Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast

Episode 11: Christiana Figueres interviews Djamila Ribeiro

In this episode, Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Co-Founder of Global Optimism, interviews Djamila Ribeiro, Brazilian black feminist philosopher and journalist, about her work to advance the rights of Black women in Brazil.






Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this episode, Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Co-Founder of Global Optimism, interviews Djamila Ribeiro, Brazilian Black feminist philospher and journalist, about her work to advance the rights of Black women in Brazil.

Christiana Figueres: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Christiana Figueres and I am the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Sorry about that mouthful of a title. And I am today the co-founder of Global Optimism. My delightful guest today is the wonderful Djamila Ribeiro, a Brazilian Black feminist philosopher and journalist. She is the author of several books on Black feminism, a columnist for newspapers and magazines, and a guest professor in journalism. Djamila became the Deputy Assistant of Human Rights for the city of Sao Paulo in 2016. Djamila, I am so looking forward to this conversation because I honestly just cannot imagine what it has been like to take the risks that you have taken. And I'm very much hoping that you're going to share some of that with our listeners.

Djamila Ribeiro: Hi, Christiana Figueres. It's a pleasure to be here and have the opportunity of this conversation. I admire your work. I have read a lot about you, so I'm very happy to be here. Thank you.

Christiana Figueres: Wonderful. Well, thank you, thank you. Djamila, this year we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. Action for women, for women in leadership, for women's equalities, for women's rights, that's what the Beijing conference was. Now, as you look back over those 25 years, what do you think has changed for women in terms of opportunities, decision-making, political leadership? What has changed and what has outrageously stayed the same?

Djamila Ribeiro: Well here in Brazil, in the past few years, you had some advances in Brazil, mostly in some progressive governments - Labor Party in Brazil was responsible. So we have critiques, but we have to admit that there was some public policies for women and for Black people in Brazil, especially during Lula administration, for example. We had some secretaries for women to think public policy for women. We had affirmative actions for Black people in universities. There were some progress in Brazil. But I think that our challenge in Brazil is to understand that it's not possible to talk about gender without talk about race. Because in Brazil, the majority of population is Black. Black women in Brazil represent 27% of the population and Black women are the social group who are more discriminated in Brazil. Most of the Black women in Brazil are still domestic workers or are working in some jobs that are not socially valued. So I think it's our change to think--our challenge, to think about intersectionality in Brazil. There were some advances in Brazil, for sure, but especially for white women. In Brazil and in the Black movement, there was some progress, but especially for Black men maybe. And when you are not a white woman or a Black man, the public policies sometimes do not see us as benefits of this policy. So I think that there were things that we have to, of course, to admit that were important, especially in terms of public politics, in terms of education, the discussion on race, on feminism in Brazil were in the public debate. There were some things that were very important. But still as Black women, we see this gap, this invisibility sometimes, we think about intersectionality and how in Brazil, the races and sexes are oppressions that we have to face together.

Christiana Figueres: So what I hear you saying is that Black women in Brazil, but very possibly in most other countries as well, are actually doubly hit -- first by gender and then by race, or first by race and then by gender, or by both at the same time. So doubly hit with respect to opportunities, probably with respect to education, with respect to professional opportunities, with respect to sitting at decision tables. A situation that I would say we have inherited from thousands of years ago, right? And are we getting anywhere? Are you seeing, Djamila, any evidence of progress of having Black women become more engaged in politics, sit at more decision tables? Are you seeing any light there at the end of that long dark tunnel?

