Encounters, coffees and conflicts: Reflections from action-research on a feminist autonomous network
This action-research project envisages the implementation of a Wi-Fi community network in the Terra Seca quilombo community in the Vale do Ribeira region of the state of São Paulo, Brazil, while conducting a participatory research process on information and communication technologies, more specifically community networks, through an intersectional feminist lens.
"Encounters, coffees and conflicts: Reflections from action-research on a feminist autonomous network" shares reflections from an action-research project developed by a group of women who partnered with feminist organisations and a local network of agroecological women farmers.
Together they set up a community network in the quilombo community of Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca, Brazil, reflecting on the following questions: How can initiatives like these be expanded while taking into account the power relations that cut across connectivity and communications? What changes when we build infrastructure with an intersectional feminist lens?
This project was born from the encounter between women with different backgrounds and trajectories, where a union of dreams and desires took place. Part of our group had been involved in research and activism around the ideals of communication autonomy and technological self-determination that permeate the field of community networks in Brazil. In a special edition of GISWatch, some of us began to reflect on the challenges and changes possible from a feminist approach to infrastructure.
Another part also pursued these ideals through the defence of the rights of traditional communities and their practices and knowledge, including the important contribution they make to organic food production in the country and to the construction of a feminist approach to the economy. The affinity in dreams materialised in the common desire to build a community network in a reflexive way. The possibility of carrying out action-research within the framework of FIRN appeared, in this context, as the perfect opportunity.
Therefore, this project was developed in a partnership with the Brazilian feminist organization SOF (Sempre Viva Organização Feminista in Portuguese), which has been working with women farmers in the quilombola regions with a feminist and agro-ecological perspective based on an understanding of economics centred around the reproduction of all the resources necessary for life. SOF has been working with the Agroecological Network of Women Farmers (RAMA), composed of groups of women from communities in Barra do Turvo, Brazil, our other partner in this journey. They are quilombola agro-ecological farmers who gather together to organise the women of the neighbourhood into cooperatives and associations, for example. They also carry out activities such as organising the women together to market their organic products to consumers in the Brazilian cities of Registro and São Paulo. Seeking to address connectivity gaps in this region and their impacts on communications among the quilombo communities, SOF and RAMA started to work on the idea of a community network with the Vedetas feminist infrastructure project led by MariaLab, a feminist hacker collective.
By building on their desire for a community network, a group of women joined together to facilitate the processes involved while carrying out an action-research project. This group was composed of six women with a multidisciplinary background:
Bruna Zanolli is an activist in the area of autonomous communications and human rights and a self-taught technician in the areas of community networks and digital care. She is interested in how intersectional feminist and decolonial thinking and popular education can be used as tools to narrow access gaps.
Carla Jancz is an information security specialist who works with digital security for civil society organisations and with free/libre technologies and autonomous networks from a feminist and holistic perspective. She is a member of MariaLab, a feminist hacker collective based in São Paulo, Brazil that explores the intersection between gender and technology.
Daiane Araujo dos Santos is a Brazilian activist in human rights and in the information and communications technologies field who contributes to the implementation of community networks in Brazil, bringing discussions about critical appropriation of technology and its impact on people's social and community life.
Débora Prado is a journalist and activist with a background in social communications, feminism and human rights. Since 2017 she has been involved in researching feminist technologies and knowledge to challenge androcentric and colonial norms.
Glaucia Marques is an agronomist and is part of the SOF (Sempreviva Feminist Organization) technical team that operates in the Vale do Ribeira region, contributing to the solidarity marketing system and providing agro-ecological and feminist technical assistance for the Agro-ecological Network of Women Farmers (RAMA).
Natália Santos Lobo is an agro-ecologist and part of SOF's technical team in Vale do Ribeira, working with the RAMA network.
In an agroecological territory led by women, in Vale do Ribeira, Brazil, quilombola women created the RAMA, an Agroecologial Network of Agriculture Women, with the support of the feminist grassroots organization SOF (Always Alive Feminist Organization). They are a group of women farmers living in 7 different quilombos in a mountainous area with scarce and expensive connectivity. These women came from a long lineage of agricultures and kept traditional ways of living, always expressing their love and respect for the earth. Through our contact with Vedetas project from MariaLab we got to know about this territory and their will to have a community network, which Carla Jancz (from MariaLab), one of our research partners, had already started articulating in workshops and meetings. We were really thrilled with the possibility of being able to dream, plan and implement a community network with such powerful women. We also wish to do it in an all women's team using popular education and intersectional feminist principles, hence further our practices and reflections on feminist infrastructures. The process is ongoing and filled with learnings and unforeseen challenges. Below we share some stories that permeated the process and helped to build our reflections.
