Note from BW of Brazil: The story of Joana Guimarães Luz is inspiring as much as it represents the struggles of so many black people who come from poor backgrounds. To keep it 100, the fact that Joana is the first black woman to become a dean of a federal college or university in Brazil speaks volumes for how far behind the country is in terms of achievements of its black population. It’s now 2020, but because of the association of black people with manual, menial labor, people are still shocked when they come across a black judge, a black doctor, or a black CEO. You can’t really blame the people because this association between race and place is one that Brazil has constructed for centuries. I guess this just means there needs to be more black judges, black doctors and black CEOs.
Joana Guimarães Luz is the first black woman elected dean of a federal college or university in Brazil
Joana, who is now 61 years old, was born in Itajuípe, Bahia, and believes that the diversity of people in the environment of research opens doors to innovation and helps change the world
Courtesy of Revista Marie Claire
From her most vivid memories of childhood, Joana Guimarães Luz especially likes to remember one: her mother’s hunger for reading. “In my head it was the image of her devouring (author) Monteiro Lobato on a hot afternoon in our first house, in the interior of Bahia.”
Joana, who is now a 61-year-old dean at the Universidade Federal do Sul da Bahia (Federal University of Southern Bahia or UFSB) in Itabuna, is the first-born of a family of six children who maintained itself planting and harvesting cocoa on farms in the interior of the state. More precisely in Itajuípe, a small town of 21 thousand inhabitants. “We lived in the countryside, but one day my mother decided to take us to Salvador, where we would have a better education and chances of getting out of poverty. I was about 9 years old. Deep down, she knew that only education would save us. That’s exactly what happened. All my siblings follow solid professions stemming from college,” she says.
Joana has the title of the first black dean elected at a federal university in Brazil. The position, which she has occupied since the end of 2017, has become a kind of “positive showcase” for other black women who dream of following her feat. “I know the strength of the representativeness I exert while I am where I am. Most of the deans in the country are white males. We have 63 federal universities and only 19 women in charge of them. When we talk about black women, the scenario is worse. I’m the only one inactivity,” she says.
In this interview, Joana tells of her origins, the influence of her parents, rural workers in love with books, and the challenge she has taken for herself: that of building a more diverse and open university for all.
MARIE CLAIRE: About your family: could your parents study like you?
JOANA GUIMARÃES: Up to a point. My father studied until fourth grade and, because of this, he could read and write. My mother studied until the second (grade), and she could read. It was even what she did when she had free time. I grew up in a house where reading was a habit and a pleasure. They taught this to all their children. Later my father got a job in Salvador, and sometimes he even thought about going back to the countryside with the excuse that we would never lack food. But my mother said, “I’m starving, but my children will not leave school.”
MC: It seems that your mother’s obstinacy indeed transformed your future. Were all six children able to finish their studies?
JG: All. There’s even another story of mine worth telling. As soon as I entered my first major, of philosophy, I was approved in a Caixa Económica (bank) competition and it was a dilemma, to accept the work, which paid well and could improve the situation of my family, or follow the course, which was full time. My parents told me to study and reject the job. If we had lived here in those conditions, I could hold on for a few more years. That’s what I did.
MC: When you say “under those conditions”, you mean they were difficult? Did you go hungry, for example?
JG: Yes. There was a time when we were still children and lived in the interior, that if it weren’t for my great-aunt, we wouldn’t have had anything to eat. She also had no money, but there was a backyard of her house where she planted beans, herbs, and tomatoes. She would pick it and take it all to us. For a time in our lives, that’s what we ate. My father never stopped working, but for a family of six, the money was little. My siblings and I have always had odd jobs, reconciling with our studies. But it wasn’t much money that we got. Anyway, there was a sense of cooperation. Everyone helped and because of this, I was able to attend college.
MC: But you concluded the philosophy course, right? You switched courses and went to study in the United States.
JG: Yes, I did my third year of philosophy and then I studied geology, which is the area in which I majored. I did my masters, doctorate, and post-doctoral studies. The last two, in the United States, with my husband at the time and my little daughter. At first, I had gone with him, because he already had a doctoral scholarship. To get mine, I knocked from door to door for a professor who would accept me as a doctoral student. Until I got it, and with a full scholarship.
MC: Since you took over as dean of UFSB, you have implemented measures to make the university more diverse. What are they?
JG: At the Federal University of Southern Bahia we have 75% of the quotas reverted to students of public schools. In this amount, there are quotas for black students also, 50%. Another measure was quotas for transgender, gypsy and indigenous students, for example. These are quotes that don’t enter the 75%, because they are as extra vacancies destined to these populations. The university needs to reflect on society. And society is not just made up of pessoas brancas (white people) coming from private schools. It is much more complex and diverse than that. When there are blacks in the university environment, as well as people with disabilities and LGBTs, a range of opportunities opens up, because these people come with a new culture and different ways of seeing the world. This opens doors to innovation and helps change the world.
MC: At some point was racism a hindrance to your professional path?
JG: I wouldn’t say a barrier, because I didn’t get somewhere because of it. But even today, even as a dean, racism, and sexism affect me, yes. It’s common for me to be in a meeting or event, to make my comments, and then someone else says exactly what I said as if what I said hadn’t been heard. They silence me in my own presence. I know they do this because they are accustomed to treating blacks, and especially black women, like that. That is why it is so frequent. As for me in these situations, I have already remained silent, I’ve already been already hurt, I’ve already been indignant. Today, I make myself heard.
With information from Revista Marie Claire