Djamila Ribeiro: Oh yeah. As I see, I think of course now in Brazil we are doing -- we are under a very conservative administration. We are facing a very difficult reality now. But for sure, I think the feminist movement in Brazil was very important to put the subjects in the public debate. The women organized, the feminist movement organized, a lot of women, against Bolsanaro. There were  a lot of demonstrations. And I think the organizations, the Black female organizations and the feminist organizations was very important in Brazil, especially in the 80s and 90s to, you know, to highlight this discussion on Brazil. So I can tell about Sueli Carneiro and Luiza Bairros. Women were important to think public policy for Black women, for women in Brazil. And for sure, I see that now in Brazil, even under this terrible administration the girls are talking about feminism. This discussion on feminism in Brazil is very strong, as it was never before. We see a lot of young girls in schools organizing themselves and in universities, in poor neighborhoods in Brazil, women that are together organizing themselves to think, you know, how to discuss these subjects in their communities. So I think it's very important to value this work of these women in communities, in favelas. Because usually we see favelas, the slums, these kinds of places in Brazil, only through this perspective of the absence. And I think it's very important to look up in the perspective of the potential of these women. That during this time, this pandemic time, they organized themselves to try to help the community. How these women, historically in Brazil, they were, you know, resisting. So, but I think now this kind of work are being more valued. I think that the feminist movement understood that it's not only about academia, it's not only about some certain groups of women. I think now in Brazil, we are being able to recognize that it's a movement that is spread in how it is important in a huge country, as Brazil is. It's a huge country, 200 million people, and how it's important to look up to Quilombola women. I published a book written by 18 Quilombola women, how it's important to learn from indigenous women, how it’s important to learn from these women who live in small cities. So I think for me now, the light that I see is the diversity of the feminist movement and how it's important to recognize it.

Christiana Figueres: Emerging. Finally, emerging. I'm very taken, Djamila, about your very crystal clear differentiation between seeing life through the absence of, or seeing life in politics through the potential of. Two very different perspectives. And I'm very interested in that. And I think our listeners would be interested also in understanding that difference, but understanding it through your personal eyes, Djamila. And I would love to invite you to tell us a little bit about your story. When did you recognize your potential to step into the political role that you're playing, the influential role that you're playing both academically, as well as politically, as a journalist. Tell us a little bit about where you were born, what your family life was like, and what was the moment or the moments in which the light went on for you? And you said, “wow, here am I, I have a potential to step into this challenge”?

Djamila Ribeiro: Well, I was raised in a family, in a Black family. My father was working in a port in a small city. It's not so small. It's in the seaside of Sao Paulo. My mom was a housekeeper, but before marrying my father, my mother was a domestic worker and my grandmother was also a domestic worker. And before then, they were enslaved. And so in Brazil, the cycle of domestic work for Black women is a reality. And the cycle of domestic work was breaking in my generation. And my father, he was an activist. He was very -- he had a lot of awareness on Black issues in Brazil. That's why I have an African name. My sister has an African name. I have two brothers and my father raised us with this awareness: you were Black people in a racist society. Since we were children. And my mom, she was a housekeeper. And my mom, she was very important in my life because she introduced me into Candomblé, which is an Afro-Brazilian religion, very marginalized in Brazil, unfortunately. But it was very important to me to have the opportunity to be in this kind of places, because outside Candomblé, the society was very racist and violent to me, but in Candomblé, you have the god and the goddess. It's a way to see ourselves through a new perspective. It's like you have a female goddess, we call orixás. For example, she's a mother, but she's also a warrior. You have another kind of goddess that she's a mom, but she's also very powerful. So for me to have the opportunity to be in a religion like that, that the women are not, you know, it was different from the view of the society on women - that women are weak, women are this. And there in Candomblé for me it was completely different reality to see -- I call this different geography of reason for me to be there. But it was difficult. I was a child and I enjoyed to be there, but I was very discriminated in schools, in my school as a Black girl, as a Black girl from Candomblé. It was very difficult to deal with that. So during a long time, I tried to deny that. I tried to be a Christian girl. I tried to not be involved because it was very violent in schools. And I think that it's changed that for me. Although my father was a very, very, very activist guy. Although, my father was very “you have to study. It's important to you and your brother and sister to study, you need to, you know, have education. Please study. I don't want you to depend on man.” My father was this kind of guy. 

But I think things changed for me when I was maybe 18 years old and I met Black feminist organization in my city. It was very important to me to know about Black feminist, to read the Black feminist, because in schools, they denied it to me, this kind of knowledge. So to know that there were writers and activists and journalists, and a lot of women that were very important to our society, but that these schools and the rest of the society denied this kind of a knowledge for me. So there, in that place, it was a turning point for me because I knew that I was a Black woman. I knew that it was not my problem, but I didn't have the self-esteem to stand up. And there with that women, it was very important to be part of a movement and to be part of a social change. So it was the first time that I had the opportunity to travel by plane, because I went to a lot of seminars. I have that political formation that was very, very important. And that after that I became an activist. I became a woman with self-esteem. I came back to my religion. It was for me - no, you are not alone that a lot of Black women here with you, and also to understand the feminist movement, because my father was an activist, but he was a man. And although he was very--with me and my sister--he was very protective. He taught me that it was important to me as a Black woman to have education. But with my mom, he was not like that. And he was part of a movement, male dominated. So to have the opportunity to be there in that Black feminist organization, to understand the feminine perspective, it was very important to me. So I always say that feminism saved me and gave me the strength to stand up. And after that, I became an activist and did a lot of things and decided that that was my turning point.

