Solidarity and Activism when Democracy Fails

March 17, 2020

On Friday, February 28, the Brazil LAB hosted the trailblazing social innovator Alessandra Orofino, co-founder and executive Director of the non-profit NossasNossas is a critical "social infrastructure" network that develops and shares tools and methodologies for activism and civic participation throughout Brazil. An Obama Foundation and Skoll Social Entrepreneurship Fellow, Orofino was joined by discussant Federico Neiburg, Professor of Anthropology at the Museu Nacional, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and currently a Member of the School of Social Science of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. 

In her talk, Orofino highlighted the multiple ways Nossas uses technology and galvanizes new forms of solidarity, as people seek to claim their cities and take action against state violence and exclusion. “We need to mobilize peoples immediate desires and willingness to help strangers in need,” she said. Orofino recalled that one of Nossas' first successful campaigns was stopping the closure of a beloved public school near the Maracanã stadium in Rio in the midst of the city's replanning for the 2016 Olympic Games. 

The visionary activist also discussed the power of local-level activism to cut across the political divide in contemporary Brazil. For example, members of Nossas' initiative Mapa do Acolhimento donated their time to help survivors of sexual assault. This initiative came together to push São Paulo governor's João Dória to fulfill a campaign promise to create a network of police stations open 24/7 specifically to attend to women's needs. Although Mapa volunteers differed in their political orientation and their support for the governor, they build trust through their mutual concern for women's safety and, with Nossas' help, were able to create a campaign that was ultimately successful. Orofino probed the audience to think about today's political subject as "ambivalent": even though people might identify as conservatives, they can still engage in specific progressive causes.

Federico Neiburg stressed the importance of exploring new ways of doing politics today against the backdrop of conservative populism. In his comments, the anthropologist placed Nossas and other emergent forms of social mobilization in historical perspective, mentioning people's resistances to the military dictatorship, the emergence of NGOs and their strong international connections, as well as the significance of Liberation Theology and social pastoral care. Orofino reinforced the importance of connecting militancy and memory and to continuously strengthen civil society in both progressive and authoritarian times.

A lively discussion ensued between Orofino, Neiburg, and the audience on the role of religion and activism, especially considering Brazil’s demographic shift away from the Catholic church – historically a supporter of left-leaning activism in Brazil – towards the evangelical church, which today tends to support right-wing politicians. The speakers emphasized that people of all religious backgrounds are facing the precarization of employment, massive indebtedness, everyday violence, and ailing infrastructures and these dire situations might call for specific collective actions, thus creating unexpected affinities and synergies.

This event was co-sponsored by the Program in Latin American Studies, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Department of Anthropology.