Alzira dos Santos Rufino
BrazilFellow since 1991

Alzira dos Santos Rufino, working from a black women's cultural center she created in the port city of Santos (Sao Paulo State), is demonstrating how black communities can unite and build a fully independent economic base. She then uses this empowered unity to develop awareness, confidence, and skills in the black community, and to press effectively for changes in public policy.

The Person

Alzira dos Santos Rufino has bravely traveled many roads to achieve the empowerment that marks her life as an activist. At twelve, she began working as a domestic servant, a day laborer sorting coffee beans, and fish seller in the market. She also went to school, where she stood out. Although she was one of the few black students, she organized her classmates in putting out a regular newspaper. She organized a protest against tests on short notice, which were difficult for students like her who had to work. The head of the school then told her that she was a leader and that she would have to decide whether to use that quality for good or ill. After long years of study, she was able to get a license in nursing, a profession she maintained for sixteen years. In the 1970s, before moving back to Santos, Alzira studied and practiced nursing in Sao Paulo. Even though these were the years of military rule when union organizing was, to say the least, discouraged, she built up a union of nurses in the Sao Paulo hospitals. The difficulties she encountered as a black woman in the labor force fueled her commitment to addressing racism head-on. A longtime activist, Alzira was a founding member and coordinator of a black women's collective in Santos. In this capacity, she worked with city council representatives in passing antiracism legislation and collaborated with the Catholic University of Santos in producing ground-breaking historical research on the contributions of black women to the city's economy. She also represented the collective at several national conferences where she spoke on a range of issues, including health and civil rights. In 1989, she coordinated the First Meeting of Black Women of Santos. In addition to her work at the cultural center, Alzira has published a number of articles and has designed popular education booklets on women's and racial issues. She has conducted extensive interviews in the press and published a book entitled, I, Black Woman, Resist in 1988. She has also written some children's literature.

The New Idea

Alzira's cultural center is home base for a broad coalition of Afro-Brazilians seeking to change their status in society. Open to all, despite its special concern for black women, it is designed to make it easy for the community to come together without engendering factions. The center provides a number of direct services designed to (1) build Afro-Brazilian identity, pride, and unity and encourage cultural awareness and understanding; (2) give members of the community skills; and (3) educate them about their legal rights and how to fight for them. The center hosts a series of Afro-oriented seminars, discussions, and cultural and artistic events. It also houses an Afro-Brazilian restaurant. If Alzira and her center can make so much difference in a major municipality like Santos, organizing on similar lines in a hundred other cities could create a powerful wave across the country.

The Problem

Two thirds of the black female labor force are domestic servants, reflecting the cumulative impact of slavery, the pervasive stereotypes of inferiority accepted by both Euro- and Afro Brazilians, functional illiteracy, lack of access to even vocational education, a series of discriminatory policies, and little or no organization. All these influences are mutually reinforcing, making the problem more difficult to solve, and making an integrated approach to unraveling this web so essential.

The Strategy

With its myriad of servcies and programs, the center provides courses in literacy, secretarial skills, and hairdressing, as well as foreign language training courses. The center's skills training program is designed to let black women break into new areas, most especially to go beyond domestic service. The courses form part of a larger strategy aimed at increasing black women's self-esteem and stimulating their creativity and intellect. Alzira is also initiating an aggressive legal aid service that will offer free legal advice to black women who otherwise would not have access to legal representation. The team of lawyers she has assembled also offers workshops on the legal and civil rights of black women and is looking for precedent-setting cases to bring to court. Along the same lines, Alzira is working with the new women's police stations in Sao Paulo State to develop mechanisms to better serve women who are victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and racial discrimination. Alzira and her center have a second -- and even more important -- set of goals: to press the city, state, and national political processes for a series of concrete legal and policy changes that will open jobs and other important opportunities to Afro-Brazilians. By being broadly representative and tough but reasonable, she has already pushed several important resolutions through the Santos City Council. Sometimes this work is very technical and seemingly modest. For example, she is now trying to reverse existing hospital recordkeeping practice to include a racial category so that patterns of special need can be more readily noted and unequal treatment will become apparent. As Alzira points out, "We cannot be pressing the municipality for one change after another and also look to it for our funding." She has therefore been working to develop a series of profitable yet programmatically comfortable components. The center, for example, also houses a restaurant that serves traditional African foods. In addition, it serves as a space for the exhibition of artworks by black Brazilian artists. In both cases, Alzira not only creatively addresses the financial demands of maintaining the center, but also works to validate the culture and traditions of her people. The center also sells some of the products of students learning vocational skills. Alzira plans to replicate this income-generating strategy at other centers she is establishing in the state of Sao Paulo and beyond. Alzira is at a turning point. She still has decades of work to do in Santos, but she senses that her approach is needed in dozens of other municipalities all across the country -- and that in many ways what she can do in Santos, or what someone else can do in another city, will depend on the pressure for change in a great many cities. In other words, it is time for her to spread what she has learned elsewhere.