Challenges in Politically Engaged Research

Presentation at the keynote panel “Challenging the field” at the Nordmedia Conference in Malmö (August 2019). The panel also featured the colleagues Raul Ferrer Conill, Bente Kalsnes, Kristian Møller and Maria Murumaa Mengel. The moderator was Lars Mogensen.

My name is Leonardo Custódio. I am a Black Brazilian postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University. I emphasize my blackness and my society of birth not as identities, but as aspects in my life that have been at the core of everything I have done in my academic career so far.

In these 10 minutes, I will tell you about (a) what I have been doing as a researcher to overcome challenges in academia; (b) how I have challenged myself to be a better researcher; and (c) how I have tried to exchange ideas with society and future generations of scholars.

This talk is not meant to boast. Just the other way around. Everything is a work in progress. And as you might know, when you try to build your own path in a challenging environment like academia, very likely you have many fears, insecurities and uncertainties.

So, think of this talk as part of the process of becoming a rigorous researcher while being politically engaged in the struggles I study.

The challenges start at the beginning. As most Black Brazilians, I never really had an education that prepared me for the type of thinking academic careers demand. So, in 2009, when I started my PhD studies, I didn’t have a research question. I didn’t know exactly what research question was.

Instead, I had curiosities and political motivations. How do people in favelas (who look like me and have families like mine) decide to use media and journalism to act politically for rights, justice and changes? Why do they do it? What can I do to “help”?

It took me two or three years to realize the importance of theorizing to shift from curiosity to academic work. Finally, in 2016, I defended my PhD on the trajectories in media activism of young favela residents.

To build this book, I read and wrote about media education, communication for social change, social movements, citizenship and public spheres. Putting different traditions together to build a coherent argument is also a big challenge.

I also wrote about my own process of figuring out what “research methods” are and how to develop scientific work through them. In 2017, the thesis came out as a book. It’s all there.

During this process, I learned that there was nothing I could do to “help”. Instead, the activist favela youth taught me about the importance of “troca”. That means “exchange” in Portuguese.

They also complained to me – possibly for being Black and from the periphery like them – that researchers sucked their stories and disappeared. That made me think: how can I share the knowledge I constructed by studying their actions with them?

I then pitched an idea to my colleagues and superiors at Tampere University: if I write a pocket version of my PhD in Portuguese will the department print it? They did. 500 copies mailed to Brazil when I was there. I gave 30 copies to each person I had interviewed. I recommended them to sell copies.

To promote the book, I organized open talks in Rio. Instead of me talking about case studies, activists would talk about their own experiences. I’d focus on theories. After the talks, they’d sell the books and make some money.

The issue with collaboration is that it may never end. You may always have new cycles starting even if not under your full control. For example, favela filmmakers read my book and turned it into a documentary plan. But they lacked money. That’s when luck struck again.

In 2017, a foundation awarded me a grant in Finland, but I already had a salary. So I asked the foundation if I could transfer the grant to Cafuné na Laje, a favela-based audiovisual collective in Rio de Janeiro. They accepted. So I did. The film “Complexos” – Complex – is coming out at the end of the year.

No one knows what other cycles will start from the film’s release.

While I finished my PhD, I stressed about one of our major challenges: What do I do to get a job or funding in such a competitive environment? How will I come up with something new and interesting for institutes to hire me or foundations to give me grants?

That’s when my Blackness came up again. As a Black man in Finland, I realized one thing: Black people in Finland seem to face similar problems dealing with whiteness and racism just like we Brazilians do.

This observation led me to a question: What could we learn if we compare experiences of people who suffer from racism in very different societies like Brazil and Finland?

Gradually, the experience in my PhD research led me to two specific questions: How do people who suffer from racism use media to act for rights, justice, respect and change? How to exchange knowledge with the communities in which I am interested and to which I belong?

In 2017, I decided to present this idea at the Afroeuropeans conference in Tampere. After my presentation, some Black Finnish women approached me. One of them, Monica Gathuo, was a journalist at Ruskeat Tytöt, Brown Girls, the media initiative I had mentioned in my presentation.

After that, we started conversations about developing a collaborative work to combine research and activism to understand and promote media activism against racism in Finland and Brazil. Six months later, we received a three-year grant from Kone Foundation to put these ideas in practice.

Now, Monica and I are coordinators of the Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance.

Our goals at ARMA Alliance are to promote knowledge exchange, international networking and creative publishing. In terms of knowledge exchange and international networking, ARMA Alliance is doing well.

We have organized many public events to exchange theory-based knowledge and practical experiences in Finland and abroad. We have also built cooperation with scholars, artists and activists in Brazil, Portugal and Sweden.

For example, our Brazilian guest Silvana Bahia came to Malmö to work with the wonderful Temi Odumusu.

But publishing has been a major challenge. Our website is still unfinished, for example. My academic publishing is stuck. The main problem is that the time of research is much slower than the time of activism.

Plus, we have underestimated how much time networking and public events demand. Little is left for reflecting on what we do.

Collaboration also causes conflicts. I am a 40 year-old heterosexual man from a very patriarchical environment. Monica is a young Black Afro-Finnish feminist. Clashes are bound to happen.

But also growth. Dialogue is fundamental, even if difficult sometimes.

Finally, despite all the challenges, this has been an amazing experience for me. A positive challenge is how to be a researcher while engaged in political struggles.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how certain theories can be useful for strategic planning in activist practices. The conceptual dynamics between publics and counterpublics, for example.

Earlier this year, I tested these ideas in two lecture courses I organized in Tampere and Turku. Teaching is something that helps me focus on theorizing when practical activities threaten to take over.

For me, as a researcher, it is really gratifying to find ways to contribute to struggles through thinking and theories. For me, no challenge is ever bigger than noticing people whose activism I admire seeing value and usefulness in the ideas I work so hard to develop.

Thank you.