Christiana Figueres: What a story, what a story, Djamila. So what I think I hear you saying is your mother introduced you to Candomblé, where there are these very, very strong female goddess figures that you were holding onto, but there was this huge contrast with the world out there that you perceived. And it was the Black feminist activist movement that closed that gap, that reality gap, there's one reality, which is what Candomblé telling me. There's another reality, what the world is telling me. And the Black feminist movement actually closed that gap for you and empowered you to become the activist that you are today. Interesting that you note your father actually made perhaps a little exception with you. Maybe he was not quite as generous with your mother, with his wife, but with you he was very supportive despite the fact that he was part of that outside world that was not very feminist or supportive. But did he make an exception with you? Was he also supportive of you?

Djamila Ribeiro: Yeah. Since I was a little child, I am the youngest of four children. And I have a sister and two brothers, and my father since I was a little child, I have -- he has already passed away -- but I have some books, for example, that he gave to me when I was eight years old, because for my father it was very important that all of us, me and my brothers and sister, to have the opportunity to study because my father, he didn't have the opportunity to study and my mom either. So he was very supportive with me and my sister, but of course there were some differences in the way they raised us. You know, my brothers, they could do a lot of things that I couldn't and a lot of things. But in terms of education, my father was very supportive. You needed to study, you need to understand that you are a Black girl in a racist society. I am a man. I know how men are. So I don't want you to depend on man, have your life, have your money. Those things. Since I was a little child and I was like “Why? What is he talking about?” He was very supportive in these terms. You know, he was very sexist with my mother. So I was able to perceive that. You know, I saw how it was difficult for my mother, but it's crazy because for me and my sister, he had a completely different way to deal. 

Christiana Figueres: How interesting, how interesting. Well, Djamila, so it sounds like you've been weaving many beautiful threads together. The Candomblé that came from your mother, the education that your father made sure that you got, your self image that you got from both sides, the Black feminist exposure, it seems like you've been weaving all of these threads into a beautiful tapestry that is who you are today. I'm actually interested in knowing from you, what surprises are there in that tapestry? What, what caught you completely by surprise? Or when you moved in and understood that actually you are a Black feminist activist. What -- yes I’m sure that you knew already that there was going to be a lot of resistance out there in the outside world, but what else did you encounter that was actually surprising to you?

Djamila Ribeiro: Well in my personal life, I can say that I found some surprises when I got married, for example, because my father -- my mom passed away in 2001 and my father passed away in 2002, which was very difficult. I was only 20 years old, 21 years old. And it was very difficult to deal with this loss. So I had to work. I was already working, but I have my brother and my sister to support. Then after that I met a guy and we started dating. And after that we married, I got pregnant. A lot of things, and I didn't finish my education, my college. And for me, it was a shock because I was raised to not depend on man. 

Christiana Figueres: Yes, your father told you so!

Djamila Ribeiro: And I was like “Oh my God. I want to study”. Of course I like, I have a daughter. She's a wonderful teenager. She is 16 years old. She's an amazing girl. But at that time for me, I was 25 years old with a baby. And I was not feeling, you know, fulfilled. I was not feeling wow, that's it. For me, it was that’s it?

Christiana Figueres: Is that all?

Djamila Ribeiro: Is that all? I wanted more. And it was very difficult to deal with the prejudice of motherhood. Because when my daughter was three years old, I decided to study and I was working there in the city that I lived, Sao Paulo. And I found out there was a campus of the Federal University of Sao Paolo. And I always loved philosophy because my father he used to read for me and give me books. And I remained, and I was there working, you know,  I was there on the internet, looking at some things, and “wow, that is a new campus! Oh, there is philosophy.” And I decided to try. And I did the tests at the time and my husband at the time, I didn't tell him because I knew that it would be a problem and turns out that I got in. And for me it was like, “Oh my God, and now I got in.” My daughter is three years old. I live in a city. The campus is in another city. I live in Sao Paulo. What am I going to do? So that time I needed to face a lot of prejudice because my husband was not so supportive. My parents were not here anymore. It was very difficult for me. How am I going to do that? And people, you know, “Oh yes, you prove that you are intelligent, but you are not going to the college. You have a daughter, your daughter needs you. The campus is in another city. Oh, are you going to abandon your daughter with her father?”, this kind of thing. So it was very difficult for me at that time.

