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Choosing love and finding power in Blackness

Monique Rodrigues do Prado in front of the Broken Chair sculpture and flags at Palais des Nations, UN headquarters in Geneva, December 2022. © Monique Rodrigues do Prado

For the past five years, Monique Rodrigues do Prado has been studying love as a tool for Black emancipation and to imagine a world free from racism and the other legacies of enslavement, the trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism.

“Love as a political, active, daily, guiding and ethical action, capable of overcoming the imagery, aesthetics and language barriers that the patriarchal, colonial, imperial and capitalist model that has, unfortunately, affected our affective experiences,” she explained.

The philosophy of Rodrigues do Prado, a Brazilian lawyer of African descent is inspired by Black feminist authors such as Bell Hooks who, in her seminal book, "All About Love", focuses on the need for society to redefine love as a spiritual practice that involves respect, care, empathy, and communication, as opposed to human emotions such as lust, infatuation, or possession. Hooks emphasizes the role of love in social justice movements, and how true love can heal the wounds of oppression and transform society.

“As a lawyer I was delighted by her profound ideas because once we cannot find a consistent sense of love - not only in a private and capitalist way but especially as a mandate, a goal and a principle that States can have as a parameter to take actions, devise policies and measures - we see love in a wrong way, without any perspective of equality, equity and non-discrimination,” Rodrigues do Prado added. “That is why I was so surprised when I realized that the Brazilian Constitution does not have love written as a principle.”

Rodrigues do Prado, the oldest of four adopted siblings, grew up in a suburb of State of São Paulo. Her early years were spent on the benches of a broken educational system where teachers had little learning tools, earned inadequate wages and managed overcrowded classrooms.

“My mother told us she could not give my siblings and I anything but encouragement to continue our studies,” she recalled. “This has been a lesson we have lived by throughout our existence.”

After graduating from law school in 2015, she “fell in love with human rights” and joined an NGO, EducAfro, as a volunteer. There, she was confronted with the magnitude of work yet to be done to address issues of race, gender and class.

We can no longer tolerate any kind of violation. Former colonial powers need to reckon with their past.

Monique Rodrigues do Prado

EducAfro specifically focuses on the Quilombolas community, the direct descendants of enslaved Africans forcibly brought to Brazil, and other Afro-Brazilians pursuing higher education and living in society in general. With the NGO, in 2017, Rodrigues do Prado worked on a project to defend the constitutionality of affirmative action in the public sector in Brazil.

“Back then, we had to convince ministros (judges at the federal level) of the importance of that law for the prosperity of African descendants in Brazil, draft reports on the efficacy of the law and show the low number of Black Brazilians in high positions as compared with the census. This revealed a lack of representation,” she said. “Fortunately, we had 11 judges in favour who reaffirmed the constitutionality of the law.”

In 2017, EducAfro also represented a client who endured racial discrimination in the workplace where her manager prohibited her from wearing her natural Afro hair, claiming it contravened the company’s dress code.

“That dress code showed no images of people of African descent. After six months at the company, my client was summarily fired although she showed good performance,” she said. EducAfro sued the company for discrimination based on race and unequal treatment compared with their client’s white colleagues.

“They could wear their hair, even loosened, so our client was dealing with serious circumstances of institutional racism because of the dress code and the low number of employees of African descent,” Rodrigues do Prado said. “We asked for compensation for moral damages and to amend the dress code to better represent people of African descent. We won our case when we appealed to the Labour Court at the federal level where the right was finally recognised as a national precedent.”

In 2022, Rodrigues do Prado joined UN Human Rights’ Fellowship Programme for People of African Descent. The Fellowship programme is an intensive human rights training for people from the African diaspora, who work to promote the rights of people of African descent. It enables participants to learn about and deepen their understanding of the international human rights law and the UN human rights system, the international legal framework to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and intersecting issues with a focus on people of African descent.

For Rodrigues do Prado, who said that her country has many complex contradictions in terms of race, gender, class and identity, the Fellowship Programme represented a good opportunity to engage with other human rights defenders from across the globe to advance the objectives of the International Decade for People of African Descent, particularly at a time when the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent was holding its first session in Geneva.

“[The Fellowship Programme] was even more powerful than I thought because, more than ever, the UN is concerned about the intersectionality of multiple forms of discrimination to eradicate racism and ensure the commitment of countries to achieve a world where people of African descent can live in dignity and non-discrimination,” she said.

Rodrigues do Prado described the experience as “strengthening” for her Blackness and revealing of “how powerful it becomes once [people of African descent] are together.”

“More than profound issues, people of African descent experience joy and happiness,” she said. “Learning directly from UN human rights mechanisms and instruments, and about the measures that States have to take, especially through the [Permanent Forum on People of African Descent], I realized the importance of civil society to push those tools – which is crucial to understand that we have so many issues to deal with but we have to keep our voices very loud.”

This story is part of an occasional series of stories of individuals or organizations that stand up for human rights. Throughout the month of March, chosen by UN Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk, to highlight Racial Justice as part of his Human Rights 75 Initiative, we hear the voices of defenders acting against racism. The views expressed in these stories do not necessarily reflect the position and opinions of UN Human Rights.