Brazil’s minister of racial equality carries on the legacy of her sister, Marielle Franco, who was assassinated in 2018

OPINION: Anielle Franco, Brazil's minister of racial equality, talks to theGrio about attending HBCUs, fighting for justice after the murder of her sister and what Americans can learn from Brazilians on fighting racism.

Brazil minister of racial equality, Marielle Franco, Anielle Franco,
Lellê e Blaya band members pay tribute to murdered Brazilian politician Marielle Franco on the Sunset stage during Rock in Rio 2019 at Cidade do Rock on September 27, 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Wagner Meier/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Just five years ago, Anielle Franco was working as an English teacher in Rio de Janeiro. But her life changed overnight through tragedy.

The brutal assassination of her sister, Marielle, in March 2018 pushed her down the frenetic path of social justice activism. Marielle Franco, a Black councilwoman and human rights advocate in Rio, became a martyr worldwide. She was admired by Black women, queer people, and anyone seeking social justice. At the same time, Anielle Franco buckled down, continuing her sister’s wide-reaching legacy while pushing for justice in her still unsolved murder. She launched the Marielle Franco Institute, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the memory of Marielle and helping women, Black people and favela-dwellers occupy powerful political positions. She wrote a book, “Minha irmã e eu: Diário, memórias e conversas” (“My sister and I: Diary, Memories and Conversations”). She earned her second master’s degree, this one focusing on ethnic-racial relations. 

Brazil minister of racial equality, Marielle Franco, Anielle Franco,
Brazilian human rights defender Anielle Franco arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, Monday, Sept. 29, 2018, to meet French President Emmanuel Macron. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Today, Anielle Franco is Brazil’s minister of racial equality. Brazil, a country of more than 220 million people, is more than 50% Black. 

Franco learned English in the United States, spending almost a decade playing volleyball and studying at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. As a teenager, she left Rio de Janeiro for a volleyball scholarship at Navarro College in Corsicana, La. Volleyball led her to HBCU North Carolina Central State University, where she played on the volleyball team, crossed the Delta Sigma Theta sorority line in 2008 and graduated with a degree in English and journalism. She received a master’s degree in journalism from Florida A&M University in 2011.

As a government minister, Franco has already made a global impact. This past week, she led Brazil’s large delegation at the second session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent. In May, she formalized partnerships with Spain and the United States in the fight against racial and ethnic discrimination. The U.S. and Brazil reinvigorated the Joint Action Plan to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Discrimination and Promote Equality (JAPER). One pillar of this plan is connecting Historically Black Colleges and Universities with Universities in Brazil. 

During her time in the U.S., she granted theGrio an interview. The following conversation has been edited for clarity, length, and context.

Can you give us a sense of growing up in a Black family in a favela in Rio de Janeiro? How did your family protect you and your sister and prepare you all for you for distinguished careers? 

I always say that to be here now, it’s important to know where I came from. Growing up with the favelas is like you wake up every other day and see a body in front of your door or hear gunshots. You don’t even know if you’ll be able to go to school or work because you need to wait until the violence calms down. My family always worked together to communicate when or how we could leave and come home.

My mother and my father always focused on education. They said you need to study; you were born Black, and you need to be the best one you can be. My mom was the type of woman who would always make us study. If we went out and she said we had to be home at 10 p.m., we better be there 15 minutes before 10. You know, she was always very protective, she would do anything for us, but we could not lie to her or, you know, disrespect or anything like that. And that was how we grew up having our values.

All of a sudden, I got a scholarship to go to another school in another neighborhood. It was so different culturally speaking because just 20 minutes down the road, rich people lived in front of the beach. But if you come back to your community, you have dead bodies and people starving, you know. I’ve never seen anything similar to Brazil.

Can you tell us about your experience attending a Black university? How did this shape your racial awareness? 

Yes, it was very interesting because we don’t have HBCUs in Brazil. When I arrived, I felt welcomed into an extended family. This was especially true at North Carolina Central State University, where I crossed as a Delta Sigma Theta soror. To this day, those women are still my sisters. I learned how to be proud of something my mom was always trying to teach us — proud to study and to be a Black girl from the favela who did not get into any type of trouble. At the same time, when I arrived here, I saw that Americans have similar problems and issues to us. For example, you cannot leave your home without an ID. Also, if the police stop you, how you behave and how you answer them is very similar to what happens in Brazil. I was also very proud to be in the United States and study because many people think that Brazilian women would come to the U.S. only to be a prostitute. But here I was, studying, playing sports and getting my master’s at an HBCU. It all made me a better woman. It shaped me into who I am today.

Where did you gather the strength to fight for justice in your sister’s murder and become a social justice leader? It’s incredible what you’ve accomplished in just under five years. 

