By Aureo Dias Mesquita and Carly Rodgers for InoVozes, blog of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. The views and opinions expressed below are the interviewee's own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brazil Institute or the Wilson Center.
Tabata Amaral de Pontes, 24 years-old, graduated magna cum laude with highest honors in Government and Astrophysics from Harvard College. Her senior honors thesis titled “The Politics of Education Reform in Brazilian Municipalities” received the Kenneth Maxwell Senior Thesis Prize in Brazilian Studies and the Eric Firth Prize for the best essay on the subject of the ideals of democracy. Coming from the outskirts of São Paulo, she studied at a private high school on a full scholarship and represented Brazil in five international Science Olympiads. Tabata is the co-founder of Projeto VOA!, a project that prepares students from public schools for the Science Olympiads, Acredito, a political renovation movement, and Movimento Mapa Educação, a movement that strives for a quality education for all Brazilians, accompanying educational policies and holding debates to make education, in fact, a priority in the national agenda. Tabata is a commentator for CBN Radio. She is a RAPS (Network of Political Action for Sustainability) Youth, Lemann Fellow and Fundação Estudar Scholar, and received the “Makes Difference” Prize of O Globo (Society/ Education Category) in 2016 and McKinsey’s Next Generation Women Leader Award in 2017. Her biggest dream is to transform Brazil through the public sector, so that the country is more just, inclusive and developed.
Could you tell us about what inspired you to become involved with politics and start Movimento Acredito?
I come from the periphery of São Paulo, and I had a lot of educational opportunities that showed me how unequal Brazil is, but also showed me the amazing things you can do using politics and education as instruments of transformation.
I received a scholarship [to attend] a private school, when I was in middle school. This was the first time I realized Brazil was unequal. For me, it was much more than just the quality and availability of services, such as health, security, and education. I realized that the size of people’s dreams are dependent on their color, their gender, and their zip code. That was frustrating to find out. I remember I never thought about going to university before going to that school. Suddenly, everyone was talking about federal universities and even studying abroad. It just seemed that, for some people, the world is much larger and filled with more possibilities. That frustrated me a lot in the beginning, and the way I coped with it and the way I found my way in the world was to work so that other people could have the same opportunities
I got a scholarship to apply to universities in the United States one year before the SATs, and, following many other opportunities, I got into six universities and chose Harvard. Then some people started telling my story as if I were a hero, which is not true at all. I realized that what made me different from other people in my neighborhood, or even in my family, was not related to my capacity or intelligence, but rather to all the opportunities that I had. I was taught in the private school that I could do a lot of different things, that I could dream without being called crazy. I really do believe that the biggest problem in Brazil is socio-economic inequality. When I started studying public education, I realized that I could not transform education without dealing with politics.
Could you tell us more about Movimento Acredito, including how it hopes to change politics, and your involvement in the movement?
We founded the Movement in the beginning of last year. “Acredito” means “I believe.” We want people to believe in politics again, and to get engaged and be a part of the conversation. Our biggest mission is [building] a country with equality of opportunity, that allows everyone to have a life with dignity, which we know is not true for Brazil. Our dream is to look at our Congress and see a Congress that looks like Brazil. More women, more black people, more indigenous people, more gay people, and so on.
We work on three different fronts, and I think that’s the biggest difference between us and other movements. It is not all about 2018. [The election in] 2018 might be the beginning of a huge transformation, but it will not be a huge transformation itself. We strongly believe in organizing, which is different than mobilizing. You have to build trust [in order] to do things with other people.
We organize based on three pillars: agenda, engagement, and renovation. I coordinate the first one, agenda. When we started the Movement, we had a two-page document that stated our agenda for different issues: security, health, education, economics and so on. But that’s not enough if we actually want to occupy this political space. So every month we pick one of those topics and we bring in experts, but we also listen to our over two thousand volunteers.
