Afro-Brazilian empowerment in Brazil: U-M fellow encourages sociocultural awakening

March 25, 2024
Students studying abroad in Brazil sit atop a ridge overlooking a city. Image courtesy: Saige Porter
Students studying abroad in Brazil sit atop a ridge overlooking a city. Image courtesy: Saige Porter

Afro-Brazilians are currently in a pivotal sociocultural stage of critical awareness and development around racial and class identity, but there is potential for tangible change and action, says Saige Porter, winner of the 2024 Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship at the University of Michigan.

“But many communities who face inequality in major cities remain on the fringes of this movement,” Porter said. “I intend to continue my work with preta and parda Brazilian women and university researchers who focus on these issues to form a community-centered participatory approach grounded in their culture and praxis models.”

Porter spent five weeks in Brazil last year. There, she worked with a São Paulo organization, the Community Friends Project, learning about the enmeshment of racial, social and economic inequality.

“That organization is a haven for many members of the community, especially low-income single mothers and their children, where they have access to mental health services and extracurricular activities,” she said. “Now I want to work alongside them to develop awareness of the structural and systemic elements fostering social inequality.”

After graduating from U-M’s Department of Women and Gender Studies this May, Porter will return to São Paulo in August for about a year. She won the 2024 Wallenberg fellowship, which provides $25,000 for an independent project of learning or exploration anywhere in the world during the year following graduation. The fellowship honors Wallenberg, a noted U-M alumnus who, as a diplomat during World War II, helped save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Melissa Vert, director of U-M’s Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, says that Porter impressed the committee by showcasing her vision for engaging with communities in Brazil in order to communicate her perspective on how marginalized populations enact their own change.

“Her clear goals for the future and eagerness to learn from her Brazilian hosts made Saige an exceptional choice for the Wallenberg Scholarship,” Vert said. “She hopes her project will lead to a better understanding of identity development and also that her shared experiences will strengthen U-M’s critical consciousness, even when it is inconvenient.”

With a background in gender and health, community action and social change, Porter feels equipped to understand the complex systems and policies working to perpetuate social inequality. Her interdisciplinary research experience in anthropology and ethnography, sociohistorical studies and social science methods has been crucial for this project.

“These complex issues require nuanced strategies and solutions,” she said. “My previous work at U-M has been essential in my commitment to understanding what is necessary to promote an equitable global society, like decolonizing global health, sustainable research practices and efforts to amplify silenced voices.

During the fellowship, Porter wants to understand Brazil’s high prevalence of anxiety and depression by initiating dialogue with the populations most vulnerable to social inequality and adverse health outcomes: low-income women and Black (preta and parda) women.

These Brazilians cannot fully participate in fundamental human rights while being marginalized to the fringes of society, Porter says. Providing community leaders and researchers with concrete knowledge of these experiences can propel progress and guide them to prioritize actions in policy and community outreach, she says.

“I want the preta and parda communities to know that inequality is not natural,” Porter said. “It should not be an inevitability to live on the periphery without resources, unaware of structures determining their social conditions and unprepared to enter a society against them.

“The exchanges throughout my project will inform my learning perspective, allowing me to synthesize my passions and maintain connections made during the fellowship. As a future human rights policy advocate and global public health professional, the fellowship will offer me a better sense of the tools and action items necessary to create macro-level social change for vulnerable populations.”