Kerri in Brazil

Kerri is a graduate student in medical anthropology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Internship for summer 2013 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. She is working in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for a non-governmental organization focused on gender and racial equality.

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Empowering communities in Rio de Janeiro

My first month in Rio de Janeiro is coming to an end, and what an eventful month it’s been! The energy throughout the nation is at a heightened state as preparations for the World Cup and Olympics are under way. Meanwhile, over 1 million protesters have taken to the streets in Brazil’s largest cities to speak out against a lack of investment in public institutions, corruption, and various pieces of legislation. It’s an exciting time to witness and be a part of!

Criola, the NGO with which I’m interning, is an active player in Brazil’s rapidly changing political landscape. Its target population is black Brazilian women, who disproportionately face poverty, inaccessibility to health care, and various types of violence. Criola not only works to influence policy, but also organizes grassroots initiatives to empower communities.

In my first few weeks here I translated descriptions of Criola’s partner organizations from Portuguese into English. This gave me a chance to learn who’s doing what in Rio, how they are doing it, and what the most pressing social concerns are. Now I’m helping out with a program of theirs that focuses on health and Internet/technology literacy.

Although these seem like disparate concepts, Criola (along with their partner organization NUPEF) has creatively intertwined them. The program works with a group of around 12 women over an extended period of time (around a year), and gives them educational and participatory assignments. The women vary in age, the youngest being in her teens and the oldest in her 80s.

In the first workshop I attended, the women read a short article about the history of health policy in Brazil and answered interview questions that allowed them to contextualize their own experiences in relation to those policies. They learned how to research health statistics on the Internet and how to create and read spreadsheets. Finally, at the end of the workshop, they learned how to use a blog to post their interview answers for the public to see.

The next project will involve the women creating photo essays about health-related topics (such as HIV/AIDS and domestic violence) in their own communities and posting them on the blog. I’ll be going with the women to help them with their projects, and for the rest of my time here I’ll be translating their blog into English so that they can broaden their audience. It’ll be exciting to see where their creativity leads them!

The most interesting aspect of these workshops has been the conversations that come up around social issues. For example, most of the women live on the outskirts of Rio where Internet access is limited, and many don’t have computers at all. Therefore, most of them simply don’t know what they can or can’t do on the Internet, its breadth, and most important, its utility. Also, the women often openly share their experiences with discrimination, especially regarding health. The gap between how public health care is “supposed” to be and their own experiences with public health care has motivated them to make their own stories public.

When I’m not working with Criola, I love exploring the nature here in Rio. I’ve visited Rio’s famous beaches a few times, but the most breathtaking adventure for me so far has been Tijuca National Park, which is quite literally a forest in the middle of the city. I also love the 200-year-old botanical garden here (Jardim Botanico) and its friendly monkeys and fascinating flowers. Hopefully in the next two months I’ll be able to visit more of the touristy sites! For now I’m happy living like a Carioca.

View of favelas, or shanty town, from my roof

View of favelas, or shanty towns, from my roof

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