Sudbury woman to receive British Citizen Award in recognition of positive work with the travelling community
A Gypsy Romany community champion, who has been recognised for helping to develop positive relations between settled and travelling communities, says people from different cultures must engage with each other, if society is to truly move forward.
Sudbury resident Shirley Barrett will receive the British Citizen Award – an accolade recognising people for making a positive impact on society – after more than 20 years working with traveller outreach charities.
Born into a Gypsy Romany family, Shirley lived a nomadic lifestyle for a portion of her childhood, and experienced elements of both mainstream society and traditional travelling community values while growing up.
After working in the building trade upon leaving school, she joined the Ormiston Children and Family Trust in the late 1990s, as head of the community development for the Traveller Initiative Project, working to reduce domestic violence and promote women’s voices in travelling communities.
She was also appointed as regional manager for the One Voice 4 Travellers charity in Suffolk 10 years ago, becoming involved in projects aimed at bridging gaps in society around Gypsy Romany people, such as provisions for end-of-life care and educational opportunities.
“I wanted to give something back to my community, which had built me up and given me my values,” Shirley, 59, told the Free Press. “It’s nice for people to recognise the work you’ve done, because it makes you feel the work you’re doing is worthwhile.
“The future of our country is mixed heritage and we’ve all got a lot to give. Most people don’t want racism and abuse. That’s not a part of anyone’s culture. They want to get on with their lives and do the best they can.”
Shirley, who was previously awarded the British Empire Medal in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours, explained one of her main priorities is to raise cultural awareness and try to break down stereotypes that communities have about each other.
She suggested that many perceptions that settled communities have about travellers come from media portrayals or horror stories, which she says do not reflect reality.
“We need to build bridges of understanding,” she said. “People get frightened of others who turn up, live near them and live very differently from them, but they don’t know most gypsies and travellers now live in housing.
“There’s something about us being white that people don’t think of us as being an ethnic minority with our own culture. You get these perceptions and it’s very hard to change that.
“One woman I interviewed said she hopes that, one day, her granddaughter will move into a house, and when she meets her neighbours and says ‘I’m a Romany’, and they say ‘nice to meet you’.
“I think that’s the hope of everyone. Take people at face value, not what you have read. That’s for both sides.
“We’re all about working together. I could sit here and bring up one case, and then someone could bring up a case about travellers, but what’s that going to prove?
“We need to move forward and talk to each other. If we can figure out the things that we don’t understand, that’s progress.”