Diva Moreira

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
This description of Diva Moreira's work was prepared when Diva Moreira was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989 .

Introduction

Diva Moreira, a 43-year-old researcher and writer on black themes, has built a grassroots organization that is helping Afro-Brazilians in Brazil's third city and increasingly nationally recognize and know their heritage.

L'idée nouvelle

Diva believes that by educating blacks of all ages -- children, adults and senior citizens -- these negative tendencies can be combatted. She founded Casa Dandara in the city of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, with the hope that cultural tools might be used to give blacks a sense of identity, pride in their culture, self-esteem, leadership qualities and ultimately, the desire to demand their rights as citizens.Casa Dandara carries out programs that cater to all segments of the black population. Diva now oversees a project with black children and adolescents which aims to teach them about Afro-Brazilian culture and give them pride in their heritage so that they won't internalize racism as many of their parents have.The work with children is carried out on two fronts. First, when classes let out at a school located in one of the city's poorest areas, Casa Dandara monitors help children who are having learning difficulties with their homework. Afterwards, they lead a series of activities displaying Afro-Brazilian traditions through theatre, dance, music and art. The children taking part in the program have already begun to do consistently better in school.The second set of activities takes place at Casa Dandara itself, on Saturdays, when children from Belo Horizonte and neighboring communities come to learn about Afro-Brazilian traditions through participation in music and theatre groups. Diva would also like to begin a choir and art classes.For adults, Casa Dandara organizes monthly study weekends for men and women around themes such as "The Meaning of Abolition," "Pre-Colonial Africa," "The Black Woman," and "Socialization of the Black Child." Two specialists in each field are invited to speak, after which the class breaks up into smaller discussion groups. At lunch time, AFro-Brazilian foods are served, followed by a cultural presentation such as capoeira, theatre, or African dance.Casa Dandara's symbolic importance and approach to education have won it recognition throughout Brazil. The House is beginning to spread its message among black organizations all over the country by, e.g., distributing poster-sized calendars that list important dates in black history nationally and also speaking frequently at meetings and gatherings of the black movement.

Le problème

Bringing up the issues of racial prejudice and discrimination in Brazil is a delicate matter, since historically Brazil has considered itself a racial democracy. At first glance, such a description might seem true. Unlike the United States and South AFrica, racial tensions and overt violence or policies of discrimination are not immediately visible in Brazil.A different reality emerges when we consider the statistics, however. Brazil is second only to Nigeria in terms of the size of its black population, with 44 percent of Brazilians being of AFrican descent. Yet black workers in Brazil receive between 50 and 80 percent lower salaries for performing the same jobs as white workers. A large contingent of the economically active black population receives only one minimum salary ($_____ a month). In every group of 100 black children, 42 are unable to attend school (the ratio for the rest of the population is 15 in 100). Only 1 percent of all blacks enter the university.White European mind-sets permeate the educational system, and the media and government perpetuate programs and stereotypes which negate the importance of the Afro-Brazilian tradition in Brazilian culture and history. The government does not consider racism a priority issue, and even progressive segments of society claim that blacks are held back by economic, rather than racial, factors.Though limited by the complexity of the racial issue and the lack of political freedom in Brazil over the last 25 years, the Brazilian black movement, which first emerged in the 1930s, has recently been responsible for a growing awareness of racial problems. Yet, while the black movement has gained momentum along with the other social movements emerging after the return of civilian rule (e.g., ecologists, women, Indians), several obstacles to its development remain.First, the movement has traditionally drawn its support from cultural and religious organizations which vary in style and strength from region to region; thus, the movement has no national identity or unity. Second, the movement has been dominated by elites whose discourse, objectives and institutions have little to offer poor blacks. Third, until recently few organizations have focused on civil rights issues. As a result, the movement is fragmented and disorganized and most blacks are forced to confront alone the psycho-social problems which result from living with de facto discrimination in a supposed racial democracy.

La stratégie

Diva plans to expand her Casa, both directly by multiplying its work in Belo Horizonte and by encouraging others across the country to set up their own Casas all over the country. Her home state, Miras Gerais, is one of Brazil's biggest. It also has one of the country's largest Afro-Brazilian populations. However, this key group is less organized than in the other major states. That makes building up Casa Dandara's impact in the capital, Belo Horizonte, especially important. This impact extends beyond the Casa's direct services. It is a focal point and catalyst in the Afro-Brazilian community. Thus, for example, it contributed to the creation of an organization to better recognize the Afro-Brazilian religious groups in the city.Diva started the Casa in her own home. It now needs a larger space, and Diva has started work towards a new building. The Belo Horizonte municipal government has agreed to donate a well located piece of land, and she's starting to fundraise now.Casa Dandara will continue to help blacks discover their rights and heritage through cultural activities for all ages. Diva expects to improve the work with school children by organizing training courses for teaching monitors.Diva plans to disseminate the idea for Casa Dandara in other neighborhoods and cities through talks, media appearances, and the publication of descriptive pamphlets for street distribution. Her hope to see new branches of Casa Dandara created by blacks in their own communities has already begun to materialize. Black organizations in several neighboring cities have replicated the courses for adults and the work with school children. Diva's dream is to see all of these efforts merge in the formation of a national network of Casa Dandara houses.

La personne

Diva Moreira, now 43, was born and raised in Belo Horizonte. In 1967, she became one of the 1 percent of Brazilian blacks who attend university, earning a B.A. in journalism in 1970 and a graduate degree in political science in 1973.As a young woman, Diva's activism in Catholic youth groups and community work led to a passionate interest in human rights issues, especially where these involved women, blacks and the labor movement. From 1975 to 1988, she worked at a government agency responsible for social and cultural research, heading several projects on public health, human rights, racism and black women. At the same time, she was actively involved in neighborhood work, founded a study group on women and served twice on the advisory council to the agency where she was employed. Since 1983, Diva has published newspaper articles, essays and books on the rights of public hospital patients, Afro-Brazilian culture, discrimination against black women and the meaning of abolition.She is well respected and frequently called upon by schools, universities, neighborhood groups and media to comment on the racial question in Brazil.