Obama Foundation Leader, Discusses Discrimination, Leadership, and Community Development
Updated: Jul 10
Deniz Selmani is one of the founders of the Institute for Research and Policy Analysis - Romalitico where he leads the program for local democracy. Deniz is also one of the founders of the AVAJA movement which aims to articulate the voice of the North Macedonia community in our country. Deniz graduated from the South East European University in Tetovo with a degree in Public Administration and Political Science. He continued his education by enrolling in Master studies at the same university in the study program for Diplomacy.
In 2021, he was selected as one of the most prosperous young leaders in Europe to participate in the program for leaders of Europe organized by the Obama Foundation. The same year he became part of the European Democratic Youth Network. He has participated in the Mother Teresa School of Public Policy supported by the Council of Europe, the first public policy forum organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and the Progress Institute, the School of Evidence-Based Policy School organized by the Council of Europe in Luxembourg, Austria and Senec, Slovakia.
His previous experience includes professional engagements with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the OSCE Mission, the Center for Economic Analysis, and the Social Change Initiative - InSoC. His field of interest is political parties, election models, and political communication as well as monitoring the implementation of public policies aimed at the inclusion of the Roma community.
Deniz, welcome to the leaders' show. It is a great pleasure to have you here. What we find fascinating about your career is how you chose to be the voice of the Roma community in North Macedonia as a leader of the local democracy program at the Institute for research and policy analysis – Romalitico and one of the founders of the "AVAJA" movement. What prompted you to become a representative of the community?
For me to become a voice of the Roma community was no choice, it was something natural that came from my activities fighting prejudices, stereotypes, hate speech, discrimination practices, and societal inequalities that my community face every day. Born as Roma and being a member of a minority I did not have a chance to learn about my identity during my education. My parents who finished only primary education made me aware that I am Roma. But because they worked so hard for me and my young sister to continue with our education did not really have time and knowledge to teach us about my Roma roots.
My early involvement in civil society helped me to unleash my identity and learn more about my Roma history, culture, language, and tradition which are an integral part of my ethnic identity. Discovering all these aspects as part of my identity makes me proud of Roma. The struggle of the Roma leaders for self-determination that started with the first Roma congress in 1971 in London was a waking call for many Roma activists including me as a new young generation to start work on defining who we are, what we want, and how we build power as the biggest ethnic minority in Europe. My path started with founding Romalitico together with my best friends in Budapest, Hungary. Romalitico first started as an academic blog while all of us who founded was part of the Roma Graduate Preparation Program and continue with MA studies at the Central European University.
After the program in 2016, Romalitico was registered in North Macedonia as an independent Institute. The reason for founding Romalitico as Institue was to challenge the fallacies and knowledge production on Roma in academia through conducting research, writing policy analyses, training, and consultancies.
My activism continued after joining forces with two other Roma civic organizations that share the same values and vision as Romalitico. As a result of joining the forces was born the civic movement “AVAJA”, which in Romanes means “we are coming”. AVAJA as a mission has to mobilize the Roma community, advocate for policy changes, and political empowerment of the Roma community.
Shortly, I never considered becoming a leader in the first place but all of my activities somehow lead to representing my community. I would say the combination of my personal experiences, the struggle of the community for self-determination, and my activism for changing the narrative of Roma in becoming politically active are the main reasons for me to be seen as a leader.
You earned a degree in political science and public administration. Did you make this decision because you wanted to study in this field or because of political developments when you first started university?
Like every young student, it was a difficult decision that I needed to make after finishing high school majoring in computer engineering and automation. After finding out more about my Roma heritage and increasing my awareness of the importance of being active Roma citizens I decided to enroll at the South East European University in Tetovo. During my studies, I was a recipient of a scholarship provided by the Open Society Foundation/ Roma Education Fund, which help me a lot not only financially but also acquired a lot of soft skills and met young Roma with whom today we are cooperating.
You were chosen as one of Europe's most prosperous foreign leaders to participate in the "Obama Foundation" program in 2020. How was your participation in this program? What did you learn from this experience?
It was a breathtaking moment when I found out that I was chosen to participate 2020 Obama Leaders Europe program. Over six months, with Leaders all across Europe we had online meetings to discuss some of the most challenging issues confronting Europe. Additionally, we had tailored workshops supporting us in building our leadership skills, from mastering storytelling and mobilizing people to action, to building powerful movements and coalitions. But what really fascinated me about the program was the idea of building a community of support.
The program provided opportunities for all leaders to meet virtually in small groups and to have one-on-one conversations to build deep and lasting relationships that help us through our everyday work and activism. Our cohort still practices this idea because it helps us to overcome difficult moments and situations in our lives and careers but also celebrates big wins and happy moments. Last year, for the first time we had a chance to physically meet each other and spend together with the 2022 cohort 3 days in Copenhagen, Denmark of which one full day we spent with President Obama discussing the challenges in our society. All in all, it was a lifetime experience that I would never forget.
Do you feel supported when you participate in various professional projects and programs? Which of your efforts will you consider a success?
Well, depends on how we understand the meaning of support but in general yes I feel supported. As a high school student, I could not understand why I need to put much more effort than the rest of the students to deserve the highest grade, nor was it completely clear to me the comments “you are not like the other Roma”. Because of this I say depends on how we understand the meaning of support in a given context because always the excuse of the teachers for "pushing" me more than the others was “for your own good”. Sometimes I still have those feelings that I need to prove to someone that I am enough educated, professional, capable, and sometimes to be enough Roma to my own community.
In the last 10 years, I have made a lot of effort, but I am not a solo player, I am a team player who most of the time acts "behind the scene". Founding the civic movement “AVAJA” as a credible voice of the Roma community I consider the latest success because it changed the perception among the political elite that Roma can be politically organized and build their own political ideology. From 2019 with our GoToVote campaigns, we have succeeded to mobilize more than 11.000 Roma, advocate for engaging a Roma advisor in the Cabinet of the President and in the Cabinet of the Prime Minister, increasing the funds for implementation of the Strategy for Roma Inclusion, etc.
What would you like to see changed when you represent the voice of the community? Do you believe their rights are adequately represented?
I would like to see hope and courage from the community by taking the initiative to act upon the problems they face every day and to become active citizens who are making informed choices when they go to the polling stations to vote. The rights of my community almost never have been adequately represented mainly because the majority is smart enough to find one or two community leaders and use them as tokens to come closer to our community and manipulate them in order to win the votes of the community. Also, the electoral model is not adequate because it prevents the cumulation of the community votes to achieve much better political representation on the national level.
You are the father of a son in the family context. Do you want your child to follow in your footsteps and pursue a career similar to yours as a parent? What advice do you want him to take in the future?
From this perspective of time as a father, it's hard to say if I want my son Aron to follow in my footsteps since he's only one and a half years old. I would like my son to be aware and proud of his Roma roots. My role as a father is to provide him with conditions to have a happy childhood and get the best education possible that can help him in building a professional career. My advice for him would be that life can be hard and sometimes unfair. But that doesn't mean it should stop you from moving forward. In fact, it should do just the opposite, inspire you to succeed.
Would you like to send a message to everyone who is inspired to represent groups or communities they care about?
Nothing starts with us, everything starts with the community we belong to, never forget where you are coming from. The community supports you when they know that you are leading by your values and principles. Listen and show respect to each community member. Always be open to critique and reflect upon the critique. You will become an inspirational leader when you have the humility to build a team with people more talented than you.