Bahia, Brazil: An Intellectual Journey of African Consciousness and Cultural Renewal
CIIS Office of Diversity and Inclusion Dean Denise Boston visits the cultural heart of Brazil
Bahia is known as the cultural heart of Brazil. As the central location of the Brazilian slave trade, Bahia is considered to possess the most preserved and retained African culture of the Diasporicregions of the world. As a delegate of the NADOHE (National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education) Bahia tour, I had the opportunity to gain knowledge about the Afro-Brazilian culture with twenty-five other Chief Diversity Officers, International and Multicultural Officers as well as family and friends. Together, we spent nine days exploring its deep traditions and contemporary struggles through workshops, lectures, and creative expressions led by Afro-Brazilian scholars and social change agents.
This cultural trip was transformative on so many levels. First, we had a quintessential tour organizer. Dr. Siri Brown, Professor of African American Studies at Merritt College developed an exemplary itinerary for us with a racial, cultural, and historical concentration. Dr. Brown has been at the forefront of leading numerous African Diasporic tours for U.S. students, educators, and administrators to enhance knowledge related to African culture and regional racial distinctions. Secondly, our delegation was introduced to Afro-Brazilian activists, educators, and artists who shared with us information pertaining to topic areas such as the hierarchy of colorism, educational reform, and the Afro-Brazilian racial renaissance. We were also introduced to African influenced art forms such as capoeira and samba de roda. Lastly, following Brazilian New Year's Eve traditions, we ushered 2017 in by adorning ourselves in white (a sign of peace and renewal), offering flowers to the ocean, and joined thousands of others on the beach for fireworks and collective celebration. Some of us in the group even jumped seven waves which symbolizes seven wishes with hopes that the new year will be better than the one that has just passed.
The most salient and inspiring experience for me was our visit with Secretary Ivete Sacramento, a pioneer in Brazil's Affirmative Action Movement and the first Black Dean of a university. She has spent her personal and professional life dedicated to the promotion of racial equity and dismantling conditions of racist attitudes and practices in Brazil. One of the advances in combating racism in higher education in this country for the past ten years has been the implementation of racial quotas. Her affirmative action initiative was backed by research which demonstrated that only 1% of Blacks were in universities. Studies also uncovered that limited education has been a deterrent of a quality of life and access to employment and resources. Dr. Sacramento, with the support of community activists, scholars, and the Black community in the state of Bahia was successful in the adoption of the system of quotas in more than 140 universities. By law this will ultimately extend to all public institutions of the country.
Although Dr. Sacramento's Affirmative Action reparation model has placed 30% of students of African ancestry into classrooms across the country, the affirmative action initiative continues to be viewed with skepticism and deep reservations. In her lecture, she shared with us a letter from an opponent of her work towards educational inclusivity. The sentiments of the writer were extremely negative, personally attacking, and a message of racial hatred. Dr. Sacramento stated that she also received several death threats, however she held on to the letter to be ever mindful of the importance of staying true to her held belief that education should be available and accessible to everyone in Brazil. She left us with this message, "What one does when faced with inequality is repair".
For me, as an American of African descent, traveling to African Diasporic regions of the world is a sojourn and an exploration of African self-consciousness. It is a liberatory practice - a relationship between information, comprehension, and application. I feel renewed and transformed with each trip abroad, and this one was no exception. This cultural experience offered us a global context in which to acquire personal growth and transformation. As Chief Diversity Officers and members of NADOHE, we have the tremendous opportunity to lead diversity initiatives in the U.S. with cultural humility, collective awareness, and a commitment to drawing attention to the depth and breadth of the diversity represented on our campuses.
I was curious to see how this experience impacted other diversity leaders. Below is the audio and transcription of a brief conversation I had with Dr. Benjamin Reece, former president of NADOHE and Vice President for Institution and Equity and Chief Diversity Officer at Duke University.
NADOHE Bahia, Brazil Tour: Conversation with Denise Boston, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion and Dr. Benjamin Reece
Dr. Boston: Hi, it’s morning here in Bahia, Brazil. My name is Denise Boston, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion and we’re sitting outside of a wonderful hotel by the Bay here? Its water, you’ll hear it in the background. It’s a beautiful day! And I have a guest that is just instrumental in why our group came to Bahia over the past week. And I will have him introduce himself and tell us about his vision and how we all got here. So, good morning.
