Editor’s Note: Opening up to the community, Nova Iguaçu’s Multidisciplinary Institute (IM/UFFRJ) launched a letter (em português) in defense of higher education in early March. The Nova Iguaçu Letter reflects the culmination of a March 1, 2018 “Open University” conference, in defense of higher education in the under-served and stigmatized region, Baixada Fluminense, on the outward limits of the greater Rio Metropolitan Area. The conference brought together government officials, cultural stakeholders, community activists, public school teachers, students of all levels, and the university community to discuss the importance of the university for the City of Nova Iguaçu and the region as a whole. This letter also responds to a series of budget cuts, election-year austerity rhetoric, and higher education-related political intimidation targeting university professors across Brazil. The letter in its entirety is below:
The Nova Iguaçu Letter
For the Democratization of Access to the University,
Universities play a fundamental role in the promotion of economic development, in the strengthening of democracy, and in the support of social justice struggles, whether through research activities, innovation and outreach, professional development, or the exercise of critical thought.
Brazil faces great challenges in these first decades of the 21st Century. Four almost first decades, the hope in a better future, of the advance of social justice, was fed by democratic, economics, and more recently, but the positive impact of public policies geared toward wealth redistribution. In the last years, however, pessimism and frustration based in the persistence of continuing social inequality, corruption, and worries over environmental stability have predominated [the national conscience].
The country is passing through a quickening demographic transition. The latest wave of adolescents in our history are, at this moment, in high school. Our future as a society depends on the level and quality of education that we give them.
In the Baixada Fluminense, this potential and these contradictions show themselves in a particularly sharp way. The region, with a population of four million, makes up one of the greatest concentrations of youth in the country. This youth, creative, persistent, and resilient, drives the Baixada’s and Rio de Janeiro City’s economies. At the same time, it expresses itself in social and cultural movements of great vitality. Unfortunately, however, only a small part of these youth has access to the university academic life which would offer them the opportunity of individual and collective fulfillment and discoveries capable of raising their social and economic activity to new levels.
In just the municipalities of Mesquita, Nova Iguaçu, Duque de Caxias, São João de Meriti, Nilópolis, Belford Roxo, and Queimados there are more than 350,000 youth between 18 and 24 years old. In the range of 15 and 17 years old, there are 160,000. According to the goals of the National Education Plan (PNE), about 120,000 of these municipalities’ youth should have university access, with 30,000 of them in public universities. However, counting all of the public university campuses installed in the region in the last decades, we only arrive at 7000 university slots. The access to the other public institutions in the metropolitan area, on the other hand, becomes extremely difficult due to factors like the precarity of urban transportation and the necessity to balance work and study.
Without a shadow of a doubt, if we broke down these data by color and race, we would see an even graver picture. We know that, despite the positive impact of affirmative action policies, the prospects for growing the schooling rate and skilled entry into the labor market of black and brown skinned- youth remain restricted. We know as well that their a priori exclusion from the educational system transforms them into the prime victims of urban violence. The expansion of investments to assure a quality high school education and increased access to universities, can, therefore, constitute a fundamental contribution to confront the genocide that has descended on black youth in Brazil.
It’s fundamental therefore, that we assure continued investments geared toward meeting the immense pent-up demand for university access, especially in historically disadvantaged regions such as the Baixada Fluminense. Unfortunately we have recently started with unprecedented attacks against our own universities. This offensive includes actions such as budget cuts for public universities and financial aid programs for private university access, censorship and disrespect of the principle of university autonomy, senseless police interventions, and systematic attacks by the biggest media conglomerates against said institutions and their researchers.
At this hour, we have to once again align the constant perfecting and elevation of our academic practice to the struggle in defense of the Brazilian youth’s right to higher education as a condition for the fulfillment of all its potential which favors national development.
For this reason, we, elementary, high school, and university students, educators, public administrators from all parts of government, and social movement representatives, meet here today to join our efforts in defense of the right to a university education for Brazilian youth and for the public policies necessary to assure that right. We call on all sectors of Brazilian society to join us in this struggle.