All about community
The community network connectivity project came through RAMA and was shaped to benefit RAMA women farmers to help their selling of agroecological products. The only Internet Service Provider that attends the region is satellite-based and only sells retail individual packages, and not wholesale internet. The project was able to provide a year of a monthly 30 gigabytes data cap package that, after exceeding the initial allotment, is reduced to a speed of only 1 Mbps, sharing it through their mesh network implemented using Libremesh. The local ISP reseller was not happy with our project, but fortunately agreed to look the other way. This internet package would already be scarce for the 6 RAMA women families that live in the quilombo Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca, but they insisted that the internet should be open to all the 15 families that live in the surrounding area. Needless to say, it was much less than ideal and the data cap package usually ended on the first 2 days of the month. However, their communal ethics spoke louder and they preferred a low connectivity that is communal (and allows WhatsApp for all, for instance) to a better connectivity that is individual. Their communal logic, which has been characteristic for centuries and already applied to the exchange of agroecological products among themselves and mutual help, was extended to network connectivity with the arrival of the internet via a community network instead of the individual and commercial model.
Network of mutual care
The community members are currently planning to expand one node of the community network in order to be able to reach one woman, who is a member of RAMA, once their friends are worried that she is alone and isolated with her husband in her house. They consider that the community network could be a way to increase their personal relations and foster daily communications, even help in an emergency case. A traditional ISP would hardly put an antenna to benefit only one house with two residents. There is no business model that considers the health and wellbeing of one woman as enough reason to install an infrastructure, but this community network fosters not only a network of connectivity and internet but also of care and affections. Another example, of an elderly woman who lives alone and also isolated with her husband – that is also elder – was so happy with the community network that she bought a smartphone. She now participates in the RAMA activities more actively, is present for friends and family that live outside the quilombos and has more means of asking for help in case of an emergency. Because of the community network, women now do regular online check-ins among themselves and have this extra connectivity tool to look for each other.
Access and other rights
Because of their political organization and with the arrival of internet connection to the community networks they can improve their advocacy and political incidence to also fight for other fundamental rights. With the pandemic plenty of gatherings and organizational meetings have gone online, so RAMA councilors and other political leaders for the defense of the land can participate in live events and in regional and national political decision-making spaces, such as the National Articulation of Agroecology, the National Meetings of the Quilombos and Environment Councils. In these meetings there are many discussions, advocacy and policies that help to maintain their local economy: in order to guarantee their right to land and without invasions; fight agribusiness and the extensive use of pesticides; engage in collective agroecological sales to government and major buyers; so they can explore community-based tourism activities; and guaranteeing basic human rights - all of this has been very challenging in the current chaotic Brazilian political scenario, with constant threats to quilombolas.
This action-research project started the implementation of a Wi-Fi community network in quilombo Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca, fostering the involvement of the entire region in multiple workshops and knowledge exchanges about: networks; feminist infrastructures; popular education; agroecology; gender and race relations; traditional and digital technologies; technology and communication autonomy. And contemplated the production of knowledge in this field based on two initial research questions that would guide our reflections from the experiences with the local community:
How to expand the reach of community network technologies among women and traditional populations, considering the power relations that transverse the prospect of autonomous connectivity and communication?
What are the main shifts when a technological infrastructure is thought of and developed through an intersectional feminist perspective?
Considering the intersectional lens, we also added a structural question to ourselves throughout the development of the project:
How is race connected to unequal power and systemic structures in this experience, considering that this project was carried by our group, composed mostly by white women, in a territory of black women?
More than reaching answers, the questions has helped to expand a set of reflections from the encounter between different ways of living and of building knowledge and techniques that escape to some extent to normative models in the field of digital technologies, such as white male predominance in this field and the processes of concentration of power on the internet by large corporations that use manipulative and non-transparent models of relations with these technologies. The aim of this article is to share part of the reflections that have emerged from our experience, with the expectation of contributing to research and initiatives for technological appropriation that also devote themselves to strengthening diversity in these two fields. It summarises our reflections around three topics that have emerged as fundamental in our process:
the meaning of feminist infrastructures for this community network
the importance of the perspective of race
our learning in the process of attempting to translate intersectional principles and intentions into practice, while facing the constant presence of the unforeseen.