Dr. Reece: Good morning. Good morning. This is really an exciting place to be interviewed, looking out at the water. I am Dr. Ben Reese, I am the Vice President for Institutional Equity and the Chief Diversity Officer at Duke University in North Carolina. And at the university I have the responsibility for diversity including inclusion, title nine, all of our affirmative action and equal opportunity work, harassment, discrimination prevention complaint handling, and etcetera. For the university and for the health system for three hospitals and clinics. But probably one of the most important events or periods in my, is contributing to the creation of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
A group of us came together, oh I guess, a little bit more than eleven years ago with the notion of creating an organization specifically for Chief Diversity Officers and people in similar roles, and I think all of us, a dozen or so that were involved in the creation of the organization, I think deeply involved in the issues of diversity broadly and race specifically for a number of years. Myself, I have been doing this work for 45 years. And so, we created this organization and we had about a hundred members when we started, and it’s really gratifying to see that we have about 600 members now. And I have been fortunate to have been president four of those ten years. We just at our last conference had our tenth anniversary celebration. But, in the last couple of years of my presidency I thought it was important for us to include internationalization and global affairs as part of our mission. When we first started the organization, a decade ago, the focus really was specifically on diversity, U.S. diversity and with a real focus on race. But the world certainly has changed. Higher Ed has changed over the last decade, and it really, to my mind, meant that we really had to think more broadly about diversity and outside of the United States. And so I created this committee on internationalization within NADOHE, and it was a bit controversial, because there were many members of the board who felt that we were an organization focused on U.S. diversity, race, and race relations. Were and are, certainly is an important part of our focus, and that the idea of visiting other countries, being focused on globalization, that that might dilute the focus on U.S. diversity. So, I did have a bit of push back, but I think what was helpful was when I engaged the president of the National Association of International Officers, and their kind of analogous to chief diversity officers. They are the most senior international officer at many colleges and universities. And so, as president of NADOHE, I was invited to their conference to give a presentation on how we might, the two areas might work together as well as the two organizations. And the president of their organization was invited to a NADOHE conference and we followed that up with a couple of panels to begin to look at more in detail how the two areas – US diversity and internationalization might have some useful and important connections. And I think that those meetings began to shift some of the thinking of the Board, and I began to get stronger support and broader support among the board members. And so this committee on international affairs, I gave three charges to. One of the charges was to create our first international mission - educational mission, and our deliberations resulted in two recommended areas of the country, of the world we might visit: one being South Africa and one being Cuba. And being at a time when Cuban, US relations were beginning to shift, and people were traveling more frequently to Cuba, and some of the constraints and restrictions were shifting, it just made an opportune time to really examine that culture and useful comparisons with US culture and our education. So Dr. Siri Brown, a professor in California, and someone who puts together international missions to four or five places in the world, Cuba being one of the major areas that she visits. I think she has taken upwards of twenty, twenty-five groups to Cuba, Dr. Brown organized a trip for NADOHE. And we took about 30 or so, Chief Diversity Officers, their colleagues, their partners, and friends for a trip to Cuba. And the meetings and lectures we attended were focused, somewhat on diversity, but really had a more zoom focus on race in the context of Cuban culture. It gave us an opportunity to make comparisons with US culture and also understand the context of race within a socialist country. In some ways reinforcing some of the things we had heard, and probably more importantly, bursting some of the myths that have been promulgated in the United States about Cuban society and race. So it was a real important experience.
It was during that trip that we began to have conversations about our next trip and Bahia, Brazil came up to the top of the list, because it has a particular focus on race and class. And many of us had the sense that conversations around Brazil being a quote “model of diversity” wasn’t perhaps accurate. So, making this trip to Bahia, Brazil, having the opportunity to really examine race in the context of politics, religion, the arts, music, and being able to hear from experts in all of those fields, being able to have real people-to-people engagement and conversations, and to be with a group of educators and colleagues who really appreciate and are highly motivated to examine the relationship between the two countries in terms of race, just made for a wonderful trip and a beautiful location.
So I think now, one of the next steps is for NADOHE to look at these two trips in relationship to a document I prepared for NADOHE. Before I stepped down, I prepared a two-page document that sort or lays the framework and a foundation for us looking at the rational for these kinds of trips: how do we decide where we are going to go; what do we hope to get out of these trips; what should ideally be the kinds of experiences that we hope to have; and, how do we evaluate, both the process that I’ve outlined, and well as the particular trip. So I look forward to working with my colleagues at NADOHE to examine this trip and, I am confident that it will result in preparations for the next trip to look at diversity, but really race more directly, and how race is engaged in other parts of the world – most likely the continent of Africa. So that’s exciting to think about the work that we have when we get back, but I am still on an emotional high looking out at the ocean and just reflecting on what this trip has meant for me professionally and personally.
Dr. Boston: This has been such just an amazing experience for all of us and I just want to say from all of us, thank you. Thank you for your vision. Thank you for your strategic, intentional plan of action. It will be something that will not only change the lives of the professionals on this trip, but people that we touch in the future – all the classes, all the students, all the faculty and staff that will hear our story and will want to come and be a part of this. One day we will expand this, and I am sure you will to other constituents on campuses, to understand the international connection we all need. The world is getting so small, you know with technology with these experiences and for me personally, I am coming back enlightened, inspired, and fired-up to do the diversity work that we are all here to do. Thank you again.
Dr. Reece: Oh, this has been just wonderful spending time with you and being on this trip. I am excited and fired-up also. Thank you.
Dr. Boston: Ashe.