Home » Uncategorized » “Educate to Liberate” Conference brings together international scholars and activists to brainstorm transnational innovation in education

“Educate to Liberate” Conference brings together international scholars and activists to brainstorm transnational innovation in education

On April 20, Duke University hosted an all-day conference, “Cost of Opportunity: Educate to Liberate” which brought together Brazilian and U.S. scholars to discuss educational innovation in the Americas, especially for the continents’ marginalized and minority populations.

History professor John D. French opened with a description of Duke’s two-year long project, “The Cost of Opportunity:Higher Education & Social Mobility in the Baixada Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro.” He discussed  the initial phase of the project, which he  guided with Cultural Anthropology professor Katya Wesolowski,  then-graduate coordinator and PhD student Gray Kidd, and on-site coordinator Stephanie Reist. This phase involved  involved “winning over” local project collaborators, the conducting of interviews, visiting key centers of university and social movement activity in the Baixada Fluminense, and coming to terms with the political, economic, and social dimensions of education access in the Baixada and Brazil more generally.Dr. French also discussed the “Open University” Conference held on March 1, 2018 as well as the “Nova Iguaçu Letter” in defense of higher education read at that same conference. The open letter condemned the shortage of public university slots (7000 in total) which fell well short of the goal set by the National Education Plan (PNE) of 30,000 slots. Aaron Colston, a 4th-year history PhD candidate, joined Dr. French in elaborating on the “perverse system” of Brazilian Education, in which the public subsidizes elite education but not social mobility for the country’s working classes.  Colston continued  reverse dynamic harms institutions and teachers by suppressing teachers’ salaries and leaving public schools dilapidated both physically and educationally.

Nova Iguaçu from the window of the Diocesan Archive of Nova Iguaçu. Credit: Travis Knoll

Third-year History PhD candidate Travis Knoll contextualized the higher education debate within the larger drive for political and racial rights since the beginning of the 20th Century. He argued that the fight for higher education access could only take place in the context of a prevailing consensus (in theory) supporting the goals of universal literacy with an eye toward universal high school education. He argued that those opposed to further expansion of university access put elementary and high school education at odds with devoting resources toward subsidies for the marginalized to attend college. He also argued that some of the most visceral opposition to higher education for Black and poor Brazilians stemmed partially from Brazil’s polarized political environment and partially from the Brazilian elite’s traditional fear of openly Afro-Brazilians’ ascendancy into its own ranks.

The Federal Rural University’s (UFRRJ) Dr. Márcia Pletsch, Professor of Education presented next on the Baixada’s infrastructural difficulties. She pointed out that less than 40 percent of the Baixada Fluminense’s population has basic sanitation and that water facilities treat  only around .37 and 10 percent of the sewage respectively in Nova Iguacu and Duque de Caxias, cities which count a combined 1.7 million inhabitants. Ironically, Duque de Caxias has the 7th largest  per capita income in Brazil. Plestch pointed out that the murder rate in the Baixada Fluminense, at 55.8 per 100,000 inhabitants eclipses the City of Rio de Janeiro’s rate of 29.4 per 100,000. She condemned the assault of teachers in response to national protests in Duque de Caxias in 2017 and São Paulo in 2018. The teachers spoke out against a pauper’s wage of $2455 BR per month ($716 USD). She also pointed to positive initiatives such as the National Observatory on Special Education (ONEESP), which tracks resources for education of disabled and needy populations. She also lauded the   gradual end to the “segregation” of special-education students from the general student population, with 60 percent of the target population now integrated into regular classrooms. She ended by highlighting the UFRRJ’s role in providing continuing education which “combine[s] research with systemic analyses about education policies” through municipal level empirical studies which can be used to draw conclusions about national education policies and national teaching systems.

Duke Visiting Scholar and History PhD candidate Eduardo Ângelo da Silva opened with the metaphor of an uphill soccer game on an uneven playing field to describe the difficulties college admissions tests can present for students. Drawing on his background as a public school teacher, college prep course instructor, and working-class doctoral student, Da Silva described the recent changes in the test which held potential for increased access. He mainly focused on the shift from memorization-based vestibular tests made by individual institutions to a national standardized exam, ENEM, which focused on critical thinking and larger historical processes. Such a shift, in Da Silva’s opinion, allowed intelligent students who had less study time or lacked an elite education to compete more fairly with those from a culturally or educationally elite background.

