Socorro Guterres

This description of Socorro Guterres's work was prepared when Socorro Guterres was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


Socorro Guterres is putting Brazil's racial and cultural history in a positive light by changing the ways in which racial identity is treated in the public school system.

The New Idea

Socorro is implementing a teacher-focused movement for advancing Afro-Brazilian people and culture. Her idea is to break the cycle of racist attitudes perpetuated through the public education system by teaching methods that reject cultural and ethnic discrimination, particularly concerning the black population in Brazil. Socorro works with teachers in the rural black communities of Maranhão, many of them descended from runaway slave settlements, to help them understand and respect the ethnic diversity and cultural history of their students. To do so, she makes them researchers of the cultural history of the communities, transforming them into agents for recovering and perpetuating the identity of the community. With this knowledge, Socorro builds their capacity to create new teaching materials, modify curriculum, and adapt teaching methods to incorporate this value for ethnic diversity within the classroom. By creating more open and accepting environments for learning, Socorro's work strengthens the self-esteem of black students and reduces the dropout rates, course repetition, and failure that contribute to social and economic marginalization. Socorro expects that her work will help transform schools into institutions that value diversity and instill in students a critical awareness of themselves and their peers, making them capable of exercising their rights as citizens.

The Problem

Brazil is a country plagued by inequality, drawn sharply along lines of race. According to the Institute of Economic Studies, of the 22 million Brazilians living below the poverty line, 70 percent are black. In terms of education, white adults have an average of more than six-and-a-half years of schooling while black adults average less than four-and-a-half.
These inequalities reflect a continuation of racism in Brazilian society that is rooted in its history of slavery. The state of Maranhão, the second largest state in the Brazilian northeast, has a population of five million, the majority being descendents of African slaves. It contains the lowest Human Development Index rating in the country. In Maranhão, the average income of a black family is 93 Brazilian reais a month, approximately $32, whereas the average income for a white family is well over two times that amount. The situation of black rural families is made even worse by the fact that, in addition to minimal conditions for survival and lack of resources, many have no recognition of their land rights. Throughout the years of slavery, refugees from the plantations escaped to the sparsely populated interior and created settlements called quilombos. After emancipation, freed blacks joined these settlements and also became workers on former plantations, forming new black communities. During the 1980s, organizations in the Black Rights Movement fought to recognize these settlements and the rights of black families to gain title to their land. With or without land title, these communities are characterized by resource scarcity and poverty.
With little access to economic opportunities, blacks are over-represented among socially marginalized groups, including the unemployed, prostitutes, and street children. Reinforcing this is an education system that neither reflects this large majority of the population nor recognizes its culture or history. Black children entering the public school system are faced with information and teaching methods originating from curricula that uphold racist stereotypes or simply ignore the black population. As a consequence, schools constitute a place for reproducing racist ideology that reaffirms blacks' social position among the poorest and most vulnerable levels of society.

