Young feminists have reacted especially quickly to the pandemic’s impact on marginalized groups, young women and girls. The gendered impacts of surveillance technologies, state oppression, and immediate economic contraction are too familiar for those who have already been working with a feminist approach, but the exacerbated impact of the pandemic has spurred feminists to collaborate more, reflect on the rapidly shiftling landscapes together, and be especially creative in thinking about pathways and solutions.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bárbara Paes, a young Brazilian feminist who works at the intersection of technology and social justice, the co-founder of Minas Programam, a collective project from São Paulo, Brazil led by mostly young women of color to learn programming skills and other abilities. She also works at The Engine Room. While it was many years ago that we met at APC’s Feminist Internet meeting in Malaysia, we’ve shared conversations over the years on the state of feminist funding, young feminist-led activism, and Black feminist activism in Brazil. For this conversation, we delved deeper into Paes’ formational experiences as a young feminist, her practices in terms of leadership and partnership, a Black feminist perspective on the co-optation of gender issues in technology spaces, and some of the projects that she’s been working on during the pandemic that has enormously affected Brazil.
Barbara Paes: Working for these organizations, sometimes we lose our own voices. I think that we end up losing a bit of our own opinions, what motivates us, besides the work (that we choose to do). I think it’s great that you’re doing this New Wave.
Ani Hao: That’s so nice to hear, thank you. The idea for New Wave, the newsletter about young feminists also cames from my experience in journalism, because I interview these people for these articles and these interviews never - I can never use all of them, like not even a fourth or fifth of what the person is saying to me. These last interviews for Teen Vogue, the interviews were incredible, and I was able to use one paragraph for Teen Vogue. [laughs] If young feminists are able to be in the media, if they are able to say like one or two paragraphs, [then that’s already a lot], I think that people need to see more articles written by them, more articles, and more. I was going to ask you about the themes that interest me in general, I always wanted to share more of young feminists’ personal context, like childhood, how you grew up, your formative experiences, how you began to identify as feminist, and more personal aspects.
BP: I think that, well, I’ve already thought a lot about this. How I molded myself, and it’s a bit wild. There is a series of things, like how I was raised, that there was no way that I wouldn’t become feminist, but I am still thinking that the years that were very important for me were during high school. There was a shift [for me], going from private school and then at 14 years old, going to a public [high] school in São Paulo. That experience changed me a lot. I think at that time, I didn’t identify as feminist, but it was very important that I became politicized in other aspects. Before, I had thought of some things as being very individual, I didn’t necessarily think that they were part of political phenomenons. I went to a [new] school that was very diverse, that had a decades-long history of student activism. And then after university, I thought about these issues a lot, and I discovered feminism in a deeper way than I had before, especially because I began to organize with other feminist women, other Black women, who listened to me. I think that when I was younger, I had to learn how to listen to other experiences in order to begin to articulate [my own thoughts].
The evolution of how I see feminism comes from Black women’s thought and production. Some people that I met at university, part of this space that was just made up of women to discuss gender issues during undergraduate. This space was so important to me because I think - that there is a thing of moral superiority in Brazil. This thing of - who have you read? Who has been in certain spaces? Who has already read that text that’s considered part of the canon of that kind of literature? It was important to have a space where it wasn’t necessary to prove myself, to prove certain kinds of aspects. It was important to have a space where I felt safe, [especially] to create new projects.
The evolution of how I see feminism comes from Black women’s thought and production.
AH: I think you’re talking about spaces where you have autonomy and where you feel like you’re part of something.
BP: Absolutely. I think that - well, it’s crazy, because I’m 27 years old, I have been working in some organizations for a while already. Minas Programam is a project that I founded, and I have a certain visibility. But Brazil is a very racist country. And still, until today, many people don’t see me, or people like me, as leaders. Yesterday, Minas Programam together with PretaLab, we talked about some skills that are necessary, since this is a formational course. You could look at it and say, ah, it’s a course. It’s a course just for Black women. I never thought that a space to talk about technology could be just to train Black women. It’s crazy, because it’s so important that we are also thought of as leaders in this area. I think it’s important for us to see ourselves as leaders, but to be trained in technology, for us to see ourselves as a person who is thinking about how to produce technology and not reproduce oppressions. Principally because - so that Black women can - there isn’t a worry, we think a lot about our people, how these forms of oppression, how to see spaces to think about these things, it’s really important for us.