March, 1, 2018, Multidisciplinary Institute, Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Nova Iguaçu
Travis Knoll (Trans.)
Sementes que brotam da baixada: do “The Cost of Opportunity” à Política de Água Ambiental na Baixada Fluminense
Por Mitchell Ryan e Carla Castanha (Trad.)
Durante o verão de 2016, passei três semanas realizando trabalhos de campo qualitativos sobre a elevada mobilidade social na “Baixada Fluminense”, periferia urbana do Rio de Janeiro. O termo “Baixada Fluminense” refere-se rapidamente a uma rede de treze municípios distintos e únicos, muitas vezes considerados sinônimo de crime, pobreza, drogas, corrupção e violência. Consequentemente, nos encontramos na baixada, na periferia do Rio, um lugar que foi negligenciado pelos serviços públicos prestados às partes mais ricas do interior da cidade.
Estas três semanas na Baixada serviram como uma introdução intensiva à região. Todas as manhãs viajávamos de van desde o nosso alojamento, uma igreja local, até o Instituto Multidisciplinar (IM), um campus satélite da Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). Assistimos a palestras de professores, estudantes e membros da comunidade sobre aspectos da Baixada que vão desde a mudança de fronteiras históricas e geográficas até a qualidade do ar no ambiente e a falta de saneamento básico. Estávamos profundamente fundamentados em investigações sobre ecologia política, crescimento econômico sustentável, acesso equitativo a recursos públicos e sistemas de transporte urbano. Fomos obrigados a nos fazer perguntas complicadas, tais como: o que o crescimento econômico sustentável significa e como deve ser implementado? Quem tem acesso a seus benefícios e quem é deixado de fora? Por que demora quase duas horas e três linhas de ônibus para que esses estudantes cheguem à escola todos os dias? Qual é o impacto desta universidade sobre seu entorno?
Como estudante de graduação da UNC (Universidade da Carolina do Norte), descobri este projeto quase por acaso. Tendo passado um ano no Brasil antes da faculdade, estava procurando oportunidades para retornar e estabelecer uma conexão profissional com o país. Depois de entrar em contato e eventualmente encontrar com o Dr. French, um dos coorientadores do projeto, eu me encontrei acolhido de braços abertos. Apenas alguns meses antes da partida, no entanto, consegui garantir o financiamento através do campus da UNC, eventualmente sendo premiado com o Prêmio Halpern através do Instituto para o Estudo das Américas.
Durante nosso trabalho de campo, um palestrante de especial importância foi a professora da Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro, Cleonice Puggian. Embalado em uma pequena sala de aula em uma universidade privada local com outros estudantes e professores, ouvi ela descrever a situação ambiental da região. Ela falou do esgoto, falta de serviços públicos básicos, estigma racial e ausência de políticas relevantes. Destacou a injustiça, apontando linhas coloridas em um gráfico; as linhas nos dizem que as pessoas ao nosso redor enfrentaram algumas das piores qualidades ambientais em toda a América Latina. Nossa equipe estava no Rio para estudar a questão da mobilidade social dentro de um sistema de ensino superior federal em expansão e, no entanto, nas duas semanas seguintes não pude me abalar com a gravidade de suas palavras. Como essa região se tornou tão prejudicial para as pessoas viverem? O que estava sendo feito sobre isso? Sua presença e compromisso com essas questões foi cativante. Eu sabia que precisava voltar para Duque de Caxias para aprender sobre essas questões a partir das pessoas que as enfrentavam.