Duke undergraduate economic student Joe Beck, in an extended version of his and colleague Riley Allen’s April 18 EDHx Talk, presented the results of the Cost of Opportunity team’s second year of research. He contextualized the “education revolution” by highlighting the  historical lack, in contrast to the United States, of a strong  Brazilian Black middle class. He highlighted the first phase described by Dr. French at the conference’s opening and also highlighted critical historical  and ethnographic scholarship on the development of the Rural and the Multidisciplinary Institute by Douglas Monteiro de Almeida, Renan Arjona Sousa, and Daniela Viegas Martins. This scholarship used the IM/UFFRJ as a case study to highlight the history, benefits, and persisting challenges that characterized the physical and financial expansion of higher education in Brazil. Beck credited quotas and increased access to financial aid for the partial success in integrating Brazil’s marginalized into universities and for the overall reduction in absolute poverty in Brazil’s Northeast region between 2000 and 2010.

Brazil’s Cesar Augusto dos Santos, then a public policy aide for Black education advocacy NGO EducAfro. Santos traced the trajectory of the organization, which Franciscan friar David Raimundo dos Santos started as a series of voluntary college prep courses and expanded into a national organization capable of substantial fundraising and political lobbying. The organization has contacts in various state and national agencies, including the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Itamaraty and the Brazilian Congress. EDUCAFRO also dialogues with civil society leaders, such as indigenous leader Kaká Werá. He also highlighted Educafro’s political leadership and networking initiative, “Engage Negritude” to encourage Blacks disillusioned with the current political realities and angered by the death of Black Rio City Councilwoman Marielle Franco to actively participate in Brazil’s political process.

During intermission, the team ran a viewing of “O Custo da Oportunidade” a 30-minute short film made by then-Duke PhD candidate Stephanie Reist and community filmmaker Dudu do Morro Agudo on the challenges and the social effects of entering Brazilian universities as a first-generation student. The  video premiered in schools across the Baixada in 2017, attracting  local and national media attention.

Urban Planning PhD candidate Andrew Guinn, from the University of North Carolina presented on the expansion of Brazil’s technical education program in comparison to its role in the United States. While  United States readers often treating “vocational ed” as an alternative to a university education, Brazilians have access to training modules (FIC) or longer term technical degrees that can  either replace or supplement a  high school or college education. Guinn pointed out that technical education did not replace, but often lead to a university education. He noted that the Brazilian federal government runs technical education while in the U.S. administration of technical education falls under state jurisdiction. Guinn detailed the structure of the technical education network Pronatec, which interfaced with various industry partners, government financial programs, and standardized admissions programs to pair  employers with qualified job-seekers. He noted that the program took off in 2013 and 2014 with steep cuts coming only in 2016 and 2017 with the onset of the political crisis. The expansion of technical schools mirrored the overall physical and financial expansion of Brazil’s educational programs, giving technical schools a determining say in regional economic development and new opportunities for private sector collaboration. Commenting on Andrew Guinn’s presentation, Tito Matias, a PhD candidate here on a Fulbright scholarship from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), discussed his experience teaching in the Education, Science and Technology  Federal Institute of Rio Grande do Norte (IFRN) where he collaborated with the IFRN chapter of the Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous Brazilian Research Group (NEABI) and local community members to organize consciousness-raising conferences and to discuss Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous content in Brazil’s classroom. NEABI, with the help of rural female artisans, also worked with 15 to 18 year old girls to embrace natural hair and specific body decorations that  instill pride about their Afro-Brazilian identity. He warned against 50 percent cuts to technical education since 2015  and noted the failure to create a vocational English-language course. He also warned that institutes like his around the country are undergoing “reorganizations” which threaten to consolidate or close them.