More than ever, digital technologies are multiplying the oppressions that we face everyday. To be in this space yesterday with these Black Women, and discuss how these technologies are created, this has been extremely important for my feminist practice, because generally we are excluded from these processes. Even in spaces that are supposedly progressive spaces, like the Internet Forum here in Brazil - there aren’t any Black women. They have denied the participation of many Black women for some years now - one year, Blogueiras Negras (Black Bloggers) wrote an article about this. To bring younger women into these discussions, which sometimes seem very technical and restricted, is important.
AH: How did this partnership with PretaLab come about? You talked about how it's important to have these spaces for leadership, for participation. I see that PretaLab saw all of you as an important partner, and especially for you to lead.
BP: Every since PretaLab came into existence, which I think was in 2017, we have had a relationship. Black women who came from social movements, or cultural, social projects and wanted to have an online presence - for many people, this seems very simple, having an online presence. But we know that it’s not so easy. So we created a workshop on how to develop an online presence, and this was the very first workshop that we did. It became like - ‘oh, in this workshop I got to meet this person, and then these two projects happened because of that’. We got to know many people, and then because of all of that, this partnership with PretaLab happened. We realized that sometimes, we end up identifying new desires and new ideas for programs, and for us at Minas Programam, it’s not that evident to create a developper’s course that focuses on the intermediate level. We don’t see it as that necessary, but with PretaLab, we began to identify new audiences and that this would be really important for them. It’s been a partnership. PretaLab is made up of women from all over Brazil, Minas Programam has a stronger base in São Paulo. So the partnership works for both of us.
It’s a study group about technology, gender and race. People still have this concept that technology is something “hard”, and at Minas Programam, we always say: everything is created by people, which means that everything has an ideology. So we decided to create this study group for people who don’t necessarily work with technology, but wanted to learn about how these technologies affect them and everyone else. At Minas Programam, we didn’t really work virtually, we’ve always prioritized in-person spaces, and so we had to learn how to move things online. In Brazil, most people look at their cell phones, but they don’t necessarily have computers at home, and not all women can focus on their own projects at home, with everything else that they’re doing at home. Sometimes we translated some texts from English to Portuguese, and this was really important.
People still have this concept that technology is something “hard”, and at Minas Programam, we always say: everything is created by people, which means that everything has an ideology.
AH: Did you share these translations publicly?
BP: No, because they were intended just for the study group, these aren’t official, commercial translations. And we also wrote a lot of book reviews/summaries, because many Black women working with tech still haven’t been translated to Portuguese yet. We translated interviews with some of these authors, like Simone Browne. For us, it was really important because many discussions are still so inaccessible for many of us. First, these discussions generally happen in an academic environment, which isn’t always in touch with the realities of Brazilian women. And many other discussions led by Black feminists from other places aren’t translated because this isn’t a priority for publishers.
I think that Black feminists in Brazil have been doing this work for a long time [translating texts from English to Portuguese and sharing knowledge informally], so we were really inspired by this. And this was an important step for everything to work. It’s very common for Black feminist Brazilians to translate texts, establish dialogues, and do things in a more community-based context. The other really important thing that we did was to create a code of conduct, establish some communication agreements collectively. This was to guarantee that the space was respectful and productive. I think that everyone knows how all of our experiences and knowledge are different now. And the group was really incredible, it was one of the best things that I did this year. This group showed us that this was a process to recover and expand what we think is technology. We looked at podcasts, and we can see that Black women have been imagining and hacking their own technologies for a long time now. And we also thought of ways to share our knowledge and information - how can we share what we know, knowing that so many of these technologies are toxic?
AH: A space for reflection and also immediate response to the pandemic. Well, I met you in the space of digital rights, with a feminist perspective [at the APC Feminist Internet meeting in Malaysia]. Do you think that minas programam also has this perspective, that the big platforms are destructive?
BP: Absolutely. For us, it’s extremely clear how all of these large platforms, as tech companies, and the networks that we use, have been used as tools to reproduce white supremacy. It’s a point that’s been extremely important. Not just for issues like racism, which is something that we talk about all the time, but also for all sorts of other issues and oppressions. To look critically at everything that we produce and use has become more and more present in Minas Programam. And this is completely inseparable from feminism. For us, for our journey and evolution, it’s extremely contradictory to think of a feminist initative within technology that doesn’t look at the behavior and impact of certain companies. For example, this is rather hard, but we never share job openings at certain companies. As much as women from our networks are looking for and need work, we still think it’s more destructive and contradictory to support certain spaces, these work spaces. And many people still spare themselves this discussion, which is not an easy discussion at all. But since the beginning, we’ve avoided sharing job openings or any kinds of collaborations with these companies. And we’ve criticized them enormously for what they’re doing, because we know that they’re doing. In the beginning of the project, this wasn’t a priority for us, but in the last 3 years, it’s become a priority without any discussions. And more and more, it’s evident that these companies are not going to change - it doesn’t matter how many women are in them! It’s a fallacy. ‘Ah, but if there’s diversity, then the company will change.’ No, this company is what it is, and it has the objectives that it has. So we don’t share any job openings, and we have also positioned ourselves in terms of collaborations and partnerships. There’s this example of a company that was always requesting a partnership with us, like every month, they wanted to establish a partnership with us. But then we realized that it was always close to a scandal, something that that company’s network of workers had done. We realize that there’s an entire articulation inside of these companies, trying to wash their images, and so they seek us out to try to do that.