Christiana Figueres: Guilt trip! Guilt, guilt.

Djamila Ribeiro: But I decided to go and it was the best choice of my life. But at the same time, it was very difficult to deal with all those things. But I decided to face it. And then my daughter, to stay away from my daughter, it was difficult at that time. But at the same time, I decided to break the cycle of my family, my mom, haven’t the opportunity to study, my grandmother. I decided to break that cycle. So for me, it was very important to do that. But when I went to the university, it was another shock, you know, I studied philosophy. It is a very white male dominated area. And I wanted to study female philosophers.  So it was very difficult to deal with the academia, that in Brazil, it's very Eurocentric. And I decided to study Simone de Beauvoir. And I remember when I asked the professor, “I want to study Simone de Beauvoir, what do you think?” And his answer was “Simone de Beauvoir? Who is this? Somebody’s wife?” And I said “no.”

Christiana Figueres: No, no! Oh my gosh.

Djamila Ribeiro: So another surprise was to face the sexism and the racism of the academia. And they call in Brazil, [inaudible], you know, the assisination of the knowledge from Black female people. But I decided to go on and I did my Master's degree. I studied a lot of female philosophers, but I had to face, I had to be an activist in university to do that. So I think it's for me, to my surprise that today I am here talking to you and I graduated when I was 32 years old, 32. I defend my dissertation when I was 35. Today, I am 40 years old. And I want to tell all the women who think that the time has passed that, you know, it's important to pursue. That is not, you know, too late to do that. And I am very happy to not have gave up.

Christiana Figueres: Absolutely. And well, we're happy that you didn't give up too. Djamila, you know, I'm sure that many of our listeners are admiring and respecting you for the story that you have told us about your personal life, but also very much resonating with it, right? Because your story is your personal story. It is unique, but at the same time, it is not only unique. It's very representative of the stories of so many women. In particular in developing countries, but I would dare say also in developed countries sadly, yet. So for those listeners who are being inspired by your life story, I would love to invite you now to look forward and say, okay, with all of this under my belt, with all of this experience, with all of these beautiful threads that I have woven into my life's tapestry, where are you moving now? What is for you the next step or in fact, what is your vision and how are you using your position now, your leadership, your activism, your advocacy potential to open up the space for more women?

Djamila Ribeiro: Yes. I really like your question because I started to be a columnist in 2014, in a magazine in Brazil. And then I got some visibility. And in 2016, I decided to use this visibility to do something for other women, especially. So I created a seal, a literary seal called Sueli Carneiro, to honor Sueli Carneiro, who is a very important Black feminist in Brazil. And for me, it was important to honor her in life. Because usually in Brazil, they honor great women when they are already passed away. 

Christiana Figueres: Not only in Brazil, Djamila! Not only in Brazil.