Students and professors later discussed the trajectories that carried them toward university. Duke assistant biology professor Gustavo Monteiro Silva discussed his  mother’s work in a newspaper archive which had a partnership with a wealthy São Paulo private school, which he later attended. This private education helped him enter the University of São Paulo (USP), one of Brazil’s most prestigious universities. Even so, he faced challenges such as navigating a predominantly white space and commuting 1.5 hours each way by bus to attend classes. Matheus Dias  presented on his privileged upbringing in São Paulo, first attending the  Colégio Santa Cruz  a prestigious  São Paulo Catholic private school founded by Canadian priests of the Congregation of the Holy Cross (C.S.C.). The first in his family to study at an institution outside Brazil, he also spoke of his leadership role in the international Brazilian Students Association (BRASA) founded in 2014 to support 3500  Brazilian students  in 72  international universities and  “empower the next generation of leaders for a better Brazil.” Duke undergraduate Luiza Perez shared a similar trajectory to that of Matheus. Coming from a family of five, she went to a Brazilian private school. She had the additional benefit of US citizenship (having been the only one born here), she returned to the U.S. to focus on health in neglected populations. Perez discussed how an allergic reaction as a kid which opened her eyes to the healthcare disparities between Brazil’s private and public systems. This epiphany drove her to study Brazilian sanitation and infectious diseases in the Peruvian Amazon. She credited the U.S.’ flexible system for her “wide range of experiences.”

Duke visiting scholar Eduardo Ângelo da Silva spoke of the encouragement he and his brother, Leonardo, received from their father José Candido da Silva, the son of a stone worker’s assistant, to pursue a university degree. The highlight of his talk centered on Cândido’s, trajectory, who, during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) passed the entrance exam for Juiz de Fora  Federal University (UFJF) in Minas Gerais state in 1971. Seeing Cândido unable to balance work and his classes, Cândido’s boss, Vicente Ângelo Rosa, raised his salary and reduced his hours to allow him to return to classes and receive his degree in Portuguese Literature. Besides bestowing the middle name “Ângelo” on his three sons, Eduardo’s father instilled in them an appreciation and thirst for a free, public, and accessible education. Both Eduardo and Leonardo came to Duke University as visiting scholars  on a year-long federally funded study abroad “sandwich” scholarship (PDSE-CAPES) to study labor movements in their region.

Duke undergraduate Adair Necalli contested the 2017 World Bank Report calling for university fees in Brazil’s  free public universities. She pushed back against the characterization of Brazil’s university system as inefficient and ineffective in increasing education access for Brazil’s marginalized, noting that national racial and socioeconomic quota policies had substantially increased the number of  students from poor and racially marginalized backgrounds. She rejected the World Bank’s proposals to cut public university funding to the level of private universities noting that such a structure would exacerbate existing financial and logistical barriers to university attendance, increase drop-out rates, and set a precedent for even larger class sizes in Brazil’s public school system. She noted that the consumer mentality created by university fees has not helped private universities surpass public institutions in teaching quality or prestige. Nor has a private university funding model alleviated the inequality in funding distribution which would likely increase when pooled university fees, as opposed to federal funding subject to more rigorous transparency and accounting controls, become the main source of student financial aid.

Father Clarence Williams, (PhD, CSSP), discussed his time coordinating the Pan-African Roman  Catholic Clergy Conference (PARCCC) and the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC) and the organizations’ relationship with the National Black Sisters’ Conference. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Father Williams hosted and led a series of delegations to and from Brazil. As Williams recounts in a chapter of Mary Shawn Copeland’s Uncommon Faithfulness, he also hosted a series of conferences focused on African and African-diaspora theology. Among those invited were two prominent Afro-Brazilian Franciscans, Frei David Raimundo dos Santos and Frei Athaylton Jorge Monteiro Belo (Tatá). These conferences served to create “a think-tank” of Black Roman Catholics, who make up 20 percent of the Catholic population according to Williams. His memories revealed the educational process David Santos and Tatá passed through. David Santos received an honorary “key to the city” from Detroit’s City Council in 1992, reinforcing for him  the idea of Black theology guiding politics. At one point, Tatá, visiting Detroit in 1995, took a picture next to a car to commemorate his visit to the “car capital” of the world, demonstrating the allure the United States’ Fordist economic system still held in the global imaginary.  In the second part of his presentation, Williams described the “existential genius” of  leaders such as Martin Luther King and the U.S. nun and martyred land rights activist Dorthy Stang, SND. Existential genius, as Williams defines it, facilitates a self-knowledge so profound it allows those who possess it to lead by their “very existence.” Williams spoke of the need for existential geniuses to combat the “racial dysfunction” that underpins modern societies.His approach detailed in the book Racial Sobriety led reporter David Crumm to call him one of Detroit’s  “most gifted racial healers.” It involves “seeing each person as a member of the same human family” in contrasts to other paradigms that see racism as inherent within institutions themselves. In Father Williams’ perspective, racism constitutes an addiction, a dysfunction, in need of a cure, not an intrinsic (and by implication, unchangeable) state. He traced racism back to distorted views of Christianity which marginalized other ethnic and religious groups and ultimately led to the  progressive adoption of Catholic, then European, then specifically Anglo-Saxon paradigms respectively. Religion, history, and racial prejudice interfaced in nefarious ways.  “Christian supremacy”, based in  biblical stories endorsing genocide against the people’s of Caanan and the demonizing of Egyptian civilization laid the groundwork for white supremacy. Only training, education, and self-awareness could reverse these long-entrenched paradigms.

