Nilma Dominique makes it her mission to create community ties, whether in a language class at MIT, where she teaches Portuguese, more broadly in the Institute, or in the community at large. Dominique was one of four honorees who recently received an MLK Jr. Leadership Award in recognition of her work embodying the spirit of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dominique was recognized for her community building through her initiatives Solta a Língua and Boca Livre. “Receiving this award is an incredible honour,” explains Dominique. “Dr. King continues to be an inspiration to all who believe in social justice, no matter where in the world they fight for it.
In response to receiving the MLK award, Dominique reflected on her life experiences growing up in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, a “beautiful and vibrant city” known for its African heritage and culture. Dominique notes that “having grown up in a place where I was not part of a minority, it became much more difficult to be aware of racism and to identify racism as a systemic problem. But even if it is sometimes more subtle than in the United States and it shows in different ways, racism is always present. This is not surprising when you remember that Brazil was the last country to end slavery in the Americas. She then came to the United States and experienced being considered a “minority” as a black woman and Latina immigrant. She encountered attitudes that made her feel that she was “out of place”. Dominique emphasizes the need not only for greater diversity and representation, but also, she says, “We need more than that. We need representation that has the power and the will to produce change.
Prior to the pandemic hiatuses, Dominique convened Solta a Lingua, a Portuguese language luncheon, every month for more than a decade to bring together students and native speakers of Portuguese for Brazilian cuisine, informal conversation, and occasional guest speakers. Dominique explains that the events were open to the community and that friends and family were welcome. She continues that the sessions were “a pretext to disconnect from academics, to share experiences, news, worries, to listen to others, to empathize, to care for each other” and to “feed our soul”. For Dominique, such events allow her to make students understand that they matter “as individuals with feelings, dreams and needs” and that they are part of a community. With MIT-Brazil, Dominique also organized a weekly Portuguese language discussion group, Boca Livre, which has been meeting weekly for the past year since MIT returned to in-person teaching.
Dominique has also brought a host of guest speakers and performers over the years to her classroom or to the MIT campus, from authors Dulce Maria Cardoso and Jacinto Lucas Pires, to filmmaker Anna Muylaert, to folk musicians Nós de Chita, among many others from Portugal or Brazil, or from the local Portuguese-speaking community. She sponsored a conference for Jean Wyllys, a lecturer, journalist, politician and gay rights activist from Brazil and former member of the Brazilian parliament in 2019. In 2016, she organized a group of her students to discuss the political situation in East Timor with Institute professor Noam Chomsky. She has frequently worked in collaboration with other units or organizations, such as MIT-Brazil, MIT-Portugal, MIT-Africa, the Association of Brazilian Students at MIT, the Latin American Task Force and Music and the theatrical arts.
Dominique is an exceptional educator who joined MIT in 2010 to help establish the Portuguese curriculum. She has developed and taught all levels of the Portuguese language, where she relies on culturally authentic teaching materials to connect students to the language they are learning – in her own words, “language and culture always go from peer”. In two subjects in particular — course 21G.821 (The Beat of Brazil: Portuguese Language and Brazilian Society Through its Music) and course 21G.820 (Topics in Modern Portuguese Literature and Culture) — Dominique guides her students through explorations Portuguese and Brazilian. artistic cultures as they grow and expand their Portuguese ability. Dominique’s students responded enthusiastically to her teaching, and she received the James A. and Ruth Levitan Teaching Award from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences in 2012.
Dominique also presents frequently at conferences and society meetings, and has served on the board of the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association. She is co-editor of Microgeopolítica da língua portuguesa: ações, challenges and perspectives (Microgeopolitics of the Portuguese language: actions, challenges and perspectives), published in 2021; and author of “La comunicación sin palabras. Estudio comparativo de gestos usados en España y Brasil” (Communication without words. A comparative study of gestures used in Spain and Brazil), published in 2012.