Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
Joao Marcos Romao is creating multi-disciplinary multiracial self help groups to defend human rights and promote racial equality.
Romao was one of three Black children in a large Catholic school in Niteroi. Although his father could not pay, he insisted on doing work for the school so that his son would not be a charity student. He did very well academically, but periodically got in trouble for refusing to play an appropriately grateful role. He also emerged early as a leader: he organized a choir in the school including some 40 people from his own Black neighborhood. When he was ten years old he was able to call his father into the street to prevent a lynching. He is deeply troubled by what he saw -- the attackers and the victims were all neighbors, all his friends' parents. He studied and received degrees in sociology, skating near the edge of what the military would tolerate on a number of occasions, e.g., by organizing street poetry readings critical of the regime. Over the 1980s Romao has been heavily involved in the emerging Brazilian Black movement. He has been an activist all his life and belongs to the boards of directors of several groups. He has extensive contacts with the media and credibility with both favela and broader segments of society.
Romao wants to mobilize Brazilians to fight human rights violations, especially racism. His experience has taught him that subtle prejudice and violence are more common and just as damaging as outright violence and that both are primarily the result of what he calls "dehumanization." It's easy to attach pejorative labels to faceless groups of people, forgetting they are human beings. Romao has demonstrated that people from very different backgrounds, colors and educations can successfully work together for a common goal. In 1984 he lived in a mostly white middle class neighborhood. The inhabitants of neighboring slums (mostly Black) had to travel through Romao's neighborhood by cablecar to go to work in downtown Rio de Janeiro. By the end of 1984 a series of robberies were committed on the cablecar. The middle class neighborhood started to get organized to combat the crimes. One of the suggestions was to "arm everybody." At the same time that Romao attended these meetings he was also involved through his active role in the black movement with the favela (slum) organizations. The favelados complained about police violence and their white neighbors' prejudice. From this unique position, Romao decided to act. He distributed thousands of little notes saying that everybody was scared: the middle class people were afraid of the favela people and vice versa, and that things couldn't go on this way. The message was, "know your neighbor and stop being afraid." The reaction was very positive. This movement was later called "SOS Santa Tereza." But there was need for more. Romao went to the media and in a very popular TV program he denounced some police elements involved with the criminals in Santa Tereza. Once more he insisted, "they are only able to keep on terrorizing us because we're too afraid to act." SOS Santa Tereza grew in size and strength. The bandits (6 adults that used children to commit the robberies) and the corrupt police officers were put in jail. Today one of the youngsters involved in the criminal acts works with Romao's group. But more significantly, Santa Tereza has a strong and active multiracial and multi-class neighborhood association. Based on this and a lifetime of similar experiences, Romao started to develop what later on would be called "IPCN Civil and Human Rights/SOS Racism." SOS Racism is promoting the creation of multi-professional, multiracial groups to deal with human rights violations. These groups' objectives are: (1) to give direct assistance to human rights violations' victims; (2) to mobilize society against violence and prejudice through discussions, lectures, seminars, and the media; and (3) to promote self esteem and pride in one's culture. To reach these objectives, SOS Racism will provide courses to community, syndicate, and church leaders, police and businesspeople regarding violence and prejudice. They have also started to do consciousness-raising work in the schools with students, teachers, and parents. Successful graduates of his roughly one year training program became deputized representatives of SOS Racism in their communities.
Violence has reached alarming rates in Brazil, one of the most dramatic consequences of the deep economic crisis that has afflicted the country in the last 8 years. The streets are unsafe, the police mistrusted, and the population reacts by demanding the death penalty and more police action (violence). Violence also permeates daily life in the form of family violence, work discrimination, sexism, etc. However, according to Romao, the concept of racial equality is deeply rooted in Brazilian society: "Most people who discriminate don't know what they're doing, they never stopped to think why they chose this or that person for a job when a woman or Black candidate was better qualified. Those people will be the first ones to tell you they believe in racial and gender equality. You may think I'm crazy but I believe they're telling the truth." Romao says that the Black movement in Brazil can't be compared to the one in the United States. Brazil's history has left the country with a less deeply ingrained racial bias than is true in the U.S. It is said that less than 5% of Brazilian Blacks are pure Black, and by the same token few Brazilian whites are pure white. Culturally, too, all Brazilians share a lively mix of European and African cultures that permits a dialogue of a kind unlikely to take place in other countries.
Romao started to work out of the office in the Public Safety Council, and later worked out of the Instituto de Pesquisas de Culturas Negras" (Research Institute for Black Cultures) (IPCN), where he established an evening service to receive grievances from victims of racism. He soon realized that he needed independence from any organization so that his actions couldn't be controlled or his loyalties questioned. Romao's strategy is simple. He works on the concrete cases of people affected by human rights violations. He gets these people involved in his organization, the courses and seminars. "They contribute as much as or more than they learn," says Romao, "and they're always profoundly involved." Then he expects these people to return to their communities, work places, churches, etc. and start their own multiracial, multi-professional groups. A newsletter now in its second issue circulates among these groups and provides a forum for ideas and exchange of information.