In the Portuguese university city of Coimbra, we had an in-depth interview with Sara Araújo. She is a researcher of CES, the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra, as well as one of the coordinators of the Popular University of Social Movements (PUSM). Araújo told us everything about this transformative social and educational initiative, bringing the world of academics together with the world of social struggle: about it’s history and current activities (also related to the arts), about it’s principles and present-day challenges.
“The Popular University of Social Movements has two fundamental principles, in my reading of it: on the one hand it is the rapprochement between academia, on the other hand all the knowledge that is created from the social struggles and by the social movements. This idea of the Popular University of the Social Movements emerged in 2003, it was a proposal of Boaventura at the World Social Forum.
“[N]eo-liberalism is a force exactly because it manages to combine three main forms of oppression […]: capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy.”
The idea was that social movements would meet at the World Social Forum, and thus create a big impact, but also the idea of debating different struggles. The Forum wanted to connect movements, for example all sorts of feminist movements coming from the South, the North, from different ‘Souths’ existing. But what was missing was a collective logic that could propose a contra-hegemonic view that could be strong enough to attack the different forms of oppression. We know that neo-liberalism is a force exactly because it manages to combine three main forms of oppression, this is at least Boaventura’s reading based on the Epistemologies of the South which is the basis for all of us in the project ALICE, and that is that the forms of oppression are threefold: capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. And therefore in 2003 the idea was that the movements that resisted to capitalism, the movements that resisted to racism and those resisting patriarchy united. The Popular University of Social Movements emerged exactly with the idea to promote intercultural translation between the different forms of struggles.
The Popular University of Social Movements is not a conventional university. It is an occupation of the concept and of the word ‘university’. It took place in workshops of two days and it had at most one third intellectuals and academics, and two thirds were the different social movements. These workshops had starting themes, for example, women’s right, or a more specific topic such as that it is necessary to promote resistance in a space about women or women’s rights. It would be necessary to engage in this debate to not only start from feminist movements, but also from worker’s movements, the movement of the landless, indigenous movements, LGBT movements… All this in order to bring the actions of the struggle together, so that they could resist together to these different forms of oppression, in order that the global resistance could be stronger, that it could be at least as strong as neo-liberalism as a form of oppression.
“[T]he idea is to make the knowledge produced by the university more relevant for the social struggles and, on the other hand, that the social struggles challenge the academia but also use the academic knowledge to become stronger.”
The workshops worked very well, we organised a lot of them. The ALICE project organised many as well, because it changed in a way the methodological tools of the epistemologies of the South. Why? Because the epistemologies of the South, that is the concept from which we all started off, share essentially the idea of ecology of knowledge, a concept of Boaventura. It is the idea that every knowledge is incomplete, more specifically academic knowledge, scientific knowledge and therefore the construction of knowledge has to be made from the combination of the movement of the periphery, of the centre, of the street, of the university. And it is also therefore that the context that emerged here, also rethinks social sciences. But this will be a matter that we can talk about later. The PUSM was a methodology that we encounter until today and that we consider to be the best form of production of ecological knowledge and to produce knowledge that has a role, from the academia, but that is raised from the questions made by the social movements and that emerged from the social struggles. Therefore, the idea is to make the knowledge produced by the university more relevant for the social struggles and, on the other hand, that the social struggles challenge the academia but also use the academic knowledge to become stronger. Because from the moment the academic knowledge is an academic knowledge made from what emerged from below it will become more relevant to make the movements themselves stronger.
We organised a lot of workshops that can be consulted in the brochure we have. There is also a website of the PUSM and the ALICE project contains a lot of information about all this on the web page, as we organised more than twenty workshops between 2011 and 2016. The majority was organised in Latin America, but some took place on the African continent, one was organised in India and two in Europe. I am one of the coordinators for the moment, the team of coordination functions on a very informal basis because the PUSM does not have physical headquarters. The idea is that each person that has the intention to do it can be a part of it and can organise a PUSM. We are thus interested in the existence of various PUSMs through Europe.