Djamila Ribeiro: So, I decided to publish women. So I created a collection called Plural Feminist Collection. So it's a way to publish women, also men, Black men, but mostly women, because I think that our epistemologies, our knowledge, they are not visible in a society like in Brazil. So from 1964, no from 1964 to 2014, the books that were published in Brazil, 90% were published by white men. 90%. So for me, it was very important to create something to face this reality, because in college it was very difficult to have access to work from female thinkers and Black thinkers. So today in Brazil, I am a writer, but also I publish other people and I have already published 16... no, 26 people in Brazil, mostly women. Last year we published a book written by 18 Quilombolas women. Quilombolas women that are Black people who live in Quilombos’ descent. And the, the first book in Brazil that was written by Quilombola women, that women were telling their stories, their narratives. So I used that publishing people. And also I have a platform, online platform, that you have courses on feminist empowerment, intersectionality, and it is very, with affordable prices. Also the books and the courses in the online platforms, they have affordable prices because I think it's very important to people to have access to this kind of reflection. And also I write in a very important newspaper here in Brazil and of course I try to give visibility to the issues of women in Brazil, especially now under Bolsonaro’s administration, that there is no budget anymore to think public policies to confront domestic violence. So we are living in a very difficult situation now, but I decided to do that and also to support women in politics and also to support organizations and I try to do this collective work because I didn't want to be alone in that. For me, it doesn't make sense to be alone. To me, it was important to construct a collective work with different women from different parts of Brazil. But in this market, in editorial markets in Brazil, that's very elitist and to publish women who is not graduated, but also to publish women who are PhD, and also to publish women who live in rural areas. So I try to use this space to do that in Brazil. And fortunately, we are doing great because before the pandemic, I decided to not do events only in the big cities or in bookstores. So we did a lot of events in poor areas, in public centers, in different places of Brazil. And for me, it was great to go to the North. And then there were 2,000 people there to go to the Northwest. Then there are a lot of people there, especially women. And how a lot of women who write for me -- because I received a lot of letters and people who write for me and say, “Oh, I decided to come back to study. Now I read the book. Now I know who was Lelia Gonzalez. I know who Luiza Bairro is. I know that a lot of women are doing great work in Brazil.” So I decided to do that, to register our history, our narratives. That’s what I do today. And I continue being a writer. I'm going to launch a new book soon, but also an editor who publish other people.

Christiana Figueres: The work of other women. Fantastic. 

Djamila Ribeiro: Well, yeah. Other women, especially.

Christiana Figueres: Well, Djamila, how wonderful. This has been a totally delightful conversation. Now I have a little confession for you. I am a podcast host, and I think once you're a podcast host, always a podcast host. And on our podcast, which is called Outrage and Optimism, because I think in life we need both. We need to be outraged and optimistic. At the end of each of our conversations, we always ask our interviewer, you know, “where are you in that spectrum between outrage and optimism?” And I would love to know from you where, you know, given where you have come from, where you are today, what you were doing to publish and make known the voices of so many women, especially Black women, are you more on the outrage side? Are you more on the optimistic side? And why?

Djamila Ribeiro: Maybe I am in the middle. I think that, you know, I am a follower of Candomblé, again. And I think in Candomblé, we learn that yes, there is a lot of troubles that you have to face as women, as Black women. But in the other hand, it's very important to, you know, to try to have this moment that we can be you know, where you find your strength. I am a human being, there are some times I am very outraged, I am weak, I am tired, but also I have this place that I can go and to be fulfilled again. I think it's very important to do that. And I take care of my spiritual dimension. And I think it's very important to me to do that because to live in this society in this craziness that we're facing here in Brazil with this president, a lot of people dying, this pandemic time, I think it's very important to have this time, you know, to go there and to think, and to receive all the blessing from the Orixás and to come back to the war again. 

Christiana Figueres: Yes, yes.

Djamila Ribeiro: You know, for me, I think I am always in this side, him and in the other hand, I think, yes, it's difficult. Yes, my ancestor also had to face difficult times, but because a lot of my ancestors didn't give up, that's why I'm here today. So I think it's, as I am a mother, I think it's important also to go on, to not break the cycle. You know, when I have to rest, I take a rest. When I have to breathe, I take a breath. But I think it's like, ancestor, it's compromising, I guess, to of course to understand that I am a human being, that I need my time. But in the other hand, yes, it's difficult. But we need to go on. I think it's to, thinking in the Candomblé cycle, it makes sense for me. So yes, I am angry, but also I think the happiness is important too as an activist. And you think sometimes that you don't have the right to be happy. You don't have the right to be loved. That you don't have to be taken care of as Black woman. I say to them, “no, it's important to take care of herself. It's important to be in places that are lofty.” When I say that, not by a man, only I say by our comrades. It's important to be in places that yes, you are a human being that needs to eat, that needs to be loved because usually we think that you have to save the world and not take care of ourselves. No, we have to take care of everybody, but who takes care of people who take cares? 

Christiana Figueres: Exactly.

Djamila Ribeiro: I think it's important to find this balance between outrage and optimism and how to balance all these things.

Christiana Figueres: Well, that's a beautiful, beautiful vision. Thank you so much. It has truly been a delightful conversation. Thank you so much to you, Djamila Ribeiro, Brazilian Black feminist philosopher, journalist, writer, and a self-defined platform for the voices of so many other women. Thank you so much for today's conversation.

Djamila Ribeiro: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at

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