Thursday, April 3, 2008

Two Different Vestibular Preparatory Courses

Wednesday evening I had the chance to visit one of Educafro’s free vestibular courses. A volunteer university student taught the course to fourteen students, eleven Afro-Brazilian students and three white students. Many of the students in the course were in their thirties and forties. I had the chance to chat with the students and I discovered that many of the students had attended public schools, where, the students told me, teachers often ended class early or refused to teach them the assigned curriculum. I also learned that almost all of the students had jobs, working during the day and attending vestibular class at night. At the end of the class, I asked the students if they would want to take out a low-interest loan to support themselves while they took this vestibular preparatory course. The loan, I explained, would allow them to quit their jobs and study for the vestibular around the clock. All of the students said they would take the loan. One student explained to me that she would take the loan because she was chasing a dream, and wanted to attain the highest score she possibly could.

I wanted to see how others prepared for the exam, so Thursday morning I went to a vestibular course run by a private company. The sales representative explained that all the students had graduated from high school the year before, and that almost all the students came from private schools. The teachers were paid high salaries to teach the courses, often making more than many public university professors. The students took the class full-time for nine months. In the mornings, the students took classes on different subjects, and after a lunch break, met one-on-one with private tutors. In the evenings, the students did homework to present in the next class. The sales representative told us that the students’ parents paid their tuition for the course and supported the students as they took the course. The cost of the course was around $13,000. The median per capita income in Brazil is $7400. The company does not offer fellowships, so the course is priced out of the range of everyone except very wealthy students.

My visits to the vestibular courses confirm my belief that the vestibular exams exacerbate the income and race discrimination Afro-Brazilian and poor students face. Although many argue that the vestibular is a meritocratic exam, the exam cannot measure merit accurately when one group has so much more access to preparation resources than others. The mostly white private school students are doubly advantaged: they have the money to attend private high schools which offer a more rigorous curriculum than public high schools and are able to afford an intensive full time preparatory class to prepare for the vestibular. The Afro-Brazilian public school students, on the other hand are doubly disadvantaged: they were forced to attend public high schools with few resources, and are forced to restrict their vestibular preparation to a few hours a night. Given the vast difference in access to preparation materials, it is no mystery why white students tend to attain higher scores on the vestibular than Afro-Brazilian students.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

What Color Are You?

Sitting at the airport in Rio de Janeiro awaiting our flight back to the US, I can’t help but think back on the past 48 hours and what was perhaps the most moving part of our two weeks in Brazil. On Wednesday evening we visited UniPalmares, the first, and to my understanding, only Afro-Brazilian university in Brazil. Even though we were late to this meeting, the smiling faces and enthusiasm that greeted us were readily apparent. After a tour of the school, including a lesson in “Samba Rock”, a dance program offered at the school, we sat down for a discussion with students, faculty and administrators from the school.

One thing we had learned through our experiences in Brazil is that most Brazilians don’t understand, or don’t know, the complicated means by which Americans racially classify one another. Of the nine students who attended the program from UCLA, only three, and perhaps myself as a fourth, identify as “white”. We tried to share this with the group we met with at UniPalmares. We wanted to describe that unlike in Brazil, where people identify as either black or white (despite the tremendous amounts of ambiguity we thought we saw), in the US many other groups are marginalized or discriminated against within our “colorblind” system.

After each of the UCLA students shared their own experiences with race and identification, a student from UniPalmares raised his hand and said that it was obvious how discrimination in the US must exist equally as in Brazil because our group consisted of eight white students and only one black student. Each of us kind of looked around at one another, wondering how we should respond. I think we all thought it was a bit humorous and perhaps ironic that even though many of the students shared their stories of racial discrimination we were still just seen as black and white. However, it also speaks to an important element of this project that we should work on in the future. Each of us was in Brazil not only to gather information for our own individual comparative research analyses, but also to exchange information and to offer our counterparts in Brazil the same opportunity to learn about us that we hoped to gain from them. This was not the first time we were looked at as eight white students and one black one – and it seems that a key to making this project a success, is to identifying a way to frame our experiences in a way people who have never been visited our country can understand.

The Right to Belong

Our visit at the University of Zumbi dos Palmares in Sao Paolo was an interesting contrast to our other campus meetings. Palmares enrolled its first class five years ago and is the only Black university in Brazil. We learned that Palmares recently graduated its first class of twenty one students, which constituted the largest number of Afro-Brazilian students to graduate from any university in Brazil. This statistic shows the dire inequality among races in Brazil given that nearly half of the population is Afro-Brazilian.

