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Amherst father/daughter team collaborate on book about Brazilian women’s movement

  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst has co-written a book with his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst has co-written a book with his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin on social activism in Brazil.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Emma Sokoloff-Rubin has co-written a book with her father, Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst, on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Emma Sokoloff-Rubin has co-written a book with her father, Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst, on social activism in Brazil.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • “If you’d asked me back in 2001 whether I might write a book with my father about our experience in Brazil, I would have just laughed,” says Sokoloff-Rubin, here with her father, Jeffrey Rubin.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    “If you’d asked me back in 2001 whether I might write a book with my father about our experience in Brazil, I would have just laughed,” says Sokoloff-Rubin, here with her father, Jeffrey Rubin.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst has co-written a book with his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Emma Sokoloff-Rubin has co-written a book with her father, Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst, on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • “If you’d asked me back in 2001 whether I might write a book with my father about our experience in Brazil, I would have just laughed,” says Sokoloff-Rubin, here with her father, Jeffrey Rubin.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Jeffrey Rubin of Amherst and his daughter Emma Sokoloff-Rubin have co-written a book on social activism in Brazil.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

In June of 2001, Emma Sokoloff-Rubin was in a foul mood. Just finishing the sixth grade, she’d been looking forward to spending the summer with friends and moving on to middle school in the fall. But her father, Jeffrey Rubin, a professor of Latin-American studies at Boston University, was about to take Emma and the rest of their family to Brazil for a year, as part of a MacArthur Foundation grant he’d received to study social movements in that country.

“I was completely against this plan at first,” said Sokoloff-Rubin, whose family is from Amherst. “My family was not allowed to talk about Brazil in front of me before we left. ... I really was unhappy.”

But the trip turned out to be a life-changing event for both daughter and father — opening new facets in their personal relationship that would make them equal research partners in a continuing effort, over the next several years, to document the push that women in rural southern Brazil have made to bring more equality to their lives and Brazilian society as a whole.

The latest chapter in this story is their co-authored book, “Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women’s Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration,” published by Duke University Press. Sokoloff-Rubin, who’s now 23, and her father have chronicled personal stories of women in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul and examined how their own relationship gave them a unique means for viewing the lives of those women.

“If you’d asked me back in 2001 whether I might write a book with my father about our experience in Brazil, I would have just laughed,” Sokoloff-Rubin said during an interview last month in her family’s home. “But that’s the wonderful thing about this project — we’ve really been making it up as we go along.”

“It’s really an unexpected result of what we began back in 2001,” Rubin added. “But now that we’ve written it, we hope it will be of interest to a wide range of people — high school and college students, people who study democratic and social movements or who study Brazil, and people who are interested in the father-daughter angle.”

His daughter says she began to view Brazil less as a place of personal exile soon after she arrived in Rio Grande do Sul in July 2001 with the rest of her family — her mother, Shoshanna Sokoloff, and her sisters Hannah and Esther, then 7 and 1, respectively. The return trips she made there in 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2012 with her father also helped shape her current interests in writing, education and social activism.

“From the day we landed [in 2001], I was like, ‘There’s so much to learn, so much to observe,’ ” said Sokoloff-Rubin, who today writes for an online publication, Gothamschools.org., that chronicles the New York City public education system. “My attitude toward things changed pretty fast ... and now I love the whole idea of being fully immersed in another community, to the point that it feels like home.”

Suffer in silence

From the beginning, Rubin was interested in meeting members of an organization of rural women in Rio Grande do Sul known by the acronym MMTR, which was advocating both for expanded rights and benefits for women in the workplace, as well as for greater equality at home. As “Sustaining Activism” outlines, group members were trying to overcome a long tradition in which women were expected to be subservient to husbands and fathers and do all the housework — and in which many women also faced domestic violence.

“Rural women were isolated,” Rubin said. “They were told, ‘You must take care of everything and suffer in silence.’ ” MMTR members, he added, “had to argue with their fathers and husbands to leave the house to go to meetings and rallies. They were fighting for social and political rights but also for change in the home.”

