“Together we are raising voices for change”

Specialists and social activists talk about empowering the Latin American citizen during discussion panel organized by Humanitas360 and Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York

Empowering Latin American citizens means to give a voice to millions of individuals that do not participate actively in the process of building their communities and countries. It means to give space for them to tell their stories and transform their realities. On September 15th, Professor Carl Hart, social activists Raull Santiago and Rene Silva, along with the president of Humanitas360, Patrícia Villela Marino, shared the table in order to discuss how to empower the Latin American citizen. Brian Winter, an American journalist who currently serves as the vice-president of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas and as the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly magazine, mediated the debate.

Among the themes that were discussed were ways of empowering individuals to combat violence, poverty, and problems related to the prison system in the region. Bringing together panelists with professional perspectives as well as personal experience helped provoke deep analysis of these prevalent issues in the Americas.

Professor Carl Hart is one of the biggest references in scientific research about the effects of drugs in the human body as well as a strong supporter of the decriminalization of drugs, supporting reforms on drug policies that are more just and humane. Hart was born in a poor and violent community in Miami, surrounded by crime. Determined to break prejudices and not conform to the destiny imposed by society due to social status and color of his skin, Hart pursued higher education, becoming the first African-American tenured professor of the sciences at Columbia University, conducting research and teaching classes in the areas of neuroscience, psychology and pharmacology.

During the debate about the Brazilian prison system, the professor emphasized that we need to address the real issues, “Brazil is saying that is has a drug problem. At the moment they think they have a crack problem. I assure you that they don’t. They have a poverty problem. They have a racial discrimination problem. They have a problem with poor quality education or lack of education.”

From their background of working with community-based communications as a tool to bring about social transformation, Rene Silva and Raull Santiago talked about their experience at the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. They also addressed how communication is important in the process of empowering citizens.

About 10 years ago, Rene founded the local newspaper Voz de Comunidade (translated Voice of the Community) from an idea he had with his friends of disseminating information about communities in the Complexo do Alemão, one of the largest conglomerates of Favelas in Rio, which traditional media does not normally cover. From this idea, they developed a powerful communication outlet produced by the communities themselves. Today, the publication has about 1 million daily visits to its website (the number may get to 3 million hits during specific days), about 204,000 followers on Twitter, and more than 44,000 fans on Facebook. In spite of the significant impact Voz da Comunidade has had, Rene said that there is much more to be done since there are 1,200 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. “We have to empower and strengthen other communities for them to have a voice and also be able to express themselves,” he said.

Raull Santiago, who was born and raised in the Complexo do Alemão, co-founded with his friends and other members of his community the Coletivo Papo Reto (translated Straight Talk Collective). Their goal was to create a communication outlet that could help each other. During the discussion, Raull described the platform as a means to disseminate “survival communication,” empowering poor and marginalized people to speak their minds and be active in their communities.

Raull believes in an organized civic society and in the synergy that is created by organizations such as Papo Reto and Voz da Comunidade. “Together we are raising our voices and creating a movement that says that things are wrong in Brazil and that we need to start talking about them,” he emphasized.

Patrícia Villela Marino talked about Humanitas360’s innovative approach of exercising a philanthropy that is not based on a dynamic between benefactors and beneficiaries, but it is based on building a relationship between the parties, a term that she coins “Grassroots Philanthropy.” According to Patrícia, Humanitas proposes to empower citizens not only with financial investments, but also with “intellectual investments. It’s a life investment; lives that sow lives.”

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