Europe was where we had the most difficulties. Therefore, if we succeed from our jointed efforts, I would be glad to collaborate and contribute to think about the realisation of workshops of the PUSM here. I think that for the moment in Europe it is the moment to organise this and to bring together the various movements. Obviously, it cannot be only European. The ideal is to be intercontinental, but this would involve a high financial effort that is not always possible to make. But the PUSM has to commit to respect the charter of principles and a document of methodological orientation. But it is exactly thanks to a document of methodological orientation that we know that what makes sense in Portugal maybe does not in Brazil. Therefore, there exists some suggestion about how to process this PUSM, but after they have been appropriated by methodologies that make sense for those involved in the organisation. Obviously this raises some question from an academic point of view that we will try to overcome and we will try to solve because knowledge that emerges from one of the PUSM is not a knowledge possessed by someone. It is a knowledge that belongs to all. Universities and academia have a big tendency to only recognise knowledge that is signed at the bottom preferable by academic people, and most often they do not recognise as knowledge what is constructed outside the academia.
Even so, we came to fight a little against these matters and try to bring results of every PUSM, which are collectives, because the results, the process of construction of knowledge are not only the scientific articles, not only written things, but most often different things that depend on who is participating in the existing initiatives, and if you would go to the web page of PUSM you would encounter some documentation, sometimes written, sometimes in a video, or a musical piece, or sometimes it would be specific actions of resistance. But the idea that every PUSM can allow that this network can enlarge, a network that connects various movements. Because if there would be 30 movements that participated to a PUSM or even only 20, if every person that participated could bring home this idea and build something based there upon, eventually it would be a web that would enlarge more and more and we hope also would be more and more meaningful. I think that something will work, because there is a reason why you contacted us. What means that each one of us is making an effort on the place where he or she is, but at one point there is someone passing on the message that will put all of us in contact.
“Social transformation depends a lot on what we feel, on our emotions and, therefore, the bond between people is absolutely fundamental to have a will to make some effort.”
The summer school called ‘Epistemologies of the South‘ is the third edition that we organise. In fact, we organised the first edition in 2014 and then, the edition of 2014 was organised in the middle of the ALICE project. The ALICE project started in 2011 and ended officially in 2016 and the school was already foreseen from the beginning of the project. What happened so far? The school was surprisingly successful from the beginning, it was beyond our expectations and we became more ambitious concerning what the summer school was. Last year we organised another, in 2016, and we realised that this initiative had to be continued, because what happened? Last year we wrote a call for application for 40 vacancies and we received 180 applications. This year we wrote a new call for 40 vacancies and we received 220 applications. It is also our way to respond to what we are receiving. We commit ourselves to organise another summer school next year to increase a little bit the possibilities for people to participate.
The format of the summer school is ten days in a residential space with at least 40 participants. We stay together in a comfortable space, where the tasks happen with a certain simplicity, outside of spaces, including, formal spaces, because the following idea started to be more important: that we wanted it to be a space where people feel comfortable. This is something absolutely fundamental for us because the Epistemologies of the South are based on scientific reason and on warm reason. We are not eager to create a summer school that contains competitive minds of the academia, we leave these matters aside. The school has to be, in the first place, a place where people feel comfortable, where people feel at ease to share what they feel and create bonds with each other, because no one – as Boaventura said various times – “no one will go out of his home to give his life to social struggle because reason ordered him.” Social transformation depends a lot on what we feel, on our emotions and, therefore, the bond between people is absolutely fundamental to have a will to make some effort. Boaventura often said that that the proof that an academic was compassionate towards social struggle was when he/she made himself/herself available to stand next to a person suffering from oppression, to take the same risks as that person. And if it would be necessary to go on the streets to run the risk to die, what can happen during social struggle manifestations, you have to be willing to do so. I think that obviously warm reason is very important here.
During the summer school there are moments, when seminars take place, organised by researchers of the CES (Centro de Estudos Sociais of the Universidade de Coimbra), but also always with someone invited with a different background who comes to discuss with us, assuring there is always a good balance between the academic register and other kinds of spaces. This year, for example, we had a rap workshop, a slam verse workshop, a poetry workshop, a drama workshop and a workshop of indigenous cooking. All theses spaces constitute learning moments but foremost, together they make this school different than others. As a rule, we always have a moment during the school when we are aiming at showing something from the South, from the North, and we do what we call a sociology of emergency, that is, identify experiences of resistance outside the school, this exists in Portugal and shows that the issues of the South for the Epistemologies of the South, are not only geographic issues but also metaphorical ones. In our language of the Epistemologies of the South, deep down what you are doing is a digital mapping of the South, the North, because the South emerges as this metaphor of resistance that springs from the social struggle. This year we visited a women cooperative in the interior of Portugal, in a little village where the major part of the persons leave after some years because there seems not be happening a lot there. Maybe you know of this matter, which is one of the biggest problems in the interior of Portugal, the ‘desertification’. There was a group of women who came together to create a cooperative that produces clothes from local materials. This is always an extraordinary experience, not only because it is an opportunity for all of us to be aware of the existence of such projects, but also, obviously, this is a kind of day to step outside the school, it is a space of interaction, a space for people to get to know each other better.