Duke undergraduate Chloe Ricks presented her ethnographic comparison between the Baixada and the Mississippi Delta. She focused on the intersection of poverty and anti-blackness in the two regions. To her, prejudice against blacks and the poor created peripheries, not the other way around. As “dormitory” regions, these two peripheries provided a key to “understand the world.” Methodologically, many stories created a “Story [capital “S”]” which served as a meta-narrative to describe oneself or others. For Ricks, the   symbol of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and Mississippi’s “Delta Devil” mascot hinted at the frustration of social suppression and the helplessness which led one to believe that “some higher power” kept oneself or one’s population down. She discussed the role of Mississippi Valley State University and the IM/UFRRJ in providing a  resident’s sense of “escape” from these regions, but also the continuing difficulties of pushing back against  elites in both  the Brazil and the U.S. who remain unwilling to “share privilege.” She noted that Rodrigo Monteiro, one of her Brazilian interviewees, saw the racializing of Brazilian university and public sector quotas as a “not a good thing” for the acceptance of the policy, given the continued stigma of open Blackness in Brazilian society. Ricks discussed continuing challenges in the Delta for teachers who taught subjects that aided blacks and the poor in their everyday lives, but proved ineffective or unable to teach about their own anti-racist activism, and thus “unseat” broader racist structures. She ended by highlighting the value of those with experience, urging them, not merely those with formal academic training like doctorates, to “teach about themselves” to liberate their communities and society at large.

Winston Salem State University’s (WSSU) Dr. Michele K. Lewis discussed the importance of “Photovoice”, a teaching technique  allowing for greater researcher engagement in their own communities or in those in which they study. For Dr. Lewis, the technique proved promising for  Black students to tell their own stories of discovery when visiting Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Students were allowed to photograph whatever they desired, but Lewis charged them with writing a short reflection of several paragraphs about their choice and its significance for their overall significance to the trip. She opened with a photograph of a staircase at the Steve Biko Institute. The student had seen the staircase as a symbol for students’ advancement at the Biko Institute. Another photo commentary on the Atlantic Ocean, challenged the process of European naming. The student asked why the graveyard of many a slave ship might be called the Dead Sea instead of the salty sea between Israel and Jordan. Another student discussed the importance of a Bahian Afro-Brazilian cultural and musical group, Olodum, asking “If we don’t care about African heritage, who will?” Through exercises like these Dr. Lewis’ students would wrest some control of the modes of knowledge production from traditional academics and, more practically, compellingly convey their study abroad experiences to  WSSU peers upon their return. While Dr. Lewis thought that Photovoice offered an opportunity for students to engage research questions outside traditional methodologies, she cited lingering tourist mindsets, concept and image borrowing, as well as a difficulty of explaining one’s own concepts as ongoing challenges. She planned to address these challenges through a more robust rubric, more time in the field, and less lag time between photo taking and written reflections. Overall, she expressed excitement about the possibilities of visual studies for an liberating education.

John French gave the closing remarks for the conference, commenting on the current Brazilian political crisis and urging conference attendees and Brazilians more generally to reject an inferiority complex (vira-lata) which would always look to the North Atlantic for theoretical, social, and political leadership.

Ultimately, this conference which brought together politics, society, religion, and education, started conversations which could prove useful in the long, tough, but ultimately rewarding work of  the so-called “periphery’s” self-definition, self-affirmation, and self-governance.



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