People are people everywhere (Pt. 1)

Recently at work, I joined a podcast series, where I was lucky to have such a thoughtful interviewer, Samantha Harris, who asked me, for the first time: What have I learned about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion from my experience living and studying in three different continents? I gave an answer with the first thing that crossed my mind: Never assuming anything beyond the fact that anyone before me is a person. Everything beyond that point is up to the person themself to define and share, if they want to. Ever since, I have been thinking a lot about this theme: people are people everywhere.

Thus far, I consider three key moments of personal social consciousness awakening pertaining to the social identities of Socioeconomic Background, Gender & Sexuality, and Race. Each had an exponentially larger effect on my activist and learning journey, which I plan to share in this series. I have been immensely inspired by several thinkers, but especially Paulo Freire in my teens, and more recently, Sonya Renee Taylor and bell hooks.

I dedicate this first piece to Paulo Freire, commemorating his 100th anniversary today (September 19th, 2021). Freire was the first thinker to change my view of reality, giving wings to my imagination and setting the revolutionary precedent to a liberating educational practice which I aspire to uphold in my own career.

Class and the need for connection in the classroom

I come from a middle class family. As I grew up, my father worked for the army in Brazil, which meant that we would go wherever his work would take him: I was born in São Paulo, just like my sister. Soon after, we moved to the countryside of Rio de Janeiro, lived there for a couple of years, then moved to the Amazon region. There we lived for four years, and moved back to São Paulo. We lived with my father’s parents for a while, then moved to an apartment, where we lived for four years. My parents had my two brothers, and my mother’s mother moved in with us. The apartment grew small for the family of seven, so we moved to a house. The year was 2000, when I was just about settling in with a special group of friends at school. As the family grew so quickly, my parents couldn’t afford private education for my sister and I, so we moved to public schooling. I couldn’t tell my friends from private school that I was leaving because my parents didn’t have the money for it. Despite moving throughout my entire childhood, that was the first time I remember feeling truly dislocated and ashamed. For this, and another reason I will share in a later piece of writing, I stopped talking to my friends and colleagues, I disconnected.

Image by yours truly © 2009–2021 TedWeber

One day I had to wake up before dawn to get in line to enroll myself at this school in our new neighborhood, known for being one of the best public schools in the whole São Paulo city. On the first day of class, I got there early again. Most kids arrived 30 minutes to an hour prior to school start, just to sit on the stairs near the main entrance. They would come to chat, play with tazos, or simply be there to enjoy co-existing with one another — for convivência, which translates in English to the odd word of “conviviality”. With the strange state that I was in, I wore dark clothes on top of my uniform, trying to be invisible as I could. I sat behind the shade of a large plant vase near the school gates, avoiding getting noticed. However, in a school where the uniform consisted of white t-shirts, the more I tried to isolate myself, the more I unintentionally brought attention to myself. Some kids commented on my unsuitable wardrobe for the tropical climate we were in. And without realizing it, somehow I began making friends. Maybe my need for connection was stronger than my timidness.

Beyond the impact of wardrobe choices, another factor that I was not aware of before was that in my private school, my family was probably amongst the lowest income levels there. My skin was white, just like the vast majority of my colleagues. In the public school, many of my classmates came from lower income families, and others had relatively higher income levels than my own (especially given the size of my family). There were so many more skin tones and hair types in my classroom, something that made a lot more sense considering the demographics of our country, where more than half of the population self-identifies as black/brown.

Even though my new school was known to be amongst one of the best ones in the city, I noticed how discrepant the realities of public and private schools were. The classrooms had nearly twice as many students. Teachers were exhausted, working 2–3 shifts on a regular basis. The school had a far simpler architecture: just one concrete block, built next to an open sewer river, in the city’s outskirts. However different it felt from my labyrinthic private school, the most distinct part of my experience in that public school was a sense of community. On our first visit to the science lab, I noticed there weren’t nearly as many pieces of equipment as the one in my previous school, but there was an interesting tile shelf of specimens collected in glass jars. The science teacher explained to the class that everything they had there was acquired or donated by parents and teachers, and that should be a source of pride for everyone.

On a subconscious level, I really appreciated the sense of community, but I knew those inequalities were unfair. In my first year one of my teachers would force students to copy word for word from a textbook onto our notebooks. I would learn later that was demoralizing, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir:

There is no more obnoxious way to punish a man than to force him to perform acts which make no sense to him, as when one empties and fills the same ditch indefinitely, when one makes soldiers who are being punished march up and down, or when one forces a schoolboy to copy lines.
— Simone de Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948)

Even without knowing Beauvoir at the time, that felt humiliating — especially because we did not even do anything to be punished. A few years later, I would learn that that was a classic example of what Paulo Freire coined as a banking model of education, a pervasive practice in modern schooling, where the teacher decides that it is perfectly acceptable to “depositing” knowledge onto student’s “empty” minds/accounts, without any regard for what the student actually knows, needs or cares to learn about. I decided to create my first petition, in an attempt to get that teacher fired. I felt insulted at that type of oppression, and after getting dozens of signatures, I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling that. The teacher was never really fired, but the important win for me was learning that many of my colleagues cared for the education we were getting there. This marked my first time feeling a sense of collectivity, a pivotal moment for me.