This visit was different because the Palmares students did not talk about feeling isolated in the classroom or feeling like they had to fight to show they had a right to be on campus. This is not to say that there is widespread support for this university. The President, Dr. Jose Vicente, told us that there is a lot of resistance to the university because it enrolls almost all Black students. It was a big challenge just to get the university established and to graduate its first class last year. Nonetheless, on the Palmares campus the students have a much greater sense of belonging and camaraderie than the Afro-Brazilian students we talked to at primarily white schools.

In Salvador, Afro-Brazilian students spoke of feeling alone and ostracized in the classroom and on campus generally until they began participating in workshops and programs through Black NGOs that aim to increase Black enrollment and create an environment in which these students have an entire network of support behind them. This support allowed the students to speak up in class and challenge racist behavior and comments, which significantly improved their experience. While these students felt more supported through their involvement with these NGOs, they still did not feel as welcomed and at home as the Palmares students.

Many of our own students of color could relate to the experiences of the Salvador students. Spending time at Palmares was personally important for them because it showed that their isolating experience at UCLA Law could have been different if higher numbers of students of color were enrolled here. While supporters of affirmative action, whether people of color or white, know that being part of a small minority on campus makes it more difficult for the students to learn because of racial isolation and discrimination, visiting a campus where challenges exist but that being entitled to attend school is not one of them, brought home this point in a new and powerful way. We need affirmative action back in California.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Education, Power, Respect

On Monday, we attended a mini-seminar with Professor Flavia Piovesan and students during her class at
Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Sao Paulo (PUC-SP). There, a young woman from Mozambique brought up the fact that all of the three blacks in the class were from Africa. Sadly, there were no Afro-Brazilians enrolled in the course. But, what I was more intrigued by was the impact of an affirmative action type program in Mozambique described by the young lady. Mozambique is 99% indigenous tribal groups, but people in power still found a way to discriminate and oppress others. Here, they used geography to exclude people from the university. As a result of groups from the north and east’s exclusion, the people in the south were perceived as ‘smarter’. However, when the University began opening up to more people from the north and east, those students were able to debunk the myth of “south superiority” and gain greater access.

This shows how power can be used to oppress others in order to maintain that power in any context. I think power goes beyond race since there is always potential for intra-group oppression, but racism is the strongest tool used in maintaining power. Education and exclusion from education have always been tools for maintaining power. Nevertheless, technology and globalization may alter the desire for domination and subordination of weaker groups. This combination requires the involvement of a higher percentage of the population for the creation, innovation and adoption of new technologies; using less than the full potential of human capital may cause a nation to slip behind others. Hopefully, this need will incentivize countries to provide equal opportunity and access to education to all of their people.

A Seat at the Table

     Yesterday’s interviews brought forth some interesting questions and highlighted some contradictions about the anti-violence against women movement. I prepared all evening for a meeting with Geledes, a twenty-year old Black women’s organization that fights racism and gender discrimination in Brazil. During this research I learned about their provocative approach to addressing violence against women of color; it was very similar to the radical feminist of color strategies in the US. Geledes organizers suggest that anti violence strategies must address the specific way in which Afro-Brazilian women experience violence. They suggest that efforts to remedy interpersonal violence must coincide with strategies that address the institutionalized violence that Black women face (including lack of education, violence associated with the drug trade, poverty, and the violence that Black women face in the domestic labor employment sector). Serendipitously and after learning about their efforts to address violence, one of the self-identified feminists invited us to an event that discussed the barriers to implementing the Maria de Pena law, a new anti-violence against women law. I was so excited to attend an event that was co-sponsored by Geledes, a radical women of color feminist organization because I assumed it would directly discuss the issues that I study. I thought I had found an allied network of movement organizers.

     In Geledes I did. However, the event as a whole reminded me of the white liberal feminist approach rather than that put forth by Geledes. I was disappointed, yet, unsurprised by what I saw. For example, while the event was cosponsored by many women of color organizations, a white feminist politic dominated the scene. Perhaps most obvious was that the six women chosen to speak at the event were all white women, yet most glaring was that at the last minute – indeed, at the event itself – one women of color was asked to join. The scene was eerily reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s famous feminist narrative in “The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” where women of color were asked last minute to speak at a conference in order to provide a façade of multiculturalism but not to truly address issues pertaining specifically to women of color. (The idea is that using the master’s tools, tools of oppression, will not bring down the master’s house, dominant power structures). Furthermore the sole women of color represented the state-owned oil company that sponsors many organizations in the name of “social responsibility.”  This lone Black woman literally did not have a “seat at the table.” The metaphor is glaring; she sat in a folding chair off the end of the table. At the event, violence against women of color was never mentioned, nor were the terms race or poverty uttered. While I am not surprised by this organizational methodology, it brings forth questions regarding the pivotal crossroads at which the Brazilian anti- violence movement stands.

