Seeking Justice through Grassroots Leadership in Brazil

In May 2006, prison gang violence and police retaliation unleashed a wave of killings in São Paulo, Brazil. The victims were mostly poor, young people of African or indigenous descent. Most were not involved in organized crime, and their mothers were unable to find out what had happened to their children. In response, Mothers of May was formed as a network of families and relatives of the victims, with the aim of fighting for truth and justice for their children – an aim that evolved to embrace the bigger struggle against police and militia violence. The Brazil Human Rights Fund decided to support Mothers of May, believing that a movement truly motivated by grassroots forces would be most effective in addressing a human rights abuse.

The Brazil Human Rights Fund works to promote respect for human rights in the country by supporting grassroots and human rights organizations fighting against structural violence and discrimination. As funders, our approach is to support our grantees’ perception of the problem: they are the ones facing the problem, so they know best what needs to be done. But, was Mothers of May was the right organization to address problems arising from discriminatory institutional and police violence? Would their proposal effectively advance the fight for justice for the families of victims?

Answering those questions required us to examine the group closely to better understand its experience and strategies. The group’s experience included systematic reporting of cases and the status of investigations through social media and reports to local authorities, participation in debates and meetings, and planning activities such as protests, marches, and vigils. Mothers of May was clearly capable of implementing its proposal, which included organizing activities and meetings to promote the group, and producing a collection of video and written testimonials to bring the relatives of victims closer together in the fight for justice. Its close partnerships with other groups focused on police violence and strong networking abilities showed us that other human rights defenders recognized the group’s legitimacy. This helped convince us that the proposal was worth supporting.

Debora Maria da Silva, one of the founders of Mothers of May, speaks at the São Paulo Union of Journalists in 2011. During the event, which marked five years of impunity for the crimes of May 2006, Mothers of May launched the book From Mourning to Fight, published with the support of the Brazil Fund.The activities carried out by Mothers of May with our support provided great visibility, elevating it as a focal point of the movement against police violence. With nearly 70,000 followers, Mothers of May's Facebook page is used as a tool to report institutional violence perpetrated by police forces throughout the country. More specifically, they significantly contributed to exposing the violent state reaction to the attacks carried out in 2006. Although impunity is still the norm in relation to this episode, a few mothers have been able to access the official version on the killings of their children, and will likely be compensated by the state. In 2011, Mothers of May won the National Human Rights Award. Mothers of May and a coalition of advocacy organizations also presented a bill to the São Paulo legislature to ban the terms 'death while resisting arrest' and 'resistance followed by death' from police reports in Brazil, which was passed in January 2013. It was a major victory and a great precedent for the country as a whole. A bill is currently before Congress to expand it into federal law.

For us, if we had any doubt about supporting Mothers of May, its achievements have shown that we made the right decision. There is huge potential in supporting grassroots organizations, even informal ones, that are directly connected to human rights violations in the field. These groups often have the skills, connections, and personal experience necessary to make real change, and all they need are some financial resources to power their work.

The Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace and GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center, are releasing a series of 11 blog posts authored by grantmakers around the world. The posts are derived from the recently published Effective Philanthropy: Another Take, a collection of stories describing a philanthropic intervention against some form of injustice (socioeconomic and/or political) at a local, national or global scale. Each story addresses key questions grantmakers wrestle with in order to effect systemic social change, and the blog posts in this series highlight certain details that feed into the bigger story. Through this series, the partners hope to raise awareness of some of the most effective examples from philanthropy in tackling injustice and achieving lasting structural change. By sharing knowledge in philanthropy and being willing to learn from one another’s experiences and perspectives, we can improve our practice together.

This is the sixth post in this series, which will roll out over the next three months; it focuses on the impact of supporting grassroots organizations, which have the connections, skills, and knowledge necessary to make real change.

About the author(s)

Former Knowledge Services Fellow
Foundation Center

Executive Director
Brazil Human Rights Fund