Brazil has a history of racist traditions that are present throughout society, contributing to a social abyss between blacks and whites. Today, there is a very well articulated black movement in the country. Their efforts, however, are usually limited to addressing the effects of racism within the black community. Maria Lúcia fights racism with a program that seeks to both strengthen the rights and self-esteem of black Brazilians and influence the perceptions and attitudes of the white population. Her programs allow participants to break free from the racist traditions that are present in their organizations and working environments.
The New Idea
The central axis of Maria Lúcia’s idea consists of a method that unites the black and white communities in the struggle against racism. Her programs seek to eliminate unequal relationships in Brazilian society by deconstructing the idea of superiority among whites and inferiority among blacks. Maria Lúcia believes that, in order to break free from racist Brazilian traditions, it is necessary to build alliances between blacks and whites through a methodology that seeks to effectively change the relationship and dialogue between the two communities. It is necessary to go beyond the effort of strengthening the identity and self-esteem of black Brazilians.
Maria Lúcia believes it is especially important to transform the Brazilian educational system because it perpetuates racist attitudes that contribute to the social injustice between blacks and whites in the country. Her program has a two-pronged approach, seeking individual change among educators and students, and institutional change within the school itself. Maria Lúcia hopes to replicate her method throughout Brazil’s educational system because she believes in the importance of influencing wide-ranging public policies to eradicate racism in the country.
Maria Lúcia’s approach is different from other methods because it brings out the deeply rooted racism that society fails to acknowledge by exposing blacks and whites together with their prejudices and stereotypes. Only through this effective exposure of the problem is it possible for black individuals to understand to what degree racism influences their self-esteem and negatively affects their opportunities for social and economic growth. This exposure also enables white Brazilians to recognize their part in this historical distortion. By doing so, they are learning effective ways to change their position and to no longer be agents in the problem but partners in eradicating racism. Maria Lúcia wants to develop her method into a widespread practice in several institutions to obtain ample impact and transform the myth of “racial democracy” into reality.
Brazil is the country with the largest black population outside Africa. Historically, it was the second largest slave nation of the modern era, the last Western country to abolish slavery, and the last country in the Americas to abolish slave traffic. Although extremely veiled, the discrimination against this population is immense and was considered a crime only in 1989. According to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 1995 and 1999, only 150 claims for racist crimes were made. Two factors contribute to this reality. On one hand, non-explicit racism makes it difficult to report offenses. On the other hand, institutions do not create a favorable environment for victims to speak out.
Research reflects vast racial inequality and the socioeconomic difficulties for blacks in Brazil. Out of the country’s total population living below the poverty line, close to 70 percent are black. Black Brazilians also make up 46.9 percent of the total adult population (over 25 years of age) with less than 4 years of formal education. While the African descendants in Brazil represent 48 percent of the population, they make up only 2 percent of the university student body. A study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) also shows that, on average, blacks receive lower wages or benefits than those received by whites. According to a report by UNICEF in 2001, black children are twice as likely to be poor and out of school, and three times as likely to be illiterate.
Racism exists in Brazil’s social structures and can be found even within the political, educational, and health institutions. This causes social injustices that are mainly imperceptible to society at large and often felt by black Brazilians as oppression. In order to stem such deeply rooted racism, one must engage the institutions that perpetuate the injustice with an approach that offers action for both black and white communities.
Maria Lúcia founded the Psyche and Negro Roots AMMA Institute (Instituto AMMA Psique e Negritude) in 1995 with the vision of eradicating racism in Brazil. During its early years, the institute began to explore different approaches to deconstructing the idea of superiority in white people and inferiority in black people.
In 1997, she developed the “human relations” component of her program which focused primarily on the transforming force of working with youth. The institute began working with approximately 50 adolescents within the Growing, Living and Learning project from ABREVIDA (the Afro-Brazilian Association of Education, Culture and Preservation of Life). Maria Lúcia then created several other youth-centered programs such as the “Self-Esteem and Youth” Project of São Paulo from 1999 to 2001, and the “Forming Social Agents against Racism Program” of Sorocaba, SP from 2001 to 2002.
Parallel to the youth effort, Maria Lúcia believed that it was necessary to join forces with other institutions to transform Brazilian reality. She began training civil society organizations and other public organizations to replicate her model of racial deconstruction. In 2000 and 2001, she developed and coordinated a course called “Training in Inter-Ethnical and Gender Relationships” for civil society organizations and government bodies. This training course was given by different groups around the country, including: Malunga (Group of Black Women of Goiás), Maria Mulher (Porto Alegre, State of Rio Grande do Sul), Força Ativa-Rappers (State of São Paulo), the Public Health Network (States of Goiás and Espírito Santo), Unions (State of São Paulo), Federal Psychology Council (Brasília, Federal District), and the Municipal School Network (State of São Paulo).
As years passed, Maria Lúcia began to receive recognition for her methodology from Brazil’s black movement. She was invited to share her work through lectures, and workshops often organized by other institutions of the social movement. The AMMA Institute also worked with IBASE (Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis) to incorporate racial topics within projects and helped implement an affirmative action program for the institution. It also developed an initiative with 60 youths for the Secretariat of Social Assistance in the region of São Mateus.