Com ela e a ajuda do Dr. French, juntamente com o apoio de toda a equipe do Bass Connections, consegui fazer exatamente isso. Trabalhei para desenvolver um projeto de pesquisa colaborativa, garantindo fundos para retornar à Baixada no verão seguinte. Meu projeto buscou desenvolver uma compreensão das práticas de manejo de inundações em um dos municípios da Baixada, com uma maior ênfase nas vozes dos moradores. Por padrão, como atores primários quando as inundações ocorrem, os moradores frequentemente desenvolvem suas próprias percepções, entendimentos e estratégias para lidar com o desastre. No entanto, apesar da avançada política de gerenciamento de água do Brasil e do processo deliberativo aparentemente inclusivo, o Estado tem relutado em renunciar a qualquer poder de decisão real. A urgência e a gravidade deste problema são claras, e depois de ter passado mais de oito semanas conduzindo o trabalho de campo do Verão, sinto-me encorajado pela medida em que os moradores estão conscientes do que faz da comunidade um lugar bom ou ruim para viver. Além disso, sinto-me inspirado pela sua resiliência, trabalhando para fortalecer suas comunidades em face de um desastre persistente e de um governo corrupto.
“O Custo da Oportunidade? Educação Superior na Baixada Fluminense ” se ampliou muito além do que eu poderia ter imaginado e desempenhou um papel incrivelmente influente na minha experiência como aluno de graduação. Isso me expôs a várias facetas da pesquisa, permitiu-me manter uma conexão significativa com um país próximo e caro ao meu coração, obrigou-me a questionar criticamente o nosso sistema de ensino superior global e, o mais importante, apoiou-me em explorar plenamente minhas curiosidades pessoais e acadêmicas.
By: Chloe Ricks
Editor’s Note: This article stems from a lengthier senior thesis
I write as a Black woman from the Mississippi Delta where the toughest battles of the southern Civil Rights’ movement were fought in the 1960s. Although I only learned that history after coming to Duke, my home town of Greenwood, Mississippi, with a population of a little more than 14,000, was a turning point in the black freedom struggle when the banner of “Black Power” was first raised in 1966 and the local SNCC headquarters torched in 1977. In the fifty years after the famous Call to Black Power, Greenwood’s central place in Civil Rights history was conveniently “forgotten” in Leflore county schools, where I was educated, much like the dramatic struggles for democracy and human rights in the late 1970s in Brazil were followed by silence. In both places, local wisdom settled on a certain pessimistic accommodation: “we all get along okay as long as outsiders don’t start causing trouble—and besides, nothing will change so why get stirred up?” My senior thesis, which compares my home region to the Baixada Fluminense, a peripheral region of Rio de Janeiro that serves as the basis for our project, reflects how I have come to situate my own experiences in the Delta within a broader experience after both being a student at Duke and, more particularly, traveling to Brazil.
My life experiences have been those of a person in America—be it North or South— who is simultaneously black, poor and living on the periphery. If I were only one of these things, I would not have the same accumulation of experiences. When we visited the poorest parts of Rio de Janeiro, I felt very much at home, unlike my fellow Duke students, because I was not shocked to see houses falling apart, darker-skinned people in low-paying, physically laborious jobs, or that the models on magazine covers looked nothing like those workers.
After my return to Duke University, I found that I excelled in my classes on Afro-Brazilian history because, despite the many differences, the struggles in Brazil sounded eerily similar to those we face in the Delta. Like most Delta residents, the Baixada’s population is very poor, two thirds African-descended, and suffers from an abysmal public education system with little access to power or public services and few prospects of achieving even a modest level of economic wellbeing. Families in both regions face long odds in their search for a decent education, especially a quality higher education, which might help them to achieve social mobility and improve the lives of their family or community.
Systematic randomness in opportunity is what characterizes both the Baixada Fluminense and the Mississippi Delta. As I learned talking to students in our partner region, those pursuing education in these regions often must guide themselves and straight and clear paths rarely, if at all, appear. While recognizing common aspects of culture and religion in the two countries derived from a shared African root, my academic work examines social mobility as something that requires several generations of effort to achieve for certain communities. I see surprising similarities in which “poverty,” “blackness,” and “whiteness” work as anchoring points within both societies.
