Social Issues

Brazil early education pioneer recognized for efforts to combat racism

By Nayara Batschke

Sao Paulo, Dec 14 (efe-epa).- The former director of a Brazilian pre-school known for tackling systemic racism has earned a place on British public service broadcaster BBC’s 2020 list of inspiring and influential women thanks to her pioneering efforts.

Included alongside prominent figures such as Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and American actress and political activist Jane Fonda, Cibele Racy has been honored for fostering an inclusive learning and working environment free of prejudice based on race, gender or position.

Using learning props such as giant dolls, drawings and comic strips, Sao Paulo’s Escola Municipal de Educação Infantil Nelson Mandela has incorporated diversity and acceptance activities into the daily lessons it offers nearly 2,000 young students aged four to six.

The project was launched after Afro-Brazilian history and culture became a mandatory part of the high-school curriculum in 2003, when center-left President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office.

Racy said in an interview with Efe that she believed that ethno-racial relationships needed to be addressed at a much earlier stage, when “children start to perceive differences” and “racist thought must start to be combated.”

“Education has to begin in early childhood. Not debating the subject, because children can’t even verbalize what they feel, but through representation so they recognize and can value their identities,” the educator said.

The work of achieving an environment that was fully equal and free of racism began in 2004 with the employees of the educational center, where she said “there were clear power relationships” that were “determined by skin color.”

“When I started leading the school, I became aware of those relationships of superiority or inferiority among the workers that were related to structural racism,” she said.

The then-director responded by launching a series of actions aimed at those professionals, adding that it “is impossible to work on those questions with children without first resolving them with the adults who are there to educate them.”

“For someone to stop being racist, a very profound internal reformulation process is required. It’s a process that’s personal and can’t be delegated because you have to recognize your fragility. You have to be humble. It’s not (about) studying; it’s an affective process,” Racy said.

After strides were made to ensure a sufficiently prejudice-free atmosphere, the school shifted its focus to the students and their families.

The first step was the arrival at the school of an African price named Azizi Abayomi, a huge black-colored doll that helped teachers guide reflections about race in a way that was highly accessible and entertaining for the children.

And by recreating the life story of this character, they were able to absorb lessons about ethno-racial relationships and incorporate them into their daily lives.

“But when you start working with the subject of race, it’s hard to stop there. We started breaking down all types of prejudices, taboos, stereotypes, such as questions of gender and other very important topics,” the retired director said.

Other activities undertaken by the school, which took the name Nelson Mandela in 2016 in honor of the late president of South Africa, anti-Apartheid leader and Nobel Peace laureate, have included multi-ethnic events and the substitution of the traditional Festas Juninas (a mid-summer celebration of rural life) for an Afro-Brazilian festival.

The new project was well received by the children’s families.

Even so, Brazil’s silent structural racism reared its ugly head when the pre-school became the target of protests and abuse by some residents of Sao Paulo’s traditional Limao neighborhood, where that educational facility is located.

“On one occasion, the phrase, ‘let’s protect the future of our white children,’ was painted on the wall and surrounded by several swastikas,” Racy recalled.

In its response, she said, the school met the challenge head-on. After a discussion about what had happened, the young students formed a working group and had the entire vandalized space repainted.

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