« Passionate, Black, visionary »
Ana Paula Barreto talks about serious matters with great calm, taking time to reflect before answering questions, from New York. Born in Jardim Angela, a poor area of São Paulo, considered as the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world by the United Nations in 1996, she remembers the violence of the favelas. She doesn’t want to reduce her childhood « in a joyful family » to « the ugly », but one of her strongest memories is seeing the bodies of people murdered during the week-end, on her way to school on Monday mornings. At a young age, Ana Paula Barreto realized that her « community was lacking the conditions and opportunities to have a dignified life ». She decided that she would be an « agent of change, promoting social and racial justice ». In one of the most unequal societies in the world, she reminds that « 54 % of the population is of African descent, but we are very invisible in decision-making circles, universities and politics ».
Promoting equality and equity, « meaning that the people with less access to education, health and resources will achieve the same », soon became her raison d’être. After school, she was able to attend University. A « historical accident », as she calls it. It was still impossible for Black students coming from a poor background to study in the early 2000’s, because of a historical systemic racist and elitist selection process. « Some of the best universities in Brazil are public, thus free, but the middle-class and rich people send their children to private schools. For people like me who went to public schools, the exam to enter University was impossible to pass. Its level was too high for the quality of my education ».
« Racial and Social quotas » at University
Fortunately, the Lula administration, with the historical support of Black movements, created affirmative action programs in the mid-2000’s, at the time she was finishing High school. Thanks to a Law of Racial and Social Quotas passed in 2012, no less than half of the admission spots benefit pupils who attended public schools, most of them being indigenous and Black. « If I was born 20 years before, my possibilities would have been very low. President Lula showed how public policies can change a country. Today, there is a whole generation of Black Brazilian professionals and this is changing Brazilian society ». A system of scholarships was also introduced to give more access to private universities. That is how Ana Barreto could study International Affairs with a full bursary at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica of São Paulo. « We were 30 in my class, and two of us were coming from a black and poor background ».
After college, she applied to the United Nations and went to Brasilia, a 90 minutes flight from São Paulo, for a six month internship. This was the last « critical investment » she asked her family to make for her, as her internship would be unpaid and she would have no time to work alongside her office hours. Her parents took a loan, to cover all her expenses for six months. When she moved back to São Paulo, she worked for UNICEF, while participating in human rights projects in her community with local organizations, and volunteering as a popular educator.
New York, Addis Abeba, Marrakesh
She then was selected by the Atlas Corps for a one-year fellowship in New York in 2015 with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), a global NGO launched in Mumbai (India) in 1952 and headquartered in London. « They bring professionals from the global South to get experience contributing in U.S. organizations », she explains. In New York, she assisted staff by managing the portfolio of sexual and reproductive health programs related to youth, gender-based violence, and HIV/STIs. It went so well that she stayed for six more months, before moving back to Brazil and prepare her next step : a Master’s degree in International Affairs, which she started in 2017 at the New School University of New York, with a focus on racial justice and global health.
With a group of students, she went to Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, for a research project on Women Economic Empowerment through loans. There, she worked with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on internally displaced communities, doing advocacy with the African Union. Also in touch with the Brazilian Embassy, she organized a Film Festival in 2018 in Addis Abeba, on Black Brazilians in cinema. Her experience in Ethiopia was “powerful”, she says, as she was able to “see the similarities with people of African descent, not only physically but with food and dances that have not been lost throughout the centuries, the transatlantic slave trade and colonization”.
The same year, she was selected as a Fellow of the OHCHR in Geneva for the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), and by the Policy Center for the New South, for the Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders program in Morocco. “The Atlantic Dialogues were an amazing experience in that very special year for me. I was on the last panel of the conference representing my cohort and talking about youth, transformation and creating a more just society. It was an honor, and I was able to connect to so many people doing great work !"
Racial justice and global health
She has now completed her masters about health outcomes of Black Brazilian women, « in the only country in the world having a public health policy focused on the African descent community ». Currently working as the Director of Programs with Afro Resistance, a small NGO launched in 2010 in New York, she deals with racial justice, human rights and democracy in the Americas, with a focus on Black women, notably from the Caribbean and Latin America. The NGO provides online conversations, research projects and conversations bringing local community voices to international decison-making spaces.
Her dream is “to make a difference in the Americas by uniting global health, racial justice and ancestral knowledge of our people”. She hopes to make innovative and impactful work, as well as becoming a reference in this unique approach. “I also hope to work in government, a critical strategic space if we want to really promote systematic change through public policies”. Her role models are an exact reflection of the way she describes herself : “Passionate, Black, visionary”… Among them, the US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, 38, born in Somalia, and Vilma Reis, 51, sociologist and activist from Salvador de Bahia, whom she describes as a “historical figure that did a lot on the intersection of civil society, government and human rights for the most marginalized people”. One of her favorite readings is Lelia Gonzalez (1935-1994), a Brazilian anthropologist, professor, politician and activist, “for her complex analysis of the world we live in”.
You can consult Ana’s portrait along with others on the ADEL Alumni Portrait page.