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.

Rewarding end to my time in Rio

I’m back in the States experiencing a disorienting mixture of nostalgia, introspection, and intense Texas heat. My three months in Rio is over, and I can’t stop thinking about the people I met and the things I experienced.

My last two weeks in Rio were the most rewarding. I was able to witness and experience an event that one of the women from the workshop had organized for weeks. The theme of the event was youth participation in Afro-Brazilian religions (specifically Candomble, which is the religion that the woman herself follows), and the event took place at her terreiro (the name of a Candomble religious space). Around 20 people showed up, including community members and leaders, members of the terreiro, and of course the women from the workshop.

It was an incredibly welcoming atmosphere, and the conversation was lively. The diversity in the room became apparent after everyone introduced themselves. There was a mix of those who followed Afro-Brazilian religions, Catholics, and Methodists; there were people born in various regions of Brazil; there was a wide range of ages. However, the underlying goal of the conversation was to promote religious tolerance, especially toward Afro-Brazilian belief systems, which have both recently and historically been discriminated against. The general public tends to perceive Afro-Brazilian religions as a type of “witchery,” attributing mystical characteristics to them. In reality, they are quite practical and have extensive practices and beliefs around health, social justice, and everyday life. At the event, many argued for the need for Candomble to become more politically active, a shift that I noticed during my time in Rio.


Discussion at the terreiro, or religious space

For me, the most inspiring part of the event was when the woman who organized the event began to speak about how her participation in the workshop has changed her perspective on some of the issues I’ve mentioned throughout this blog. She said that in the workshop she learned to articulate her concerns in a way that brought people together, using a particular vocabulary. This reminded me of when I visited her at her house a few weeks prior, and she told me that many of the women in her neighborhood had no real interest in organizing politically. It was obvious that this event was the beginning of a vision that she had held for a while.

But just like that, a few days later, I had to leave. It’s an odd feeling to make such strong connections with people living so far away, only to continue living a completely different life in less than half a day’s time. But I’m confident that I will go back some time soon and witness that all of the women’s visions for their communities will have been further realized. And now that the women have learned how to use Skype and Facebook, I have a feeling that it’ll be like I never left.

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Learning to tell their stories

Kerri with group members

Kerri with Criola group members

I am now in my last month here in Rio and not at all looking forward to having to leave soon! The project that I am helping with at Criola is at its height. The women have participated in social media workshops and a photography workshop, and have planned their own community events around political topics of their choosing. They take photos and videos at these events and post them on the group’s blog and Facebook. So far there have been two events, and there will be more in August and September that I will unfortunately have to miss.

The women of the group and I have become very close. I’ve visited some of their houses a few times, where they made delicious food, told me dozens of stories about their lives, and introduced me to their families. These visits have helped me put the project’s goals into perspective. For example, I visited the house of Conceição, one of the group’s participants, who lives in a city of around 500,000 residents about an hour (by bus) outside of Rio. The first thing that I noticed when I got there was that few of the residential roads were fully paved, and that many people were riding on carts pulled by horses. A major change of scenery from Rio! But many of the city’s residents work in Rio, including Conceição. She told me that she has worked in Copacabana for 30 years cleaning one family’s house and doing their laundry. Her husband died 15 years ago, and although she lives alone, her daughter’s family lives a few houses down and her five-year-old granddaughter is aways at her house.

A group member learns to Skype

Group members learn to Skype at a workshop

But these facts about Conceição’s life don’t even begin to describe the powerhouse that she is. The second time I visited her house, she told me that she ran for city council a few years back and showed me her campaign poster. She mentioned how difficult it was for her as a black woman to do so, and how her family still tells her that she should be in politics. She expressed her hesitance, saying that she enjoys working and didn’t want to live the life of a politician. However from our conversations I know that she has very poignant criticisms of her city’s governance that are based on her own personal experiences and challenges.

Reflecting on my conversations with Conceição, I can easily see the benefits of Criola’s project. I see how so many women in Rio de Janeiro have profound stories to tell, but are never given the chance and/or the outlets to communicate their insights. I think about how each time I visited Conceição’s house, the Internet was not working regardless of the fact that she had paid for it. Or the stories she told about helping women in her community who had been victims of domestic violence when local law enforcement did not help. Whereas before, conversations around these issues may have only occurred at home or among close friends, now these conversations are recorded, photographed, and made public to a global audience by the women themselves. I’ve happily spent hours translating their blog and reports of their events into English to make their work accessible to a wider audience, and I hope that more people will stop to listen to what they have to say.

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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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