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‘It’s for me to remember my dad’: the driving force behind Gypsy activist Sherrie Smith

gal-dem meets the woman on the frontlines of the fight to save a community from complete erasure.

15 Feb 2022

It was the death of Sherrie Smith’s father eight years ago that sparked her activism journey. When her father died, Sherrie was working as a florist. But a few months after his passing, she was approached to take part in a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) event. From there, her activism snowballed. “I just started doing more and more things, like events and getting involved with other activists,” she recalls.

Today, Sherrie Smith is one of Britain’s most prominent Gypsy activists, unrelenting in her fight for equality for (GRT) communities and the fearless force behind many of the successful campaigns and protests, such as Report Racism GRT and Dikh He Na Bistar [Look and Don’t Forget].

These campaigns have boosted GRT struggles for liberation and equality, attracting more mainstream attention than ever before, even while a hostile government wages war on the existence of nomadic communities. Sherri’s work has also focused on awareness-raising efforts around the Roma Genocide and newer forms of ethnic cleansing across Europe, as well as the preservation of Romani culture. “It’s for me to remember my dad,” she says. “That’s my tribute I suppose; instead of laying flowers I do that.”

Growing up in community housing in North London to a non-Gypsy mother and a Gypsy father, Sherrie was able to see life from both sides, despite being raised with her father’s family. It was when she was in her twenties when she began realising she was treated differently due to her Gypsy heritage. Until then, she explains that she would often blame herself for ill-treatment. “Maybe you’re loud,” she remembers thinking. “Maybe it’s because you’re from a council estate. Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that.”

Sherrie, alongside Romany journalist and filmmaker Jake Bowers, set up the Drive2Survive campaign to combat the Policing Bill”

Before signing a lease for her floristry business in her early twenties, around 2000, Sherrie’s father warned her not to tell the freeholders that she was a Gypsy. Leaving her bubble of community and family, she realised her ethnicity was the reason for the unwelcoming attitudes towards her in shops and school, rather than the litany of reasons she blamed herself for.

The journey continued in her mid-thirties when pursuing a degree at Goldsmiths University in Social Science, Community Development and Youth Work, culminating in an epiphany during a task during a module on racism. Her lecturer asked white and black students to stand on opposite sides of the room. Sherrie stood with the black students.

 “That’s when I realised” she says. Sherrie explained to the lecturer that she didn’t feel as if she fit with white British people. She felt like an outsider.

This is a sentiment many GRT people share; nomadic communities are marginalised and consistently used as campaign fodder from both left and right wing parties. Currently, the government is pushing through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would effectively end nomadic lifestyles and set a dangerous precedent for legislating a minority’s culture out of existence.

Sherrie, alongside Romany journalist and filmmaker Jake Bowers, set up the Drive2Survive campaign to combat the Policing Bill and the threat to nomadic freedom that the Conservative government poses. Speaking on the importance of resistance to the Bill, she explains, “Section four of it is inherently racist and will mean the end of Gypsy Travelling and Travellers.” Section Four states that ‘trespass’ will no longer be a civil crime, instead it will be changed to a criminal offence. Police will also be granted additional powers to handle roadside camps.

Sherrie was also one of the people who established Report Racism GRT in 2016, which collects data on hate crimes committed against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people”

Through Drive2Survive, a coalition of Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers, community organisers and nomadic activists have used peaceful protests, community events and media to highlight the Policing Bill and educate people in how it is harmful to the freedoms of all society, not just the GRT community who will be among those hit the hardest.  Sherrie had initially expected the campaign to take years to gain traction and bring in different communities to create one cohesive support network. “I was shocked at how quickly it took off, I didn’t expect it to be this fast.”

Coalition building has proved an uphill battle. Falling under the umbrella of those affected by the new legislation is a huge array of people – all with individual, and sometimes conflicting, interests. Juggling all of these and ensuring each community’s voice is heard and respect has been hard work, she says. 

“Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, [some of them] are very old-fashioned people,” Sherrie tells me diplomatically, pointing to some of the friction points, including bringing together other marginalised communities.

“When we organise a demonstration in London [and] bring in the new travellers, because we have to provide safe space for Roma women and also LGBTQ+ people. We had to work around how we provide that safe space in an environment that’s not like we’re being condescending.” There’s been other competing interests too, but Sherrie’s main goal is to gain the trust of Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities. 

“It’s a very difficult thing to negotiate. And I think that our trust is built on each event.”

Building trust can’t be done overnight. While Drive2Survive has become  Sherrie’s most publicised campaign outside of the GRT community, it’s not the first movement she’s spearheaded. In 2016, Sherrie facilitated the UK’s first ever participation in a project called ‘Dikh He Na Bistar’ [Look and Don’t Forget] – which she describes as the project she’s enjoyed doing the most.

Dikh He Na Bistar is an annual event that brings Roma people from all over Europe to Poland every August to commemorate the Gypsy victims of the Holocaust. Sherrie wanted the UK to become part of something “so important to Gypsy history” and for “younger generations to understand the struggles our people had faced and continue to face”. 