When discussing “anti-blackness,” I am most interested in how it shapes the lives of young people in the Baixada Fluminense as it does in the Delta, especially when it manifests in intra-group relations. While the etiquette of racial identify differs between the two countries, they both share these glaringly obvious social stratifications within peripheral regions that reflect the impact of a pervasive anti-blackness and stigmatization. My experiences in the Mississippi Delta, and to an even greater extent, in the Baixada, speak to the cumulative impact across generations of poverty, abysmal K-12 education, and a certain internalized hopelessness. Given this, my work simply aims to prove that there exists far less radical a difference between the experience of young people like myself in the Delta and in the Baixada than one might expect.
By Joe Beck
I was not sure what to expect when I stepped off the plane in Rio de Janeiro. It had been about ten years since I was last in Brazil when I visited São Paulo with family and in drastically different circumstances. I understood that we were scheduled to stay in a historically stigmatized place called the Baixada Fluminense, but beyond that, I had no idea what day-to-day activities would entail other than the outline of what the Cost of Opportunity team did last year.
Because I have not taken part in a research trip before, I was not sure what work I was qualified to do. Regardless of what my workload would be, I was glad that I could practice Portuguese and visit the country of my ancestors. I did not anticipate all I was going to learn. First of all, I saw firsthand the stark contrasts between the wealthy, vibrant, tourist-mecca Rio de Janeiro and the vilified, branded, surrounding region, which is known as the Baixada Fluminense. The airport staff member’s shocked expression when I told him where I would be spending my time in Brazil revealed exactly how the Baixada is perceived – a place to be ashamed of and forgotten.
The Baixada was significantly poorer than Rio, which largely results from the legacy of slavery. It is composed of a high proportion of people of African descent as opposed to the well-known neighborhoods of Rio like Copacabana and Ipanema, which are majority white. That contrast led to discussions about race, which taught me aspects of Brazil I had never known. For example, in Brazil, the conception of race is much more fluid than in the United States. Racial identity is more of a color gradient as opposed to distinct categories of White or Black. A person in Brazil can identify as either Pardo (of partial African descent) or Preto (of primarily African descent), whereas in the United States a person would largely be regarded as Black or White, and typically not much in between. Although some dedicate their lives in revealing racial injustice, many Brazilians problematically either believe that racism is not a problem in Brazil or is not a problem that they themselves espouse. The reality, however, is that people of a darker skin color face far more prejudice than others, and many people, wittingly or not, perpetuate the discrimination.
Prior to the trip, I thought of myself as informed about Brazilian affairs, including topics such as race. I was surprised by how ignorant I actually was. My Brazilian grandmother practically lives at home with me, I speak Portuguese at home, and we watch O Globo (a Brazilian news network). As far as I was concerned, Brazil was a model on which the United States ought to emulate in order to eliminate racial bigotry and hostility. However, I knew little about the true nature of how lighter-skinned Brazilians systematically oppress other, darker-skinned individuals.
Another aspect of the trip that left a large impression on me was the impact the Cost of Opportunity’s work had upon others in the Baixada, and in particular the work by community educator and rapper Dudu as well as Stephanie Reist. We went to various locations to screen the film that Dudu and Stephanie produced last year. The film detailed barriers to upper education that many people who attend the newly opened university face every day. And now that this recently afforded right is being attacked by the Temer administration, people in the community are responding ferociously and emotionally. Many people to whom we had shown the film cried because they felt so poignantly attacked by the federal government upon their right afforded by the Brazilian constitution to a quality upper education. Many times I found myself with a lump in my throat when watching the effect of the film upon high school students in the community as they talked about their own struggles that come with living in the Baixada and ultimately trying to better their lives through higher education.
Seeing the importance of the work that the Cost of Opportunity team is doing made me reflect upon how I want to contribute to the project in the future. I am interested in analyzing the data that would assist in revealing the university’s economic impacts on the Baixada. What became clear by the end of my two weeks in Brazil was that the work we were doing was larger in magnitude than mere academic research, and in fact transcended the academic sphere. It appeared that the Brazilian counterpart of the research team would use many of the findings we work on at Duke as part of a larger political operation. I hope that what I contribute to the group in terms of academic results can be used as evidence of the beneficial effects of universities in the fight for increased access to education.
