Brazil’s Integrated Education and Solidarity Economy: Opening Pathways to Income and Citizenship

• Ruth Needleman, Professor Emerita, Labor Studies Program, Indiana University, USA
• Eunice Maria Dias Wolf, Secretary of Social Development, City of Canoas, Brazil
• Mardeli de Quadros Rosa, General Coordinator, Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar, Brazil
• Maria Regina dos Santos Braga, President, Cooperativa Vida Saudável, Brazil

David Welsh, Solidarity Center Country Program Director, Cambodia
Alex Feltham, Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer, Asia

Mardeli de Quadros Rosa (left) and Ruth Needleman described Brazilian unions’ successful popular education campaign. Photo: Tula Connell 

Ruth Needleman opened the workshop, which focused on a labor-run popular education project in Brazil, by stating that “the role of the union is to go beyond membership, to go into the community.” At the center of that goal is understanding the importance of education.

Needleman then overviewed the program, in which the Central Unitario de Trabajadores (CUT) engaged in a far-reaching outreach project based on the concept of “integrated education,” which combines traditional disciplines with experience-based learning. CUT centered its program in Quilombo, a primarily Afro-Brazilian state far from urban centers, initially training 3,000 local residents to lead the community-based program. The project, which ran from 2003 to 2006, was unique in targeting all nonunion members, and was especially successful in empowering women, many of whom were illiterate and suffered from domestic abuse.

Needleman gave an example of how the program empowered women by describing the experience of Anna, who had worked from age 12 at a shoe factory. She couldn’t help her son with homework and he didn’t respect her because of her lack of knowledge. So she jumped at the opportunity to get an elementary school education through the unions’ integrated learning process. She went to school five nights a week for three months after working 10 hours day. Education changed everything, she said. “Now, I am somebody. Before, I was nobody and treated as a nobody.”

After the initial year, the union trained 2,000 new teachers a year. Classroom activity involved computer training, investigation and analysis. Students learned traditional subjects through practical examples. For instance, they learned math by examining the price of bread as it goes up and down, or absorbed science through identifying pollution in their communities.

The process creates a community of support, and members of this community then go on to meet with government officials and other decision-makers, to push them to implement the changes identified by the community.

The project also involved training workers to market their products. In Quilombo, the union trainers found that the Afro-Brazilians planted a unique genus of rice. They tested it and found it is much more nutritious than Asian rice. In previous centuries, black slaves tucked rice grains in their hair so they would have some to plant in case they were uprooted, thus keeping that specific genus viable. When they learned how to market their rice, they went from “being people with no self worth” to people selling goods, Needleman said.

The National Metalworkers Union (SNM) took the concept of integrated education even further and re-structured elementary school education, creating an intensive, four-night a week program. Many of the participants were low-wage workers, like domestic workers.

The trade unions involved in the popular education project “made an enormous commitment to people outside the union,” Needleman said. “This is very important, because most workers, including women, are outside unions.”

Needleman believes CUT ended the project because it returned to a focus on membership, “and so became isolated from society.” Further, the Lula government’s “solidarity economy has been a tremendously important means for transforming the economy.”

Eunice Maria Dias Wolf spoke briefly, describing the SNM, where she has worked for 28 years, and overseen the creation and mission of Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar, showing images of the women involved in the association. She also noted the SNM offers a training program for women in such areas as collective bargaining and leadership training because the union wanted to ensure all local unions in the metalworkers’ federation had women on board.

She ended with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “Only work can ensure concrete independence.”

See her full presentation.

Mardeli de Quadros Rosa noted that before becoming general coordinator of Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar, she was the former treasurer (2003-2006) of the BMBC—Biscuits, Pasta and Homemade Biscuits, a micro enterprise.

She overviewed Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar, founded in 1997, which was created with the support of the Metalworkers. Its mission is to promote social inclusion of women to fight all forms of oppression and violence. The organization holds courses on citizenship, women’s rights, women’s health and has added a new course, one focused on domestic violence. It’s the only organization in the state (Rio Grande do Sol) that looks after victims of domestic violence.

Maria Regina dos Santos Braga is a former student of the union education program, and now president of a cooperative that employs women seamstresses. “When I started doing this work, housework was all I knew,” she said. “I am very proud to have taken the long walk these women have taken. So imagine the multiplier effect—we hope to grow and grow.”

The Cooperativa Vida Saudável, a cooperative of seamstresses, recycles donated clothes and the workers customize, renovate and fix them, then sell them at subway stops. For instance, the seamstresses transform towels and turn them into handkerchiefs. Many families benefit from this income the seamstresses earn.

Santos Braga works in the Healthy Life Cooperative, which has four sections, including one where women produce cakes and bread for sale and another where they make jelly and cookies. They also cater parties and weddings. The Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar was key for the formation of this cooperative. The association offers courses for women, and when they first start, “they have very low self-esteem,” she said, and sometimes are victims of domestic violence. “We have to rescue women.”

Eunice Maria Dias Wolf closed the workshop by paying tribute to an association member, Patricia Esber, who was murdered at age 32 by her husband, the victim of domestic violence.

“Cooperative sharing is intrinsic to our tradition. People engaged in popular education must have this vision,” she said. “We believe it’s in our capacity for teamwork, against individualism.”

See the presentation of Quadros Rosa, Santos Braga and Wolf. (Portuguese)

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