His daughter, who attended an international school in the area where she learned Portuguese, came along during some of the early interviews her father conducted and was impressed that some MMTR members, then in their 30s, had been teenagers when they began advocating for greater rights in the 1980s, when Brazil emerged from years of dictatorship and took its first tentative steps toward democratic government.

“Knowing these women hadn’t been much older than me when they started the movement was so striking and engaging,” Sokoloff-Rubin said. “How did they become leaders? Were they born that way? What made them willing to take these risks? I had so many questions.”

So many, in fact, that in the summer of 2004, by then a student at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley, Sokoloff-Rubin insisted her father take her back to Brazil for a month to do more research. Working with PVPA teachers and staff, they devised a plan that would enable Emma to use the new material she and her father gathered, such as videotaped interviews with women, to teach a class at PVPA on grassroots activism.

But Rubin, though pleased his daughter “was interested in this rather obscure work I do,” was a bit flummoxed at going abroad just with her. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m still trying to get her to clean her room, and I’m going to spend a month alone with her?’ And my wife said, ‘You have to keep her safe.’ ”

Their collaboration, however, worked out fine. Though Rubin still planned most of their time and interviews, his daughter was asking more and more of the questions. Their role as equal team members, they believe, also encouraged the women they met to share their stories.

Eventually the two would craft a full high-school curriculum based on their research and the experience Emma had teaching at PVPA, with 18 lesson plans, handouts and a DVD with audio-visual materials; they presented those materials to education workshops around the United States.

A shared voice

Their book grew out of that experience and the additional interviews they did in Rio Grande do Sul in 2007 and 2008, by which point Emma had graduated from high school and was attending Yale University in New Haven, Conn. They had already co-written profiles of several of the women in MMTR, which both used in teaching their classes. But they wanted to do more.

“We’d done our initial writing as a shared voice, but with the book, we ended up writing separate chapters,” Rubin said. They’d had their former neighbor, poet and former Mount Holyoke College professor Mary Jo Salter, read their earlier writing, and she had recommended they separate their voices.

“That was a turning point,” Sokoloff-Rubin said. Salter told them, “I want to know what the 17-year-old is thinking, and what the professor is thinking.” That made sense, Sokoloff-Rubin says, “because we’d experienced things through different eyes even though we had worked together.”

Sokoloff-Rubin, for instance, includes profiles of MMTR members like Gessi Bonês, a veteran activist and former health official in the town of Ibiraiaras, who discovered some of her colleagues believed that working for the government was a form of “selling out.”

Rubin, meanwhile, includes profiles of the women but also writes more broadly about social and political activism in Central and South America and about Brazil in general, putting the women’s movement in southern Brazil in context.

With Emma at Yale, father and daughter stayed in touch via phone, email and Skype and convened periodically in Amherst to “pore over each other’s chapters, and we’d fight over sentences and anecdotes, because sometimes we’d written about the same things,” Sokoloff-Rubin said with a laugh. “It would be like, ‘No, I want that one!’ ”

“She’s a better and faster writer than me,” Rubin added with a smile.

All along, both say, they have shared their work, such as their videotaped interviews, with the women of MMTR, and they plan to have their book translated into Portuguese and bring that back to them as well.

“They’ve appreciated our work because we’ve been able to document what they’ve done, which they haven’t had time to do,” said Rubin.

“We care about these people and want to know what’s going on with them,” his daughter added.

Their next visit might include the family’s middle daughter, Hannah, who’s now 18 and is interested in Brazil and has “a much better Portuguese accent than either of us,” Sokoloff-Rubin said.

And youngest daughter Esther, 12, is in sixth grade. “She wants to write a musical with me, though that’s not quite my area of expertise,” Rubin said with a laugh.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Jeffrey Rubin and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin will read from their book April 7 at 3 p.m. at Amherst Books.

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