As her idea matured, Maria Lúcia realized that it was not enough to carry out isolated efforts with individual organizations or youth groups. Maria Lúcia decided that she had to engage the country’s formal and informal educational systems to effectively transform relationships between different actors in society and enable greater social justice between blacks and whites.
The first step in her strategy was to reach the educators who worked with the youth. In 2004, she organized a 120-hour training course that brought together for the first time fourteen black and white educators, both from the formal and informal educational systems. During the course, educators reevaluate the racial situation in the country from their perspectives and life histories. By allowing blacks to see how the existing racism in the country is influencing their life stories, and allowing whites to realize their part of this historical construction, both parties become transforming agents of this reality. The result of this methodology is exposure of the racial tension in the country, bringing concrete changes both in the participants and in their social and work environments.
Based on her experience with this pilot program, Maria Lúcia hopes to create a training center for psychologists and educators, which will help them share the institute’s approach against racism with their specific organizations and target audiences.
The next step in Maria Lúcia’s strategy was to engage educational institutions as a whole. It is often in school that black children experience racism for the first time and it continues throughout their school life. Most school environments also perpetuate the lack of dialogue and respect between blacks and whites. In 2005, Maria Lúcia forged a partnership with a public school in Sorocaba, to engage all the actors involved in the educational institution. Maria Lúcia and her team began to work with the 750 students of the school, their families, and teachers. By working with all three groups, Maria Lúcia aims to encourage dialogue and break racist relationships that promote social injustices within the institution.
Maria Lúcia’s objective is to systematize the positive experience in this school, introduce it to the Secretariat of Education of the State of São Paulo, and expand her work into a wide-ranging public policy. Aside from her work with individual youths, educators, and educational systems, Maria Lúcia is also exploring other alternative methods to reach the young generation. Together with UMBI-UMBI (a group specializing in developing games for youths to address social issues), Maria Lúcia and her team are developing a game with AMMA’s methodology, which will enable more people to use her methodology and transform racial relationships in their communities.
Maria Lúcia is also working to share her racism deconstruction approach with other groups who suffer from discrimination. She has applied her methodology in workshops between gay and non-gay groups, and has facilitated groundbreaking dialogues between non-white women (black and indigenous) and white women in Argentina and Costa Rica.
To ensure the sustainability of her organization, Maria Lúcia intends to implement a consolidated fundraising strategy and establish strategic partnerships with youth organizations, regional psychology councils, and education and health unions in São Paulo. Maria Lúcia also plans to form a network of youth organizations who have participated in the training courses to follow the impact of her methodology in their development. She also hopes to increase the involvement of the families of the youths who take part in the institute’s activities.
Maria Lúcia was born in the interior of the State of São Paulo. Her family moved to the capital when she was around four years old. At the age of five, she experienced her parents’ divorce. By the time she was nine, she had her first working experience, laboring 40 hours a week but receiving an unjust “child’s” salary. At fifteen, she became the financial provider of her household, supporting her mother and ten brothers.
In 1976, she was approached by an activist from the Negro Movement, which began her political path and changed the direction of her professional life. The group that Maria Lúcia became affiliated with was responsible for revitalizing the Negro Culture Art Center (CECAN) which had been inactive since 1970. CECAN was one of the national disseminating centers of reflection on the racial cause, and its headquarters was a meeting point for activists that passed through Brazil. CECAN was a key element in the creation of the Unified Negro Movement (MNU) in 1978, which redefined the movement’s work, going beyond cultural boundaries to achieve political action and denouncing the precarious living conditions of the Negro population.
This period in her life enabled her to become aware of the complexity of the inter-racial relationships between blacks and whites in Brazil. In 1985, she obtained her degree in psychology and, in the following year, worked for the Commission of Negro Women, which was a part of the State Council of the Female Condition. During this time, Maria Lúcia began an effort of reflection and dissemination of information on the living conditions of black women, through meetings, lectures, and various media. In 1988, she took part in the first National Meeting of Negro Women, with over 400 women from almost every Brazilian state. Contrary to the purpose of the State Council of the Female Condition, the organization was plagued with internal pressures and oppression against black women. This contradiction led Maria Lúcia to create an alternative organization of black women. She then joined the Geledés Foundation—Institute of the Negro Woman, established by Ashoka Fellow Sueli Carneiro.
In 1989, Maria Lúcia took part in a trip to the United States to learn about the work of the National Health Project of Black Women in Atlanta and New York. This experience inspired a project called “Building our Complicity.” The project expanded with several thematic workshops and capacity-building courses that were provided for the group’s facilitators. As a result of the program, several other groups were formed, including a youth group and a group which included the male companions of the women involved in the project.
In 1994, Maria Lúcia left GELEDÉS after having served as president and established the Psyche and Negro Roots AMMA Institute, to continue and deepen the work initiated by GELEDÉS. Maria Lúcia is also a consultant of the Ângela Borba Fund of Resources for Women, run by Fellow Amália Fischer.