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Brazilian Women's Group

Building Immigrant Power through Solidarity Economy

Background

Brazilian Women’s Group (BWG) embodies all three dimensions of Solidarity Economy both in theory and practice. These overlapping are dimensions include: 1) alternative economies that put people and planet before profit, 2) shifting consciousness of individuals and communities towards imagining what might yet be possible, and 3) building power in order to bring alternative possibilities into reality. Says, BWG’s Executive Director, Heloisa Galvao, “solidarity economy…it’s the only way you can empower people if you understand how unjust the economy is all over, not only here in the United States, not only in Brazil, anywhere. [But] the only way we’re gonna change what is going on now in the United States—people have to go to the streets, they have to take political offices, the have to do sit-ins, civil disobedience.” BWG’s women’s cooperative, organizing and leadership development, and the importance it places in shared conversation and reflection, reveal the strong roots of solidarity economy. 

Economic Alternatives and Empowerment

BWG began to take shape about 25 years ago when Galvao and other Brazilian women who had been participating in a funded, community-building program, continued to meet after the program ended. Galvao explains, “[The women] would bring their issues with them and talk about anything—longings, sadness, being away from family, school and education…they would bring up the issue and concern and they would try to fix themselves, they would try to find a solution. And other women in the group would say, ‘oh, you know I did this and it worked’, so they would exchange experience and this is how the Brazilian Women’s Group started.”  

This creation of a space for sharing, community building, and cooperation remains the bedrock for BWG today, springing forth multiple projects by and for its 800 members. A few years after becoming a non-profit in 2003, the women’s cooperative, Vida Verde, was formed. The cooperative aims to support and empower the Brazilian immigrant community, and especially women, through education and training around ecological and biological safety in the house cleaning industry. Vida Verde organizes workers through industry trainings—over 1000 trainings as of 2018—and through their democratically owned and controlled cooperative, which makes and uses safe cleaning products.

Community, Organizing, and Leadership Development

In addition to Vida Verde, BWG organizes a around a range of projects that build and empower Brazilian immigrant women and their communities including radio shows, a film series, ESL classes, and a Brazilian Independence Day Festival. Much of BWG’s work, however, is directed toward addressing immigration issues and injustices. Says Galvao, “of course, immigration is our main issue. [At one point] we started to get better immigration laws, but 23 years later, here we are [and] it’s worse than it was in 2009. It’s much worse.” 

BWG runs workers rights programs, immigration clinics that provide legal assistance, and “know your rights” trainings because, as Galvao puts it, “we need people to understand their rights. We need people to understand that, regardless of how they got here, they still have rights.” 

These projects and trainings empower individuals and communities through education, shared support, and leadership development opportunities. And they are joined with intentional leadership development programs. “We take women on trips to Washington and other places for demonstrations, for leadership, for summits. And here we do a series of leadership courses, development courses.” 

Leadership development efforts have paid off in Boston and beyond. “They have become leaders in their community,” remarks Galvao. “They may not [even] be in BWG anymore, but they have multiplied that somewhere. We have women that were here and are now in Florida. We have another that went back to Brazil. They all started new things where they are, either in their church, in their community, they started these small groups to talk about things that they see there. So I think this is wonderful, you know…what we really wanted them to do is to realize that they have a voice, that they have power. 

Shifting Consciousness and Pushing for Possibility

Directing power towards the creation of a solidarity economy involves concerted and creative conversations about imagining what an economy geared towards community well-being could look like. “The SEI cohort is great,” says Galvao. “I wish that we could replicate it [in the immigrant Brazilian community] in Portuguese, and have small groups have that kind of discussion…even if it’s just two or three people that can then grow that will start discussing what a solidarity economy means.” 

In the U.S., Brazil’s solidarity economy is often looked to for inspiration.  “Solidarity economy can empower people…when people understand what the solidarity economy [is]. Brazilians are good at that because we used to have a solidarity budget, when Lula was president. He brought it…it was used in many states and the population, the people, were discussing the budget, you know, together.” 

State support for Brazil’s solidarity economy, however, has evaporated with the interests of the current administration. In Boston’s immigrant communities, state oppression makes simply envisioning solidarity economy a challenging proposition. “People are too busy trying to survive…and not get their families separated.”  Despite these constraining conditions, BWG’s investment in three interrelated domains: alternative economic practices, leadership and empowerment programs, and spaces for connection, community, and mutual aide—spaces where alternative economic projects like Vida Verde might take shape—embody the potency and power of solidarity economy organizing.