“[F]rom the moment [the European Council of Research] accepted our proposal that refuses the exclusivity of hegemonic thinking, obviously we could not accept the exclusivity of the hegemonic language English.”
The school has some challenges, one of these is the matter of language, more specifically because it is a matter we are debating since the very beginning of the ALICE project. The ALICE project was a project financed by the European Council for Research and, therefore, it is a project that had to be formulated in English and theoretically that had to be developed in English. Now what happens is that this is in absolute contradiction with what is proposed in the Epistemologies of the South and therefore we had to justify this before the European Council of Research, because from the moment they accepted our proposal that refuses the exclusivity of hegemonic thinking, obviously we could not accept the exclusivity of the hegemonic language English. Therefore, it made no sense that Professor Boaventura would have chosen his team depending on the languages they speak. We are thus thriving, now and in the future permanently, to look for experiences to understand and attempts to understand how things can work when three languages are present simultaneously. We work with three languages, Portuguese, English and Spanish. These continue to be colonial languages, but at least they enlarge the range of people with whom it is possible to discuss. This year we had the support of the CES, because we offered scholarships to participate in the summer school. The other candidates paid a tuition fee that covered all activities, from the accommodation, to the meals, all material for the workshops and of course the courses, because none of the engaged academics working for the summer school received some financial compensation for the courses they gave.
“I think that we may not accept this fallacy that knowledge has to be fast and immediate, and produced really fast, and that velocity is the most important matter.”
To tell the truth, this year the CES, apart from this grant, gave us support to be able to organise simultaneous translation. This year we also had a rather interesting situation: we had a colleague that was a professional interpreter who volunteered when the translators were not present, because we did not have the money to have translators 100% of the time during ten days. Thus, she occupied a translation booth, left vacant by the translators, and as a great help during some moment in matters of translation. Afterwards in all other spaces, we tried to unite in groups and, for example, if there was someone speaking in English and Spanish, he or she would translate for people of a certain side. It is difficult, it is challenging, sometimes things take forever, because sometimes the translation has to be sequential, but I think that we may not accept this fallacy that knowledge has to be fast and immediate, and produced really fast, and that velocity is the most important matter. I think that this will be one of the principal mistakes of the academics. This devaluation of everything that is not immediate, everything that does not translate in these or other scientific outputs that overwhelms us permanently and frightens permanently even all researchers. Because what happens often is that we are reproducing the same knowledge and producing things that are not innovative, nor transformative. Therefore, we want to bet on better knowledge, because it is an enlarged knowledge, and favoring it in relation to knowledge produced fast. This part is not an extraordinary innovation of the ALICE project or of the Epistemologies of the South, there exists trends of slow science in Europe as well. What we try to bring along to this is not only a slow science, it is a knowledge that goes way further than science, and therefore, it is a knowledge that has to be relevant for social change, because if it were a knowledge that is only relevant for our own CVs, only for our own bibliographies, it would not be that interesting. It is obvious that we have to find a balance, because we know that the funding and the whole logic of evaluation is made according to the scientific papers.
“Since a couple of years a discourse exists, even on the left, about the youth being apathetic, disinterested in politics or social movements. The truth is, what this discourse tries to render invisible is a range of other forms of expression of other narratives that are emerging from other spaces, and one of these spaces is art.”