As researchers who carry references of intersectional feminism (COLLINS, 2017; CRENSHAW, 2002; PISCITELLI, 2009) and popular education (FREIRE, 2004; HOOKS, 1994) , we were guided by a commitment to break hierarchies as much as possible among researchers, articulators, technicians, and the community members. We aimed to question colonial legacies in research production, and escape from pretensions of research neutrality or schemes that hierarchize the multiple subjects and knowledge (HARAWAY,1995; RIBEIRO, 2018). In a similar sense, thinking about the technologies, we wish to avoid reproducing the notion that only experts and technicians are people who have the best solutions to problems in local communities, or that digital technologies and internet connectivity could bring magical solutions to local, historical and complex problems.
Guided by these references and recognising that the practice would bring new challenges, we have sought to outline a methodology that could provide the realisation of collective reflections throughout the project. We agreed, therefore, that we would always do a preparation stage prior to each field visit, a period of immersed workshops with collective dialogues with the community and a reflection on the immersion on our return from each visit, which would inform the preparation of the next visit and so on.
After the initial talk with some community members and SOF partners, we considered the best approach was a mixed methodological perspective, combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Agreeing to prioritize collective activities and participatory processes rather than individual approaches for data collection, such as interviews. Additionally, we did literature research, seeking other academic references about the quilombos in this region to avoid repeating questions that other research projects might have already asked before. Between the beginning of the project and March 2020, we followed this methodology and went to the quilombo Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca five times. We stayed for between three and five days in each visit performing immersive processes of knowledge sharing towards the collective installation of the community network. In these immersions, we held several workshops on technopolitics and communication and facilitated moments where community residents were able to collectively dream about the future of the community network.
Due to the health crisis of COVID-19 we had to refrain from going to the community for many months and managed to go once again in January 2021, completing 6 visits in total. In the last trip, we had to adapt our methodology and, instead of the processes of collective conversations and reflections from the five previous visits, we ended up carrying out semi-structured interviews with people who participated in the process, aiming to gather elements for a joint evaluation of the trajectory.
Finally, it is important to highlight that for us the encounter works as an important methodology. We consider that the encounters this project allowed was central for the knowledge that emerged from it, once it was a fundamental step to build relationships through consensus and conflict, agreement and disagreements, similarities and differences. They started with the encounter between the SOF and the quilombola women farmers in the region, and then with MariaLab/Vedetas and later between them and the Brazilian women involved in this action-research project; and finally in the group of people articulated in the feminist internet research network (FIRN) from APC, who supported the realization of this project between 2019 and 2021 - not only with subgrants, but through constant feedback to our reflections and by providing exchanges with other researchers from the global South. The articulations between different social groups and bodies established weaved our reflections in this action-research and emerged as fundamental to make the interseccional approach concrete.
We were guided by the ethical principles of intersectional feminism and popular education mentioned above, both in the more internal sphere of our research and working group relations and also in the relations with the women from RAMA, the members of the quilombo Ribeirão Grande/ Terra Seca and the workshop participants.. In that sense, we have made our best efforts to:
listen, dialogue and adapt our methodologies and frameworks with local knowledge, i.e. we created a way of feedback each of our field visits to adapt to the next one.
avoid a hierarchical view between academia-researchers and researchers-society, i.e. we started the workshops by acknowledging the local and previous means of communicating and valuing ancestral technologies used such as the monjolo (rustic hydraulic machine for grain processing and grinding ).
be open to identify, work through and feedback situations of tensions and conflicts that occurred during the process, i.e. we created a racial reflections study group.
keep research (and writing) open to the flow of events and ideas, avoiding definitive truths, i.e. we always situated our learnings and data, talking about this specific experience, not trying to generalize them.
dialogue with the multiplicity of voices, knowledge and resources from the communities, i.e. we incorporated a bamboo workshop, reflect on the previous communications networks existing in that territory and build the project approach in articulation with local leaderships, respecting their time and ways of organisation.
reflect on the questions regarding the FIRN ethical guideline around situatedness, positionality, standpoint, intersectionality, feminist, consent, accountability, reciprocity, care, vulnerability, safety, connections, networks in each milestone of the project through dialogues and meetings among ourselves and asking feedback from our partners and community members.
reflect about the places of speech and the power relations that we carry as feminists researchers, i.e. when we created the study group above mentioned to discuss racism, this include a reflection around whiteness and the need to challenge racism from that position.