Coming out of a very dire stage of my teenagehood, all of a sudden I felt empowered. My name got noticed by the school’s pedagogy coordinator, and I was invited to partake in a special course called EDUCOM.radio, which provided students with the theory and practice to build a school community radio, a project brought by the world renowned University of São Paulo (USP). The course was a few months long and I was incredibly excited by everything I was learning, including about the further disparities of realities between our schools and others that had even less access to budgets, usually where students were from lower income families. Maybe it was a consequence of my experience being rebellious before, and connected with a sense of purpose at the time, but I was also noticed by the program’s director and at the age of 14, I was chosen to be a director for the course’s final assessment: all 150 students and teachers enrolled in the course had to come together to plan, produce and deliver 2 minutes worth of radio programming. This was a moment of exponential growth for me, from that timid kid I was just a year before, to a school community leader. Wow, it happened. We made a 2 minute long radio program. And we were ready to bring that method and magic to our own school.

The colleagues that took this course with me and the ones who joined us at school in building our first community radio became the most important friends I’ve ever had. We had such a bonding experience fighting the power to occupy our rightful space in our own school, coming up with original content to engage with our community and even passing it onto the next generation — some of these colleagues remain my closest friends to this date. The contrast of experiences I had in those years brought me to an important realization that reality was far more malleable than I felt before.

Just as I entered social media for the first time, in 2004 I created my first Orkut community called Filósofa. It was a place open to anyone who wanted to discuss how to make a better world, promoting an integral education for everyone, through critical thinking and active citizenship. We hosted physical meetings, bringing people from all over the city to debate and brainstorm ideas to bring about grass root efforts to eventually promote a nationwide educational reform — yes, we were ambitious. That was when I learned about the work and legacy of Paulo Freire, an influential philosopher of education, known for his libertarian practice. He was responsible for developing a method that empowered millions of impoverished communities with innovative tactics to foster literacy, freedom of thought and expression. Because of that, he was persecuted by the military dictatorship in Brazil and lived many years in exile. He died in my hometown, in 1997, just when I was living one of the most difficult times of my life. When I learned about his work, I was only a teenager and I felt an immense sense of gratitude for having someone so revolutionary pave the way for our humble movement.

An image of a sheet of paper with the words "Projeto Filosofa" on top, with sunglasses and an orange wig on top, and clothes and orange gloves on beneath it
Art installation by Amanda Dassié, with a copy of Filósofa's manifesto and found objects

I like to believe that the Filósofa community was a manifestation of the seeds that Paulo Freire planted in our collective imaginary as a foundational thinker. The community had a vision that was so strong that it pulled over a hundred people together into a virtual community, which became a solid group of a dozen friends, some who joined our radio-making bunch. At that point, we felt we could really do something to change our reality by joining local arts and culture groups like cineclubs, and starting our own, like CineFiló, bringing our own movies to spark conversations around what we thought could be different in our day to day at school. The conversations kept on evolving, and some of us even found ways to connect deeper with the community at large, introducing philosophy lessons and critical thinking via storytelling exercises in the local daycare schools. I feel incredibly proud of what we did as a group of active citizens, even at that young age. I am also forever grateful for the friends that I made as a result of this project.

A picture of one of Filósofa's early meetings, in June of 2008

In this very moment, I can’t help but to think about the irony of living abroad to preserve our sanity since Brazil has fallen prey to the tyranny of #BolsonaroGenocida. I think about how Paulo Freire lived his days in exile in Europe, and was still able to continue his journey, spreading his knowledge and expanding his practice beyond the classrooms, to the point of making a dent into our collective thinking. I learned from Rita von Hunty’s latest video that Paulo Freire is the third most quoted thinker in academic writing in the world, just the first book of his that I read, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has 80.000 citations on Google Scholar. I reflect upon his immense influence in my own thinking and outlook on life, as he was my first teacher of inclusion, ethics and social transformation. It took me years to realize how much his work influenced my view of the world, my role and responsibility as an individual world citizen. I am humbled by the prospect of being able to instill some of these ideas into the corporate world, in a particular moment when rethinking our modus operandis seems so urgent and necessary.

Thank you, dear reader! I hope this piece inspires you to read more of Freire’s works, and that you enjoy it as much as I still do. I hope you are well and safe, and I look forward to sharing part two of this series next month 🧡

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