There is one thing, I think, that distinguishes Boaventura from most other social scientists, especially those scientists who have had a career of the same length as Boaventura. Boaventura never accommodates and never stops to listen. One of the things that always surprises me in our work is the capacity he has to identify from where the innovations for resistance come from. Since a couple of years a discourse exists, even on the left, about the youth being apathetic, disinterested in politics or social movements. The truth is, what this discourse tries to render invisible is a range of other forms of expression of other narratives that are emerging from other spaces, and one of these spaces is art. In the arts Boaventura identifies many discourses of resistance, there is a lot of knowledge emerging from hip-hop and rap. He knows some rappers, for example Renan Inquérito, who starts to bring him a set of ideas and forms that challenge him to think and communicate in other ways. Many years ago Boaventura published a book entitled ‘Rap Global‘ (Global Rap), that after the publication was transformed by the rappers themselves in the work of Rap Global. And thus, there appears a range of languages, of discourses, that seem really important.
In 2013, a project emerges out of trial and error, emerging from a challenge coming from a painter in Portugal who wanted to do something with Boaventura and Boaventura responded: I accept to participate in your project, but I want to participate in this project with rappers, I want to participate in this project with persons who also help us, and that teach us and that bring us other types of knowledge into this project. And it was around that time that he challenged rappers in Portugal, it was LBC Soldjah, Hezbó, Chullage and Capicua, and what happened was a combination between them, they wrote some rap lyrics from the conversations they had with one another, with Boaventura, with the ALICE project and with the Epistemologies of the South. In this project, A mulher do Cacilheiro emerged, it is for me a song that is a treaty about what the project ALICE stands for, what the Epistemologies of the South stand for, and about how the different forms of oppression exist in our society. But other things also emerged from this and this project was the closure of the big event of the ALICE project, together with the conference we organised in 2013, for which more than 700 persons attended. The event occupied the whole city, it involved not only six plenary sessions with an academic register, it involved around 500 active participants in parallel sessions, it involved various projects that linked artistic expression with what were working on. One of these projects was a show named ‘Há Palavras que Nasceram Para a Porrada‘ (Some words were born to hit) and it was a year of dialogue between us, between de rappers involved. It ended midnight on the 13th of July of 2013, it was a very beautiful show, that was integrated in the festivities of the city – during which the Praça do Comércio was completely crowded and I think it gave us a lot of energy to understand that something there was really right, even though the difficulties we had a long the way, even in the project itself, of things that are always difficult, because we speak different languages.
I think that all of us had to learn a lot, but there was really a certain enthusiasm for this thing to turn into a continuous event, because it had to be more than that. Thus we stayed in touch with the rappers and we also started to create a link between us and their association for which they work in Lisbon in the Cova da Moura, named ‘Moinho da Juventude’. Last year, we received a proposal to organise here in Coimbra the Opera do Rap Global, which we were originally organising in Brazil. They managed to find the funding to cover the transportation and we had to find the money here to pay for the accommodation, for the show, and that kind of stuff. We were very enthusiastic and everything was going ahead, and then what happened? There was a coup in Brazil. The impact for us was that the funding, that had been guaranteed by the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Culture disappeared, and thus the money that we needed for the project wasn’t there 15 days before it had to take place. I called Boaventura and asked him: “What are we going to do? We stop everything? We are not going to proceed?” And Boaventura answered: “Sara, we cannot do this. If you want to be together with me in this project we are going to do things together, if we cancel something because there is a coup in Brazil, we also lose the opportunity to report and denounce what is happening over there. Because we cannot let this happen.”
“[S]oon we thought: no, we are going to organise something bigger, it is going to be like a variety show, an ecology of knowledge on stage and e ware going to bring a range of people to participate.”
There was a lot of solidarity of some persons with whom we worked, some were contacted on very short notice, because the initial idea at that moment was to organise a first part with the Opera do Rap Global and to give afterwards some space for some musicians. But soon we thought: no, we are going to organise something bigger, it is going to be like a variety show, an ecology of knowledge on stage and we are going to bring a range of people to participate. Soon it started to transform from an event of rap and poetry, which was the initial idea, into a ecology show of knowledge that included slam poetry – we had a lot of contact with people involved in slam poetry. We had some friends who were related to the slam poetry movement and who joined us. We brought funk music, gypsy music, we brought a storyteller who knew oral stories from here, the periphery of Coimbra, Boaventura recited a poem named ‘O Ato Criador’ (The creating act), that was also a very important and very interesting and about which you could talk with Boaventura afterwards, and soon thereafter, all these event transformed in something bigger.”
Interview by O LIMPO Rio – SAGIKOLIBRI
Photo by Universidade de Coimbra