Following a crowdfunding effort in 2017, she has taken a delegation of GRT youth to Poland every year since, and has been responsible for more than forty young people going on this journey. Such trips, where young people hear from Holocaust survivors, visit Auschwitz and learn about the under-discussed Gypsy genocide that took place during WWII, are hugely impactful, and have led to some participants going on to working in racial equality activism now. “The change they’ve made and the organisations they’ve set up, the things that have come off the back of that, I’m really proud of,” Sherrie adds.

Sherrie says that while the wider GRT community may not “comprehend exactly why I choose to put myself in the spotlight” and in the way of anti-GRT bigotry via her activism, she has the full support of her family. She’s from activist stock and has instilled that sense of purpose in her own children too. Her brother is politically active and has stood in elections as an independent candidate against David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

Her two adult daughters, whom she raised alone, have gone on to forge their own careers in activism and campaigning for GRT communities. “My parents raised strong people who challenge [injustice] and aren’t afraid of fighting for what we believe,” she says, noting that that includes taking the fight to the government

As part of that work, Sherrie was also one of the people who established Report Racism GRT in 2016, which collects data on hate crimes committed against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. Before her work, there were no recorded hate crime statistics or figures in relation to anti-GRT bigotry, highlighting the complete lack of effort from both the government and police to protect the community. Sherrie’s work has created tangible statistics to help combat the notion that racism against GRT people is non-existent and to bolster the need for politicians and police to address the racial violence.

Her latest venture is working with Buckinghamshire New University on a project to increase the rates of GRT people entering higher education, in the hopes of getting more GRT people in roles in traditional institutions, like the legal world and the media industry, where they can potentially influence change,  

“We’re definitely not represented enough across anywhere,” Sherrie says. “They just set up the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller social work and police association a few years ago. But other than that, in every other industry, we’re not represented.” From teaching to nursing, she believes there needs to be higher representation in order for GRT communities to feel safe placing their children or themselves in the care of these people. 

I’d never even heard of ‘grabbing’ before that episode but now it’s what we’re stuck with”

Whilst important, not all representation is positive. Sherrie is complimentary of Peaky Blinders, a programme centred on the Romany Shelby family, and the use of some Romani chib [language] as well as Cant words [Irish Traveller language] despite it being somewhat confused and inconsistent. But the core of the programme revolves around drug-taking, aggressive, misogynistic men. “I don’t recognise these traits in my community,” Sherrie says. “It’s like with [Snatch], these films always make out Gypsy men are all violent and sexist. [While] representation is good, we have to be careful about what representation we actually get and what is shown about us.”

The main point of contention for Sherrie however, is the infamous Channel 4 ‘reality’ show, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which remains an unhealed scar within GRT communities for its depiction of nomadic peoples (particularly as it confused Traveller and Gypsy communities). 

Branding it “diabolical,” Sherrie reveals she was asked to participate in the show herself over ten years ago. Her initial excitement at a major channel approaching her for a television programme whilst she owned her flower shop was instantly ended by her father. He told her she was not to do the show under any circumstances as it would either alienate both her gorjer [non-Gypsy] clients and Gypsy clients who would believe she sold her soul for publicity.

“So, I didn’t do it,” she remembers. 

“I was about 26 and [at the time] it made me sick, but I sat back. It was the best decision my Dad ever made me make. And actually, it made a lot of decisions for me, going forward, to look at things from another perspective. [That show] took the poorest Gypsies and Travellers, poorest situations and exploited them. I think we’re still dealing with the consequences of that 15 years later.” 

Sherrie points to the term ‘grabbing’, the act of forcibly manhandling a girl and kissing her, that has become synonymous with GRT culture thanks to Gypsy Wedding. “I’d never even heard of ‘grabbing’ before that episode but now it’s what we’re stuck with. Women in our culture are respected, we don’t ‘grab’ our girls.” Tying sexual harassment with an entire community is just one of the legacies Channel 4 has left GRT people to struggle with.

“It should have been called My Big Fat Irish Traveller and Gypsy weddings,” she says, referring to the the lack of proportionate representation between Gypsies and Irish Travellers and how the differences in languages, religious ceremonies were ignored completely as they ‘blurred the lines.’

This form of racism via the media isn’t new to GRT communities. Sherrie compares the role of the media in the negative attitudes towards GRT people in in the present to propaganda in 1930s Germany.

She speaks about an experiment she participated in with a journalist who fed articles about Gypsies and Travellers into a word cloud software. The results were words she didn’t recognise in her community – “stealing”,  “rubbish”, “violent”. When holding community development sessions, she always asks  attendees “What is a word that reminds you of Gypsies and Travellers?”. The answers are depressingly uniform.

“It’s always thieving, dogs, stealing, rubbish,” Sherrie says. In her community sessions she has the opportunity to challenge these stereotypes. But when it comes to the wider media, there is free reign to report on GRT people with unchallenged bigotry and bias.

Listen,” she says, fiercely, when I ask her what advice she’d give to readers from the GRT community.

“You’re special. You’re the expert in what it’s like to grow up in the UK and [suffer] institutional racism and still survive. You’ve got a completely different outlook to anyone else in the UK because of how you’ve been raised. And your whole life will be changed by it.

“So harness that power and use it to your advantage because otherwise it’s going to work against you. Take it and use it for your benefit and be proud and go forward with it. What matters to you is that you go forward and you’re true to yourself.”