Friday, April 12, 2013

Agents of Change: Black Women Mobilizing for Land Rights in Brazil

When I say “social movement leader” who comes to mind? I immediately think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi and Cesar Chavez. When even your feminist blogger comes up with three men, there’s definitely an awareness problem. Keisha-Khan Y. Perry, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, spotlights poor black Brazilian women, who are indeed unsung social movement leaders.

Professor Keisha-Khan Y. Perry
The public image of these women in Brazil is that they lack the knowledge and political sophistication needed to organize social movements. In an extensive ethnographic study, Professor Perry documented and examined women’s participation and leadership in neighborhood associations. She demonstrates that the women are far from “passive undereducated servants.” On the contrary, they are savvy organizers and advocates plugged into the needs of their communities.  

In her forthcoming book, Black Women Against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil, Professor Perry brings to light not only the level of political sophistication that these women possess, but also the role they play in their communities as “political theorists.” Perry argues that women are the main agents of interpreting the racial, gender, and class dynamics of urban development. These women intentionally organize as blacks, as women, and as the poor, which provides key insights on precisely how intersectionality is mobilized for social change. 

Gamboa de Baixo, Salvador, Brazil (photo by Helio Queiroz, Panoramio)

As poor all-Black neighborhoods in Brazilian cities come under threat of demolition and thousands of people face eviction – including for events like the World Cup and the Olympics – the women are leading the charge in empowering and radicalizing local communities.

So when you think of social movement leaders, think of women like Ana Cristina da Silva Caminha, who has led the grassroots movement against land expulsion in her community of Gamboa de Baixo in Salvador, Brazil. She fights not only for access to housing and clean water, but also for the preservation of her community’s soul – its bay-side location, its Afro-Brazilian spiritual practices, and its network of relationships. 

Anya Malkov is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WAPPP Cultural Bridge Fellow, and an alumna of From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.

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