For example, on entrepreneurship and innovation, I had two amazing people working with me to train our volunteers, who then went to the streets to listen to local entrepreneurs, in order to get an idea of what we really need for Brazil. Now we are gathering all this information together, so we can define the issues we defend as a movement and start campaigning as a movement. It’s a lot of work, because democracy is hard.
The second pillar is engagement. We are now in 13 states, and each one has between one and two nuclei: a group of people who come together to discuss politics and solve local problems, although it varies from state to state. For example, in Rio Branco, Acre, they had a bloc at Carnaval to discuss local issues, which is really cool, but it’s hard for me to imagine that happening in São Paulo. In Fortaleza, we organized a protest because there was a nine year-old transgender girl who was expelled from her school, which is ridiculous. After we protested, her school issued a public statement apologizing. She then got a scholarship to four schools. In the state of São Paulo last Sunday, we went to a public plaza in São Bernardo do Campo because they had their first yellow fever case, and the local government was not cleaning the plaza. There were puddles all over, full of mosquitos. We went and started cleaning, then local government officials arrived and said they had planned on doing it that day, after seeing our action. In Florianopolis, we go to public schools and have discussions about civic engagement. I could talk about all 13 states, and each story would show a little bit of what our movement is about.
Your third pillar is renovation. Recently, new movements have begun partnering with political parties. Will Movimento Acredito also enter into contracts with political parties and launch candidates for the 2018 elections?
Renovation is just one of our three pillars, along with agenda and engagement. We have two thousand volunteers, and we are currently finishing our own primaries, to choose who from among these volunteers will be our candidates in each state. They had to go through an ethics examination and a screening process to make sure they actually defend what the movement defends. Then we had open voting, in which every member of the movement was able to choose one candidate for federal deputy and two or three for state deputy in each state. Even the founders have to go through this process, because if we are the ones appointing who is going to run, it’s no different from what happens in the [traditional] parties. We really care about internal democracy.
Another thing that is important to us is financing. We have no idea how many movements in Brazil are financed, especially the more extremist movements. At Acredito, we only accept donations from people and we have a maximum amount that each person can donate. At the end of the year, we also publish the names of everyone who donated to us. There is no one else doing this in Brazil. In times of scandals of corruption, we need to start being that change.
A third value that is very important to us is diversity. We are only running candidates in states that are able to choose at least one woman and one black person, even if this means we are limiting the number of candidates. We are not entering politics with only white men, because this is what Brazilian politics already has.
We are currently talking to different political parties to understand where the agenda and the independency of our Movement will have space. We will not enter into exclusive partnerships, because we are a supra-party movement, but we are currently talking to four parties to understand where our members can have a guaranteed place to run in ethical elections, which we know is very hard in Brazil. We expect to announce the parties in the next couple weeks.
What does success in this year’s election look like for Movimento Acredito?
That is a question we ask ourselves all the time. For us, success is showing that it is possible to do politics in a different way. We are not looking for a specific measure. We want at least one person to be elected in a campaign that we really believe in: with ideas that we defend, with the values that are important to us, and with campaigns that are not so expensive. We are going to publish soon what we think such a campaign should look like, and we hope to have at least one person elected in this type of campaign, to show people that this is possible. For us this is a 10- year process, and this is only the beginning.
A lot of new political movements have started in the past few years, but they all seem to be in their own silos. In your opinion, should the various political movements do more to work together and How has Movimento Acredito interacted with the other movements?
I personally know most of the political movements, and really admire the people who are there participating. However, I don’t think this is the time for us to unite. I think this should happen after the elections. It is very hard to do politics in a different way, to walk your talk and to walk your words, be transparent, democratic, and value diversity. A lot of movements are not doing that now. I think the real test will come with the elections. I do believe that some people will bend in some way or another. Many say they just need to get elected, and they will do things differently once they are therein office, but I don’t believe in that. Once we have the elections and see which movements really stay true to their values, then I think we should unite.