For us, for our journey and evolution, it’s extremely contradictory to think of a feminist initative within technology that doesn’t look at the behavior and impact of certain companies.
AH: I completely see that, and on a large scale too, in Brazil. That’s been happening for some years now. And how do you talk about this with feminist groups who don’t have resources, and who don’t have other options, to say no?
BP: You put people in impossible positions. People need to eat. With the options that Minas Programam has, we are able to say no. And I think that somebody does need to say no. But many people aren’t in that position. So we spend much less time pressuring and judging groups to say no, and much more time positioning ourselves in relation to these companies. One thing that we’ve done as well, is that we’ve been recommending [feminist] groups to look for other forms of funding, from either feminist funds or foundations here in Brazil. This has been a possibility. And then the other - complicated - issue is that many groups don’t want to do any of this. Many groups don’t have interest in setting a collective agenda. Some groups want to talk about women in technology without a feminist analysis.
AH: It’s that logic of all of these things about diversity, inclusion and representation - which all serves white supremacy, because they need these things for validation, and also for moral superiority. “We also practice human rights, we are also activists, because we have diversity and whatever else.” As if ‘women’ as a category was intersectional and really contemplated class, race, and many other realities.
BP: Right. And now there are several Black women in a large tech company. But it’s a racist technology, and it sells artificial intelligence technology which is racist. So it isn’t an easy choice. We have lost lots of funding because of this. Everyone [at Minas Programam] has a job , so we have somewhat of a financial stability on an individual level, which varies from person to person, but this allows us to make these kinds of decisions. But we also see that Brazil is going through an enormous recession right now. Formal work is disappearing, it’s ending. And so many people, many women, who were working on their projects in parallel - many people are losing their jobs and they’re losing the possibility to work on their projects in parallel. So, the sensation of a dispute for resources that people already felt before is going to increase. And we are going to see groups of white women, who overall live in a very privileged context in Brazil, compete for funding with groups of Indigenous women, Black women, women who are at the base of the social pyramid in Brazil and who sustain Brazil, who don’t have other forms of funding. In the context of this recession, Black women’s work in Brazil is getting left behind. And if you look at who is working in the majority of the foundations in Brazil, they’re white. And this makes a difference when it comes to deciding who gets funding. Because the people who can write about their projects in a way that is more appealing to these foundations are white. More and more, non-White feminists in Brazil are going to have less access to funding. You and I have talked about this several times.
In the context of this recession, Black women’s work in Brazil is getting left behind. And if you look at who is working in the majority of the foundations in Brazil, they’re white. And this makes a difference when it comes to deciding who gets funding.
AH: Yes. We’ve talked so much about this.
BP: It’s really crazy. I’m part of the Rede de Ciberativistas Negras (Network of Black Cyberactivists), which is a network that the NGO Criola formed in 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, but it’s a [national] network across Brazil.
AH: Is this network still alive?
It’s still alive, and in some states, it’s more active than in others. It’s also a network that’s self-sustaining now. This year, it’s very mobilized because of the current context, I think. And it’s something that we have thought about for years, even before this network came into being. To see how feminists who are working on the theme [of gender based violence], how they are losing funding to other initiatives that have come up more recently, but with many different problems. I’ve talked about this issue with others, and our work is going to become more difficult. With some new “feminist” initiatives, they are very “hygeniezed”, like with a certain aesthetic, a black and white video of white feminists saying “Silence is over”. I think it’s extremely symptomatic of White feminists who are interested in mobilizing against gender based violence, but how they decide to launch their own thing rather than support the work of those who have been doing this for a long time. But they are able to get funding because it’s all in a very palatable state. We see this happening all over Brazil. In the space that Minas Programam acts, in the space of women in technology. This is very common now, to put everything in a frame of “women’s rights”, “feminism”, when in reality, you are only serving yourself, and these companies.