Yes. It was tough for me to decide and say I’m gonna keep asking for justice. I had just lost my best friend, my sister. But at the same time, I was a teacher in five different schools, and soon after, I lost three jobs, and my salary went down to less than half. I also had a young kid to take care of. My parents and my niece were very, very sad. So I sought out some of the young Black women in Brazil who work with social justice NGOs, and they helped me out.

Brazil minister of racial equality, Marielle Franco, Anielle Franco,
A banner with the face of councilor Marielle Franco and the words “Justice for Marielle” is displayed at the Museu de Arte do Rio during tributes to demand justice for her murder on March 14, 2023 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

At the same time, I realized that the only way that I would survive was if I was strong enough to be in the lead. At the time, I didn’t like how my sister’s legacy was handled. Her political party only talked about her as a councilwoman, a woman elected with 45,000 votes. They didn’t talk about her motherhood, being from a favel, or being a Black woman who was shot five times in the head. And then, I started studying a lot more about Black families, and then I searched for older Black Brazilian women working in social justice who could mentor me. They taught me and provided the foundation for me to do what I am doing right now.

I’ve actually been living in Rio de Janeiro for almost eight years. And whenever I tell Black Americans that I live in Brazil, they always ask me this one question: “How is it over there for Black folks?” This is such a difficult question for me to answer because there are 100 million Black people in Brazil, and my perspective is American. So you might be the best person to answer this question. So, Minister Franco, how is it over in Brazil for Black folks?

Oh, it’s tough. It’s unfair. It’s hard. It’s difficult, especially if you are poor, especially if you are darker-skinned, especially if you don’t have work. It’s hard being a Black person in Brazil because sometimes you don’t have an education, sometimes you don’t have the opportunity to just be yourself, and sometimes violence will catch you either way or the other. And it’s also hard because we do not have many politicians who care for Black people and the Black community and everything we need. So when I say it’s hard, it’s because, you know, every 23 minutes, a young Black man is dying or getting shot from whatever. Every other day, there is a new challenge for a Black person in Brazil.

How do you see your current position building upon the legacy of your sister, Marielle Franco?

It’s a very sad story, but at the same time, it’s amazing how she became this powerful woman. We never thought she would be the symbol for Black women, even in Brazil or anywhere in the world. I am a part of her legacy. That legacy also includes my niece and every other Black woman who identifies with the values that Marielle would defend.

So historically, Afro-Brazilians have looked to the United States when it comes to fighting racism and even explaining racism. But perhaps it should be the other way around, especially right now. So what can the United States learn from Brazil about addressing and fighting racism in all forms?

There’s always been a mutual relationship. At this moment, Afro-Brazilians have so many books, so much research and data on being Black in Brazil. For example, many Black women who are writing about Black families in Brazil. These writings should be shared here. But at the same time, it’s very normal for Black people in the U.S. to be very proud of being Black; sometimes, we don’t have that in Brazil. So maybe if Americans could teach how to be proud of being Black, that would be helpful.

Brazil and the United States are reinvigorating the JAPER pact, in which the two countries unite to advance racial equity, promote human rights and social inclusion, and eliminate all forms of discrimination. Why is it important for Brazil and the United States to unite in addressing racial and ethnic discrimination? How does this benefit both countries?

This pact is very important. I had the opportunity to come to the U.S. With this recreation of JAPER, we have included opportunities for scholarships, as well as culture and sports because many of us in Brazil still need the opportunity. The more we can invest in our education would be great. I also think we must work together to stop the genocide of black people. Both countries have a significant history of this.

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court will potentially vote against using affirmative action in higher education in the United States. This is interesting because many Black Brazilians say that affirmative action in the U.S. inspired them to fight for affirmative action in Brazil in the 2000s. Can you explain to an American audience why affirmative action in Brazil is still necessary and why, if it’s left up to you, the Brazilian government will never give up this policy?

When I left the U.S. and returned to Brazil, I studied at a public university through affirmative action. I always say that affirmative action (or quotas as they are called in Brazil) are some of the most successful public policies we ever had in Brazil. Now we have Black doctors, engineers, teachers, and professors. But back in the day, you didn’t see that. In Brazil, it works very well. Unfortunately, still to this day, we need affirmative action in Brazil because Brazil is still a very racist place.

Kiratiana Freelon is an independent journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her reporting focuses on social injustice, Afro-Brazilian communities, and Brazil’s dynamic economic and political landscape. The Harvard and Cuny Graduate School of Journalism graduate has worked for the New York Times and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Essence Magazine, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and other publications. She will publish an Afro Rio Travel and Culture Guide in 2023.

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