Note from BW of Brazil: It should be pretty clear by now why this blog focuses so much on the acceptance of natural black hair and black identity. Ever since the first Africans arrived on the territory that would later become known as Brazil, a Eurocentric perspective that belittled everything connected to African ancestry sought and continues to seek the total annihilation of African-ness through the every day psychological assaults on the black aesthetic as well as physical violence on black bodies as well as houses of worship that remind Brazilians of their African history. And even as accepting one’s blackness continues to be an uphill battle in a nation that has never hid its desire to be white, projects such as the one featured today show that there is still a glimmer of resistance.
Students from Rio de Janeiro (RJ) form a collective to empower girls and combat machismo and racism in school
Acceptance, motivation and self-esteem. These are the three principles that guide the initiative of students of the Levy Miranda Municipal School, located in the community of Morro do Chapadão, in Rio de Janeiro (RJ). Transforming the day-to-day life of the entire school, five freshman students formed a collective to empower girls and combat machismo and racism inside and outside the school environment.
Through turban workshops, Afro hairstyles, sharing of ideas to care for cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair), and debates about the consequences of machismo and racial prejudice, members of the “Solta esse black” (set your ‘fro free) project have been able to significantly reduce oppression and are contributing to the appreciation of identidade negra (black identity) in school. The initiative was one of the winners in the last edition of the school’s Desafio Criativos (Creative Challenge).
Criativos da Escola is a global movement that takes place in 35 countries. It first emerged in India with the name Planejamento para Mudança (Planning for Change). The initiative was launched in Brazil in 2015, by the Alana Institute, with the name Criativos da Escola, “because it made more sense for the reality of Brazilian students and educators,” said the project’s adviser at the Alana Institute, Gabriel Salgado.
Statistics show that about 80% of those enrolled last year were from public schools and of the 11 awardees, only one was from a private school, the spokesperson recalled. In the first edition of the award, 419 projects were registered, with five groups awarded. In 2016, the institute received 1,014 entries, rewarding 11 teams of students and mentors from various regions of the country: one from Rio de Janeiro, three from Ceará, two from São Paulo, two from Bahia, one from Minas Gerais, one from Rio Grande do Sul and one from Mato Grosso do Sul.
Representatives of the 11 groups traveled to Salvador last December to develop a series of activities and build a joint project, passing on the message of teamwork. Each group received R$2 thousand and each educator, R$500.
No machismo and no racism
The motivation to create the collective arose from the girls’ willingness to put an end to the oppressive situations they experienced in the classroom through sexist comments from the boys. Together, the students joined forces and took a new stand against the situations that bothered them in the everyday in school and beyond. “I don’t need boys saying that I’m wonderful or my mother to say I’m beautiful, but I this about myself. It’s not just any nasty comment that will shake up what I think about myself and all this I learned together with them,” reports student Lydianne Ribeiro.
To start the project, the five young people had the idea of creating in the school a space of exclusive conversation where they could talk about their experiences and anguishes. In one of these dialogues, the girls came up with a very delicate subject for them: hair transition. That is, stop using hair straightening chemicals in their hair and assuming their natural tresses. According to the members of the group, this is a difficult moment of self-acceptance and self-knowledge, and many people give up and go back to straightening their hair. “At first it was very critical, even my father wanted to shave my head. From the age of eight I straightened my hair, I didn’t accept myself at all,” recalls student Camila Santos.
Another observation by the students during the project was that black identity is neglected not only in school but in various spheres of society and that this made them even more insecure. With the support of teacher Pâmela Souza, they decided to collaborate with the change in this scenario. “Every time I tried to approach the topic of feminism in a timely manner in classrooms it was very exhausting and the girls couldn’t talk,” recalls the educator.
Souza says that the project was initiated by a group of more than 100 girls who came to her to discuss women’s issues of their teenage years, such as being a woman, what it is to be a woman in the favela, how society sees black women, and teenage pregnancy. The debates began with small meetings.
Thinking of expanding the project, the girls decided to move from room to room to invite young people from the other classes of the school to also be part of the group. “From the beginning, the girls were very open and then we started to deal with our three points: acceptance, motivation and self-esteem,” explains Lydianne. Already in the first workshop, the girls managed to gather more than 200 students. “That’s when I understood that this is my source of energy and I want to pass it on,” she adds.
“This turned out to be our demand and we decided to start a project.” The students promoted workshops and debates, including on the internet, on the subject. “We did a beautiful movement at school.” The consequence was the appreciation of Afro hair and self-esteem among the girls, who “got together to go through that difficult period of stop using chemicals and letting their hair grow” and supplanting jokes and nasty comments from the boys, said Pamela.
For student Lorrane Barbosa, the “Solta esse black” contributed to the recognition of her identity. “Everything changed: the way I dressed, talking and the things I liked. My transformation was for the better. Today I feel like a person renewed and well with life,” she emphasizes.
The movement won over the entire school and expanded the number of students who assumed their original cabelo crespo, seeing beauty in it. “The impact on school was incredible. It went beyond hair. Even girls who didn’t speak to each other, who had fights, came together. They started to take better care of themselves, to talk, to look at each other,” observed the teacher.
Freedom to be who we are
Although the initiative started in 2015, when students Camila, Layz, Lydianne, Amanda and Lorrane were in the 9th year of elementary school, and it took place last year when the students were still studying at school, the group remains mobilized so that the project involves even more young people from high school. “The younger girls are the fruits [of the project]. We figured the project would work, but not with the impact it had,” Lydianne celebrates.
Today, the Levy Miranda Municipal School coexists with lectures and talks about female empowerment, workshops on hair care and debates against racism and machismo, as well as other demands raised by students on a daily basis.
The students now want to take the project to the community. A meeting is scheduled for May, for this purpose, in the Complexo do Chapadão, in the north, where all women with cabelo crespo will be invited to participate. And it doesn’t stop there. The girls are already thinking about extending “Solta essa Black” to other schools, to meet the requests that are beginning to emerge for appreciation of natural hair. “The thing is, you look pretty the way you are and wanting to assume the natural cabelo crespo,” Pamela said.
For teacher Pâmela, the project responded to an urgent demand that existed in the school, but that was not dealt with explicitly. “We pretend beauty is not important and talking about hair is not enough. In our school, the majority [of people] are black and what the students did was transforming their self-esteem,” she points out. Student Lydianne confirms: “I suffered a lot from the bad comments about myself and talking about it was liberating. I no longer feel like I’m in a cage, oppressed. I feel like a free bird.”