You mentioned that you just completed your own primaries and will be launching candidates in the 2018 elections. How is Movimento Acredito preparing potential candidates to navigate a political environment that is toxic to your goals and how do you plan to keep them accountable?
For us, it is important that people who are elected represent the Movement and are in a constant dialogue with the Movement. They have to be held accountable to our members. If at some point we help elect someone who bends and is not true to our values, then this person no longer represents the Movement—but the Movement will still exist.
The fact the politicians are not held accountable is a major problem in Brazil. A few months after the election, people don’t even remember which congressional candidate they voted for. There is this theory that 10 percent of people will always do bad things, 10 percent will always do amazing things, and the remaining 80 percent will act according to rules and incentives, and whether they are held accountable. Having voters who remember [and hold politicians accountable], will help incentivize them to do the good things they promised [during the campaign].
What is your long term vision for the Movement and what do you hope to establish after the 2018 elections?
We say (half-jokingly, half-serious) that after 10 years, we want to have one-third of Congress, because that is what the biggest bancadas have in Brazil. But our mission will always be equality of opportunity. There are many ways to work towards this mission, education is one way: a quality education for everyone, creating space where people can be entrepreneurs and do amazing things. Respecting local communities, especially Indigenous and Black communities, is another way to build a country that has equality of opportunity.
Does Movimento Acredito aspire to become a full-fledged political party?
For now, it doesn’t make sense for us to become a party. We don’t want to be the thirty-sixth party and make the system even more fragile. Many of the political reforms we fight for go in the direction of reducing the number of parties. If it becomes the case that Brazil has three, four, or five parties and we could put our agenda in one party, it would be amazing—but right now, that is not a possibility.
The Brazil Institute hopes to foster positive Brazil-U.S. relations through events and the exchange of knowledge. How has your experience in the United States and at Harvard shaped your actions and vision for Movimento Acredito?
Harvard helped me see Brazil from a distance and see Brazil at its best and in its worse characteristics. I don’t think I would have ever studied Government [if I had stayed] in Brazil, because we look down on the humanities—I probably would have been a physicist—and I am very glad I went to a place that values politics. Harvard taught me, as we say in Brazil, that things are not 8 or 80, that things are complicated. It also helped me view politics as something that can be positive and transformative.
The biggest thing that I realized from being in the United States is how divided and polarized we are. In the same way that [the polarization between Republicans and Democrats] led to Trump, I think that this fight between the Left and the Right in Brazil could lead to someone like Bolsonaro [being elected president]. I don’t care if the solution comes from the Left or the Right. I just want to solve the problem we are dealing with. People hate me for saying this, I’ve gotten a lot of attacks. People want to raise a flag and say their color is prettier. We are about going beyond the Left or the Right.
Movimento Acredito is very young, and most of its members are also very young. How do you navigate a political scene that is significantly older, on average, and questions your credibility and legitimacy due to your age?
There is real prejudice. Many of them started calling me a garotinha—a little girl. Why should it matter that I’m a girl and young? But apparently, it matters a lot in Brazil and it is a barrier that we face. The message we try to convey is that Brazil has changed so much in the last thirty years, but our politics still looks the same. Even though people are not used to seeing young people speak up, they are fed up with what is happening. If you offer them something that they can believe in and hope for, a lot of people will get engaged. We have a lot of volunteers who are sixty or seventy years old, because they want to believe in politics again, like they did in 1988.
Brazilians are very active on social media. What role does social media play in Movimento Acredito?
Facebook is a very powerful instrument. We wouldn’t be in so many states in Brazil if it weren’t for social media. But to bring real change, people must realize the difference between mobilizing and organizing. It’s very easy to start a Facebook page and call millions of people to the streets. But they don’t know each other, and they don’t do anything together. The hard thing is to connect thousands of people, to have them break bread together, and build civic friendships, and engage together to push for social change, which could take years. We believe Facebook is important, but we have goals about the number of volunteers we have, not number of followers.