and well-paid.
– You are a beautiful, ambitious and strong woman. What advice would you have for the Romanian women who still search for their identity, who seek for being successful and a path in life?
— I would like for them to have both the opportunity and the courage to reach their potential, whatever that is. The thing that makes me the saddest is when I meet someone who seems to have been stifled or stunted, whether by the society, their family, or even themselves.
Some women say to themselves, “Oh, that’s too hard, I couldn’t do that”, or “Oh my parents (or my husband) wouldn’t want me to try that”, or “What if I failed?” There are several women who were in our Mothers Programs in both Bacau and Bucharest who took the opportunities we gave them and have really made a better life for themselves and their children, despite their own fears and the disapproval of their families. One is Narcisa, who was an eighth grade dropout and mother of two when we first met her. She is now a teacher in Bacau. Another is a Roma woman who left her abusive husband. She now lives and works in London and is remarried. I remember when she was scared to death and practically destitute, but she took a huge risk and she is now so much better off and happier.