We are aware that even with the best intentions, research and knowledge production is never bias-free. Yet, considering the social justice commitment of feminists practices and popular education, we adopted procedures that question the structural inequalities of power, technology and knowledge and gender-based stereotypes and biases in the multiple stages of research. In our relations with the community members and spaces, we tried our best to always:
Clearly explain our goals and objectives and implement a participatory process.
Be careful to create expectations that we could not deliver (as present community network or digital technologies as magical solutions to complex problems).
Discuss and adopt agreements in each experience to establish ground rules and assure that harassment and discriminations of any kind are not tolerated.
Ensure that the spaces were welcoming for different women and girls and always provided daycare, food aid and transportation to meetings, workshops and implementations, and accessibility (in our case there was a need for special accessibility inclusion but we tried to provide digital skills one-to-one sessions whenever it was needed).
Be aware to not erase differences under the 'community' label, not erase agency and not fetishize 'marginalized groups'.
Facing the limits imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, on the community feedback on the theoretical and practical outputs of the project and considering their demands for technical knowledge and digital care we have prepared the following materials:
Three zines (Portuguese and English version) both online and printed copies on the subjects, passed through community feedback before having a final version.
Digital Security and Care Zine (based on their statements of how they use the internet and the community network and their doubts and concerns)
Tutorial Zine (with the technical set-up of the Community Network of Quilombo Ribeirão Grande/Terra Seca
A short video (6 minutes) with interviews from Rama women, to recap the process of the community network and value the role women played in bringing the community network to their community and as guardians of the network (subtitles in English and Spanish).
Even though this initial phase of the project has finished, our relationships keep close with RAMA and SOF, we take responsibility for the infrastructure we have helped to implement and keep helping them in troubleshooting and maintenance (always working for their autonomy and self sustainability, but understanding this is not an easy or fast process) and hope to have more in person encounters as possible.
What are the meaning of feminist infrastructures?
From our previous experience in the field of feminist infrastructures, we brought a perspective to this project that a network infrastructure is not based on binary or artificial separation between humans and machines, and go beyond servers, networks, cables, antennas, software, hardware etc. Infrastructures also include spaces, temporalities, priorities, relations between humans and machines, and agreements. Therefore, feminist infrastructures cannot be reduced to electronic materiality produced by women and non-binary people. This experience pointed out that the process is a central layer, in which relationships are established locally and promote encounters that can lead to a commitment to rethinking through other perspectives technologies and relationships between people and groups, and even between humans and machines.
Furthermore, the field of feminist infrastructures helped us keep in mind that technologies are not neutral, but are also not limited to the uses and interests of those in power – there will always be escapes, hacks and multiple ways of living and doing things. We are therefore invited to act in a field marked by disputes where the encounters, the dialogues and the multiplicity of voices will be decisive to challenge norms and seek for collective strategies to overcome historical and new barriers.
If feminist does not mean made by women, what does it mean?
Although the all the women from RAMA were not able to participate in all implementing activities of the community networks, they have the leadership and are considered the guardians of the community network, being the ones responsible for its management – giving passwords, knowing where the infrastructure is set up, doing basic troubleshooting and informing of bigger problems with accuracy, Also for its future and sustainability – looking not only to the financial aspects of it, but also to all the care work needed for the community network to exist and its importance, its care work. We considered here that a feminist process is a constant effort for a more inclusive and welcome approach, considering and embracing diversity, and valuing the different roles one can take in order to dream, build and keep the network.
For us, on one hand, this means working through listening skills and keeping ourselves open to what only the localized experience and the specific encounters can offer. The intersectional lens and references of popular education have also helped us to look at tensions and conflicts not as something that needs to be stabilized, but as an opportunity to open important dialogues - between ourselves and with the community members. And on the other hand, it has meant seeking to build physical and digital environments that consider multiple interests and needs from an intersectional perspective that, when collectively constructed by different groups and bodies, is in fact capable of bringing together different groups and bodies in a welcoming way.
