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Conference Recognizes Favela Communities’ Expertise in Media and Activism

by PPGMC UFF

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From May 14 to 16, 2018, Rio’s Federal Fluminense University (UFF) hosted the 7th Seminar on Media and Everyday Life, with the theme “Mediatization and Connected Society: Spaces and Memories of Everyday Life.” The first day’s events were held at the Maré Museum in Complexo da Maré, focusing on community activists’ uses of media aimed at fostering democracy and social inclusion. It gathered different local practitioners in Rio, researchers working in Brazil and abroad, and participants in the e-Voices Network, which connects activists who use media to promote rights in Kenya, Syria, and Brazil.

The event was an opportunity to strengthen community initiatives and develop a long-term dialogue between researchers and community-based activists, in a growing trend in academic research towards more collaborative, inclusive, and ethical research agendas that centralize the voices and expertise of local actors.

The day began with a guided visit to the Maré Museum, which recently celebrated its twelfth anniversary, and continued with a roundtable discussion among activists, researchers, and students.

Connecting activists in Brazil, Kenya, and Syria

The event offered an opportunity for Rio activists to share their expertise and knowledge with researchers and practitioners from other contexts. One of the aims of the conference, in particular of the e-Voices Network, was to produce a guide on media and activism that combines the experiences in the three countries, as well as a practitioners’ guide on ethical research and community-based media work. Another planned output is a ‘story map’ that will locate and narrate the story of each participating activist platform.

The following Rio-based initiatives were present: the community media platform Maré Vive, the NA Favela audiovisual nucleus (Maré), the gun violence monitoring app Defezap, the Maré Museum and the Social Museology Network, film club Favela Cineclube (from Providência), media-activist collective Coletivo Papo Reto (from Alemão), and the community newspaper O Cidadão (Maré). International initiatives included Pawa254, which is based in Kenya, and Telecenter.org Foundation’s Sparklab, which is based in the United States and works in Syria among many other countries.

Favelas: spaces of democracy

Museu da Maré director Cláudia Rose Ribeiro da Silva opened the discussion, highlighting how the mainstream media works to the benefit of dominant groups by portraying favelas as spaces of violence, crime, and policing. She reminded all present that this discourse on violence is used as a justification to disrespect human rights in the favela. However, she added, hegemonic discourses and agendas will not be victorious as long as communities discuss and propose alternatives. This is the power of media and activism in Rio’s communities. “We are evidence that authority and power do not win, that they cannot oppress people indefinitely,” she highlighted.

Following this, each activist group gave an account of the history and mission of their trajectory and initiative. Some, such as Maré Vive, Coletivo Papo Reto, and Defezap, talked about how media can be used to denounce abuses of power by the police and other human rights violations. On this note, they also stressed the desire to move away from a focus on security and crime, wishing to bring positive favela realities to the forefront. Others, such as Cineclube Revolucionário, which organizes film showings and political debates in Providência, stressed that the favela is not only “the target of analysis,” but also a space in which analyses and debates are produced.

Finally, representatives from the Maré Museum, Jornal O Cidadão, and the NGO CEASM, highlighted that community media is important in creating a collective memory of which favela residents can be proud. Through community media residents see themselves represented in newspapers, movies, online platforms, and other spaces. Initiatives that value local history, knowledge, projects, and people help create an “intellectual and artistic elite in the community,” as CEASM and Maré Museum director Lourenço Cezar da Silva put it. All these efforts come together to promote the development of communities usually neglected by the State, making favelas and their residents the defenders and agents of democracy.

Throughout the discussion, participants underlined the importance of access to higher education through affirmative action and scholarship schemes. Dr. Renata Souza, a Maré native, postdoctoral researcher at UFF, and former Chief of Staff for slain City Councillor Marielle Franco, stressed that, for her, the university is a “trench” from which she and other favela residents can fight by telling their own narratives. Looking to the future, she said: “Our experiences will become public policies, not cold public security data. The priority here is the favela resident.”

Lessons learned

The exchange continued in workshops and working groups over the following days, but this first day already articulated commonalities among the participating groups and lessons to be learned.

The great advantage of community-based media is the flexibility of its methodologies, which are not only organically developed from within the community, but also constantly responding to it. Discussants related how their projects respond to changes and shifts in local needs, especially when dealing with issues of security and human rights abuses.

When dealing with denunciations of violence and abuse, their approaches give priority to humanizing each case, responding to residents with the due attention and adapting their methods on a case-by-case basis. This is important for creating a sense of community and support in moments of grief and pain. Academic research can certainly learn much from this approach.

Community activists, reporters, and artists also have unique knowledge of the local community. Their groundedness in the communities provides them with privileged access to information as well as to spaces and locations that outsiders often cannot access. For example, when filming police operations, Coletivo Papo Reto members are sometimes allowed to enter people’s homes to film from their balconies. Their deeper knowledge of the community’s history and the story of each resident enables them to produce outputs that value the community, further empowering residents by challenging stigmas and stereotypes.

Community-based and activist media is therefore a democratic tool that residents use to raise awareness of issues important to favela residents, denounce abuses, and disturb dominant discourses, not only directed at outsiders but also for audiences within favelas. In this way, community media mobilizes residents, empowering them and promoting political awareness and engagement. In their initiatives, as Souza affirmed, “theory and practice complement each other,” and experience takes center stage. These lessons are relevant to all researchers, reporters, activists, and other professionals whose work engages with favelas and favela residents.