Bass Seeds Sprout: From the ‘Cost of Opportunity’ to Environmental Water Policy in the Baixada Fluminense
By Mitchell Ryan
During the Summer of 2016, I spent three weeks conducting qualitative fieldwork on heightened social mobility within the “Baixada Fluminense,” Rio de Janeiro’s urban periphery. The term “Baixada Fluminense” hastily refers to a network of thirteen distinct and unique municipalities, often considered synonymous with crime, poverty, drugs, corruption and violence. Accordingly, we found ourselves in the lowlands, the outskirts of Rio, a place long neglected by public services provided to the wealthier parts of the city’s inner region.
These three weeks in the Baixada served as an intensive introduction to the region. Each morning we commuted by van from our accommodation, a local church, to the Multidisciplinary Institute (IM), a satellite campus of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). We attended lectures by professors, students and community members on various aspects of the Baixada, ranging from the shifting historical and geographic boundaries to environmental air quality and lack of basic sanitation. We were deeply entrenched in inquiries into political ecology, sustainable economic growth, equitable access to public resources as well as urban transportation systems. We were forced to ask ourselves complicated questions such as: What does sustainable economic growth mean and how should it be implemented? Who has access to its benefits and who is left out? Why does it take almost two hours and three bus lines for these students to arrive at school each day? What is the impact of this university on its surrounding environment?
As a UNC undergraduate student, I discovered this project almost by chance. Having already spent a year living in Brazil prior to college, I was searching for opportunities to return and establish a professional connection to the country. After getting in touch and eventually meeting with Dr. French, one of the project’s co-advisors, I found myself welcomed with open arms. Only a few months prior to departure, however, I scrambled to secure funding through UNC’s campus, eventually being awarded the Halpern Award through the Institute for the Study of the Americas.
During our fieldwork, one speaker of particular significance was a professor from the Rio de Janeiro State University, Cleonice Puggian. Packed into a tiny classroom in a local private university with other students and professors, I listened to her describe the region’s environmental plight. She spoke of the sewage, lack of basic public services, racial stigma and absence of relevant policy. She highlighted injustice, pointing out colorful lines on a graph, lines telling us that the people surrounding us faced some of the worst environmental quality in all of Latin America. Our team was in Rio to study the question of social mobility within an expanding federal higher education system, and yet for the next two weeks I could not shake the gravity of her words. How did this region become so harmful for people to live in? What was being done about it? Her presence and commitment to these issues was captivating. I knew I needed to return to Duque de Caxias in order to learn about these issues from the people that faced them.
Mitchell Ryan after presenting at the IM/UFRRJ on his project on flooding in Duque de Caixias
With her and Dr. French’s help, along with the support of the entire BASS Connections team, I was able to do just that. I worked to develop a collaborative research project, securing funding to return to the Baixada the following Summer. My project sought to develop an understanding of flood management practices in one of the Baixada’s municipalities, with a heightened emphasis on resident voices. As the primary actors by default when flooding occurs, residents frequently develop their own perceptions, understandings and strategies for coping with disaster. However, despite Brazil’s advanced water management policy and seemingly inclusive deliberative process, state official have been reluctant to relinquish any real decision-making power. The urgency and severity of this problem is clear, and after having spent over eight weeks conducting Summer fieldwork, I feel encouraged by the extent to which residents are aware of what makes their community either a good or bad place to live. Moreover, I feel inspired by their resiliency, working to strengthen their communities in the face of persistent disaster and corrupt government.
“The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense,” has extended far beyond what I ever could have imagined and has played an incredibly influential role on my experience as an undergraduate student. It has exposed me to various facets of research, allowed me to maintain a meaningful connection to a country near and dear to my heart, forced me to critically question our system of global higher education, and most importantly, supported me in fully exploring my personal and academic curiosities.