Why should we be discussing race?
In countries marked by inequality, such as Brazil, it is very common that in communities where the internet and other forms of connectivity are absent, there is a lack of women's rights, which can be further aggravated by the combination of inequalities, such as class, race, age, among others. Many times, in Brazil, when community networks are built in black and indigenous territories, which show us the importance of discussing race and racism, including from the perspective of questioning assumptions. From our experience, whiteness becomes a necessary and important concept to shake-up those engaged with building a community network.
This leads us to the need to address the intersectionalities of access, because, otherwise, connectivity can as a result become a tool that mainly benefits white cisgender men and/or reinforces patriarchal and colonialist values and inequalities. Considering intersectional principles in practice, in our experience, it was very important to look at what is around the local experiences and not be a reproducer of structural silences of society in traditional territories, as the indigenous and quilombolas ones.
Considering the community network advocaters national and international communities, there is a strong need to amplify the dialogue with other social movements and human rights fields. If community networks carry with them the potential to recognize, value and strengthen other ways of living, learning and other models of development -- it seems fitting that discussions in this field add to the accumulation of other fields that long before the internet already focused on ways of breaking with imperialism and colonial legacies. And in our process, intersectional feminism, popular education, and race discussions, including whiteness, have been key.
On a more technical policy level, our experiences in this project and also with research in the Brazilian context, we have some highlights:
First, the Ribeirão Grande/ Terra Seca community network has had the same difficulties as most of the Brazilian community network: lack of backhaul and access to wholesale internet. So, there is a need to claim it among big ISPs and regulators, that in order to have quality access community networks need to access backhaul, dedicated links and wholesale internet, at a price that is affordable for them.
Secondly, a possibility that could come to address this issue, would be GeSAC, a government satellite internet that is present in some quilombos and indigenous territories, and also at schools and public spaces - if GeSAC could provide internet backhaul for territories, then community networks could do the first mille and distribute it autonomously.
Third, there is the Universal Services Fund, FUST in Brazil, that could be accessed in order for communities to be able to have their community networks: capex and opex, technical and operational knowledge, to have dedicated community members responsible for the community network and be able to invest in regional technologies. In addition, considering access and gender, there is a need to make multi stakeholders efforts to apply a gender perspectives and methodologies to anticipate possible unintended impacts, bias and barriers; to include affirmative action policies that benefit women’s digital inclusion, access to community networks, devices, content and technical training; and develop indicators, statistics, and gather data with gender and race perspectives.
What issues could be addressed in future research projects?
One point that could be further explored in future researches is the relations between community network and the local economy (Some reflexions around this subject were started by Bruna Zanolli in this essay to the UN IGF Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity, “Community Networks: Towards Sustainable Funding Models”), including a feminist economy in this case.
This means to look at the social sustainability of a community network project, by one hand, and shape digital networks in a way that supports the communities in their well being. The link between those two aspects could lead to an approach on sustainability considering the need to deal with multiple adversities and be able to promote local economic resilience to keep the people and community network alive, as they are inseparable.
Another point to the future is to reflect on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for the access field and community networks movement, as it can impose new contornous for ongoing challenges (Some reflexions around this subject were started by Bruna Zanolli in this essay to GenderIT edition on “Infrastructures of resistance: Community networks hacking the global crisis”). At the beginning of this project, we were aware that we would need to remain open to developments that we would only know once we were working together with the community. But we could not imagine that dealing with the unforeseen would have been such a challenge and that our methodologies would be completely rethought in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, aggravated in Brazil by the erratic actions of a far-right government. If, on one hand, the pandemic prevented us from continuing the immersive and collective processes in the territory, on the other hand, it stressed the need to connect the quilombo Terra Seca community network to the internet, at a time when essential activities, such as school and access to emergency financial assistance, moved to an online environment as a consequence of distancing measures and social isolation.
Finally, the encounter between the community networks and the feminist infrastructure fields seems to be evolving and prolific for research. The reflections around those can be further explored, reflecting the knowledge that can emerge from the diversity of women-led and gender-inclusive initiatives existent, increasing the literature available (https://genderit.org/feminist-talk/community-networks-and-feminist-infrastructure-reclaiming-local-knowledge-and).
As part of the action-research project, the team has developed a zine.