     This movement has a lot of resources and they are at a moment in which the their work could be co-opted by state interests and lose its social justice grassroots footing.  Rather than propose strategies that address the way in which institutionalized and interpersonal violence compound on the lives of women of color, as I hypothesized, a professionalized state-sponsored movement in Brazil assuages violence against women in band-aid type reforms that neither address root causes of violence nor heal the community wounds caused by violence – in all of its forms.  During my visit to the all women police station, for example, I was both excited by how the movement was using a law and simultaneously providing social services that holistically addresses violence. Most importantly, the Sao Paulo station, unlike others, combines social services like health care, child care, psychological services, and mediation type reforms, yet women do not have to use the police stations to utilize these services. However, the anti-violence movement in the US also started this way.  It was at this pivotal stage that the US anti-violence against women movement turned to strategies that prevented the type of organized, funded, and sustainable movement that could end violence against women of color – as well as white women. How might Brazilian feminists learn from the mistakes of the US feminist movement?  How can we start this radical movement with these hopeful foundations? 

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Our Heroes

Yesterday, we met Claudete Alves. During our time with her, she brought up many American figures including Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. While Obama has been discussed often as a sign of hope, several people have cited King and Malcolm X as heroes and inspirations to the black movements in Brazil. Inspirational figures have not only been American but from several countries, including Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela from South Africa and Che Guevara from Argentina. Aside from our discussions, I have seen their images on walls, t-shirts, and even tattooed on somebody’s back.

The importance of the importation of their ideas cannot be understated. What is interesting is how Brazil gained exposure to some of these individuals. Similar to hip-hop, the media played an instrumental role in exporting these figures and what they represent. While we were still in Salvador, we met with CEAFRO, an Afro-Brazilian Community-Based Educational Initiative. The meeting comprised of several groups under the CEAFRO umbrella, including the Cultural Institute of Steve Biko. After the meeting, I asked its representative the impact Steve Biko, famous for spearheading the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa until Apartheid prison guards beat him to death in 1977, had on the black movement and how well known he was throughout Brazil. He told me that the movie Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline and based on Donald Woods’ biography of Biko, introduced Brazil to Biko. After seeing the movie, they read his speeches and essays and noticed that Black Consciousness fit into the Brazilian context.

It is clear that all people and groups across the globe in the struggle for human rights have much to gain from each other and can better achieve their goals through cooperation. Our heroes may easily become the heroes of some other country, just as their history may serve to inspire us for something greater. Activists need to share their experiences with one another; even though occurrences in one context may not transfer neatly to another, they may still serve as useful illustrations. I think that this is what GAAPP aims to do, to serve as a vehicle to initiate and maintain the communication necessary to collaborate. As this project is only in its second year, there is not telling what contribution it can make to this movement.

Student Exchange

On Monday we visited Professor Flavia’s human rights class. This class was filled with teachers, professors, activists, organizers, lawyers, and law students. The students were eager to ask questions and learn more about the unfortunate growing movement against affirmative action in the U.S. One student was going to be participating in a debate defending affirmative action and asked for help preparing her arguments. After 40 years of defending these programs we were more than happy to share our views on the subject. In listening to the students ask their questions about the status of affirmative action in the U.S. and the problems that Brazil is currently facing. I realized how important it is to share with them the reality in the U.S. This was especially important when the question of the presidential race and Obama came up. In Brazil, Obama’s candidacy is being deployed in support of the myth of racial democracy. Some argue that Obama is “beyond race.” His race, they argue, does not make him a winning candidate – it is simply his charisma or his leadership, they argue. However, many people we have visited have voiced that Obama gives them hope. His success this far symbolizes possibility for the rest of the world. This is unarguable because he is Black man.
Discussing these issues in Professor Flavia’s class was fruitful for all of us. For example, although there appeared to be great diversity in the room, one of the Black students was quick to point out that all the Black students in the room were from Africa. It was glaring that there were no Afro-Brazilian students in this class. The absence of any Afro-Brazilian students in this class, in a country where almost half the population is Afro-Brazilian, is simply unacceptable. This only further illustrates the need for continued affirmative action programs and speaks to the importance of continuing dialogues between the US and Brazil.