The Strategy

Socorro has three principle approaches: generating educational materials that put Brazil's racial and cultural diversity in a positive light and encourage Afro-Brazilians to value their heritage; influencing local educational authorities to require curriculum that treats cultural diversity responsibly; and influencing the racial values and attitudes of teachers so that they will embrace racial diversity in their own classrooms and emphasize positive aspects of racial diversity rather than perpetrate debilitating stereotypes. Through these approaches, Socorro intends to turn citizens of all racial backgrounds into learners from their own historical experience rather than victims of Brazil's long history of slavery.
Socorro builds on her experience to develop programs for educators based on self-esteem, racial equality, and ethnic identity and to implement a systematic teacher training program for public schools in rural black communities. She is implementing her idea in the black communities of Santa Rosa and Filipa, communities created by descendents of quilombos. They are located in the municipalities of Itapecuru-Miriam, situated in the western part of Maranhão, 116 kilometers from the state capital, São Luis.
The first step in Socorro's idea is to combat the racial prejudice of the teachers. Not only are almost all the teachers black in rural black communities, they also are products of poor professional development. Many of them reject their own identity and cultural history because they, too, were taught within an education system designed to reinforce the value of a dominant white society. Socorro begins working with the teachers to make them recognize the need for establishing new social relations that respect cultural diversity in the classroom. She has them reflect on their own school experiences and uses the resulting dynamics to point out how prejudice and racism, hidden and overt, in the current teaching methods and materials, can affect the education and social formation of a child. She orients them on selecting relevant content on cultural pluralism for their lessons. She also works with them to create basic materials that reflect the cultural, racial, and ethnic pluralism of Brazilian society, making it possible for black children to see themselves as citizens of the society rather than as outsiders.
To complement the work in the classroom, Socorro aims to change the way teachers interact with the school administration and the community. It is not enough for teachers to alter their own teaching methods individually. Socorro's idea is to build the teachers' capacity to become agents for social change with a deep understanding of equality and human rights, particularly relating to black culture and racism. As part of this, Socorro is developing a course for teachers on black history in Brazil to open their horizons on the question of race. The course itself is designed using democratic methods of learning to give the teachers an experience in the kind of education they should embrace in their classrooms. Furthermore, Socorro introduces another element to make teachers see how inequality and prejudice contribute to social problems in the communities: she orients teachers on conducting socioeconomic, political, and cultural studies in the communities as a means of incorporating the concept of teaching while learning.
From her work with teachers, Socorro plans to develop alternative teaching materials that reflect the lives and cultures of their students so that they can be replicated in other schools. At the same time, she plans to move from action within the classroom to action in the schools. She plans to strengthen the teachers' abilities to understand and articulate the issues in order to be a force in organizing and directing the curriculum.
Socorro is currently implementing her idea through the Center for Black Culture of Maranhão where she voluntarily develops a series of activities in the area of education and racial equality. She currently maintains partnerships with the Maranhense Society on Human Rights, the Association of Rural Black Quilombos, and the Municipal and State Councils on Children's and Adolescents' Rights. Socorro plans to develop partnerships with the City Halls of each municipality through the Secretaries of Education and local organizations to turn her idea into public policy that will contribute to a more democratic and inclusive form of education.

The Person

Socorro grew up in a poor black family of extreme poverty. Her mother, semiliterate, single, and black, raised Socorro and her six siblings with a great deal of sacrifice. From an early age, she was told that she needed to marry a white man to "clean the family" or "whiten the skin." Socorro was disturbed by this but did not yet understand the origin of this self-rejection and self-discrimination.
Despite many challenges, Socorro managed what only a tiny fraction of the black population in Brazil achieves-she was accepted into a university. She decided to study pedagogy and, while still a student, began her professional career working with preschool children, aged 3 to 6. As their teacher, she began to see attitudes and signs of prejudice in the white children toward the black children. She observed white children not wanting to take the hand of a black child in circle games, not wanting to be partners in dances, or even referring to them with crude or racist nicknames. Socorro was alarmed and intrigued by these behaviors. She asked herself how they had already become so prejudiced at such a young age.
Some years later, Socorro's own 9-year-old daughter was a victim of racial slurs and physical violence by another student because of her skin color. A white student called her "blackie" and picked a fight. Her daughter came home and asked her mother why she had to have dark skin, why her hair did not grow long and straight. Socorro was indignant about the attack against her daughter but more horrified by the self-rejection and self-loathing it generated. Socorro began a long and constant process of reinforcing her daughter's self-esteem and helping her love and appreciate her culture and history. As a result of this process of identity building and support, at age 18, Socorro's daughter passed the entrance exam to three public universities, following in her mother's footsteps as another rare exception to the rule of racial exclusion in schools.
These two experiences shaped Socorro's life. She dedicated herself to fighting racism and discrimination and building self-esteem in black children and adolescents through education involving not only educators but also children and adolescents. In 1985 she joined the Center for Black Culture of Maranhão, an organization run by volunteer staff that is a member of the Black Movement. Working nights and weekends, Socorro began developing and carrying out programs directed at citizenship building, racial equality, and gender and cultural preservation. Besides her work in the center, Socorro has coordinated various education projects where she was able to introduce the theme of racism and equality. Now she is prepared to carry forth her idea, focusing on the educators in rural black communities, to rescue the culture, self-esteem, and identity of their young black students, and helping them become protagonists in their own futures and in the future of Brazil.