On March 6th I spoke at the Institute for Global Diplomacy about my experience as a student activist, here is what I said:
Any time I talk about my home country, Brazil, I start by pointing out how the economic and social inequalities are deep rooted in our daily lives. Growing up I didn`t understand why some families would live under bridges in Brazil or stay in line for hours to have a placement in a school while my issue was whether having a TV in my room or not, or waking up on time for class.
When I was accepted at University of Sao Paulo (USP), the largest Brazilian University and one of the best institutions in Latin America I felt really good. Maybe it was that conservative feeling of I worked hard so I deserved it. I was part of the second class joining a brand new campus of USP, which was strategic located in a poorer area of the city of Sao Paulo and created as a marketing tool for the next campaign of the governor.
Just a background here: In Brazil we have private education but also public and free educational system funded by taxes that goes from nurseries to universities. There are many implementation issues since it depends on the will of local and State governments – but please do not mistaken me, I believe free educational system is the best way to improve our societies. Specially the higher education system It’s a very perverse one since in general the best middle and high schools are private the best universities are public-free ones. I say perverse because since going to university it’s still a privilege – around 12% of our population has an undergraduate degree – to go to a public-free school you most likely had to study in a private high school. Lula and Dilma, our former and current Presidents, terms have done a phenomenal job creating programs for low income students and minorities to be able to attend university but we still have a long way to go in order to build a truly democratic system.
In the case of my University, it is funded by the State Government by a regressive tax, it meaning it hits lower-income individuals harder. But the same lower-income people could hardly get accepted or even, in the case of my campus, enter it.
We use to say our universities have a big wall that separates the intellectual elite to the reality of our communities. And clearly in my campus that wall existed and I joined the movement to overthrow it and to build bridges between these two worlds.
Our main strategy initially was to show a different reality to the students, we would invite them to visit the communities around the campus and talk to people. Talk to these “tax-payers” who for months imagined that huge building was going to be a new Mall or a big school for them, talk to families who struggle daily in an crowded train to go downtown but that after the campus was built got a new fancy station, with some newer trains and more safety.
We wanted to make the students open their eyes to what was happening and feel responsible to change it. It’s so easy to believe since you enter a great school you suddenly become this person that will have all the answers, and that by reading all these amazing books by PHDs you will be able to fix everything. Our final goal was to have the students bringing the reality they see outside the classroom inside, to able to support the creation of knowledge which is useful and relevant for the majority of the population.
In collaboration with some professors, community leaders and social movements we created in 2007 LABEX, the Laboratory of Extension (Extension it is called sometimes Community Outreach). Completely different from the majority of outreach projects, we were not willing to provide only services or welfare actions or to see the community as beneficiaries. We saw the community as a crucial and mandatory partner to understand the realities which in most of the cases we only knew superficially or by what we read in books or saw in the news. Our goal was to create a two-way relationship between the university and the communities and their knowledge, how they can work together for social justice and peace. If I had to provide an example of education diplomacy, it would be bringing together universities and communities around a common mission.
During my time there we organized more than 30 events over different topics, including many field visits and political actions. Regarding bigger projects (ranging from 6 to 18 months) the main issues we worked on was solidarity economy/new economy and culture.
We created 5 community banks in order to strengthen the local economies in partnership with urban movements that advocate for better housing in São Paulo. Our banks had loans for local businesses and entrepreneurs and we provided the necessary technical support to make sure they grew benefiting the communities as well. We believe even the poorest communities are rich, but their wealth do not stay there, that is why economic incentives and campaigns to consume and produce locally are so important. Also we stimulated the creation of cooperatives and other democratic-owned business.
The other big project was related to cultural economy, exploring the economic dimensions of cultural practices and products in the suburbs of São Paulo.
In my opinion and from my experience the best way to support student engagement it is to show different perspectives, take them out the comfort zone, the wonderland of a fancy degree. I learned so much from community leaders about so many topics anywhere from police violence, racial issues and social justice; much better than many classes I’ve taken. I also built a strong sense of connectedness and humbleness that I will carry with me forever in my personal and professional life.