Alumni Q&A with Thomas Acton
1. When did you volunteer with Jacari?
I joined JACARI at Freshers' Fair in 1966. I was chair in 1968. This was before it became so focused on teaching English, and was a general anti-racist and community organisation.
2. What kind of activities were you involved in as a Jacari member?
I volunteered for a number of holiday schemes in Balsall Heath and Bradford organised by Keith Roberts, and remember so many children of different ethnic groups. The majority were Afro-Caribbean, but there were also Asian, Gypsy/Traveller, Irish and English children. And their parents, who made us so welcome, often in terrible housing. My most vivid memory is of a baby bitten by rats in its cot, who had to be rushed to hospital.
JACARI then was unusual as an Oxford Society in that it was mostly students from state schools, and it was a refuge for them from the high concentration of public school boys who dominated Oxford at the time. It was also about equal men and women. Public school boys who joined gradually relaxed into the non-competitive atmosphere of friendship and trust.
3. How has your involvement in Jacari influenced you later in life?
I persuaded JACARI in December 1966 to invite Grattan Puxon, founder of the Gypsy Council, to speak. He called for volunteers, and I ended up running the first Gypsy Council caravan school on an illegal site in the summer of 1967. That was a life-changing experience, and instead of pursing philosophy of region at D Phil level, I did a D Phil on Gypsy politics. That left me unqualified to do anything but teach sociology, (only at Oxford could you get a doctorate in Sociology after attending just 12 tutorials in the subject) which I did for 37 years at Thames Polytechnic which became the University of Greenwich. I held onto it by reading up sociology the night before my lectures. The Polytechnic thought it was a given I would give up Gypsies when I was appointed; but I didn’t and continued to research and publish. When Mrs Thatcher extended the RAE to polytechnics the University found to their great surprise my publications had earned them back more than my salary - and thus set me on the route to my professorship of Romani Studies, and allowed me to introduce Romani Studies as an element in Ethnic and Gender Studies and eventually have its own MA.