When Professor of Labor Studies Ruth Needleman, Ph.D., received a Fulbright Fellowship to spend four months in 2008 teaching and doing research in Brazil, she knew that her passing familiarity with Portuguese would not be sufficient to meet her communication needs in that country.
So Needleman took a three-week, four-hour-a-day immersion course in the language. Even that, she said, did not completely prepare her to teach her Brazilian graduate students, but the truly ironic moment in her trip came when Needleman was asked to give an address to a group of Latin American students … in Spanish.
“I was invited to give a speech on race, class and gender,” Needleman recalled. “They had people who had come from all over Latin America – Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil. There were 75 people, from teenagers to older people, but they were all rural activists. And they’d come to this institute to learn how to teach better.
“It was funny, because I was a Latin American major and I spoke Spanish, and the first thing they said to me when I got there was, ‘Do you think you can speak in Spanish instead of Portuguese?’ I said, ‘No.’ I mean, my Spanish is hibernating. The only way I could learn Portuguese was to put my Spanish away.”
Language difficulties aside, Needleman expressed amazement at the thoughtful and complex questions asked of her by her audience.
“They wanted to know about the black movement. They wanted to know about Puerto Rico. They wanted to know what I thought about Barack Obama,” Needleman said. “I’ve never been asked questions as difficult as the questions these people asked me. Their level of understanding there is so advanced.”
Needleman taught a graduate class on race, class and gender, in which she compared the American and Brazilian experience. She said that master’s-level work in Brazil is nearly equivalent to doctoral work in the States.
What she learned about racial issues and identity in Brazil convinced Needleman that the two countries have an exciting mix of commonalities and distinctions that could lead to fruitful cross-cultural exchanges, she said.
“They (Brazil) had the largest population of African slaves in the hemisphere, and they did not abolish slavery until 1888,” Needleman explained. “They didn’t abolish the cross-Atlantic trade in slavery until 1850. So the African experience and culture is much stronger in Brazil. It’s almost impossible to say, but probably 70 percent of the people there are of mixed heritage.
“The Brazilian black community relied tremendously on the United States and its history of struggle to find ways to fight their battle, even though their situation was different,” she added. “(This experience) really gave me insight into our experience here, into barriers, into integration, into questions of self-identity.”
Needleman also continued her research into the Brazilian labor movement’s adult-education programs, which she said has transformed the lives of many rural, illiterate, poverty-stricken Brazilians of all ethnic backgrounds. Needleman hopes that her work in this area will yield insights into how adult education can become more successful in this country, as well.
Needleman said she attended a graduation ceremony at a school run by the metalworkers’ union there and was deeply moved by the impact education had had on the graduates.
“This woman, who is now 40 years old and has a 15-year-old son … said that her son never talked to her about anything because she couldn’t read and write,” Needleman recalled. “It’s not that he didn’t respect her; it’s just that he didn’t think she understood anything. Now they have conversations, and now she’s challenging him by saying that she will go to college before he does. She said, ‘You know what, now I’m somebody.’ Those were her exact words – ‘Now I’m somebody.’”
Needleman explained that adult education in Brazil, which in many cases is offered to members of the sponsoring unions as well as non-members, is typically taught in an integrated format, which means lessons are not divided according to subject but are multidisciplinary and are geared toward practical topics that are relevant to the students’ daily lives.
“They don’t teach people math, science, language, and social studies,” she explained. “They teach people themes that mean something in their life: unemployment; technology; globalization. Within each of these themes, you learn the disciplines in an applied fashion. So you learn math and economics by looking at the cost of the food and how it changes; you learn how to calculate inflation and how to figure out what foods to buy. You learn history by starting with your family and understanding where you family was at different times.
“I am going to be writing about this, because I think that most people, and not just adults but everybody, learns better when you’re learning applied knowledge and not abstract knowledge,” Needleman said.
The Division of Labor Studies has led several student trips to Brazil in recent years to study that country’s labor movements and their relationship to education, society and governance. Needleman will accompany another such trip in March 2009.