We are the unheard voices

Invited to participate on a panel organized by Nestlé, on the eve of the 8th World Water Council meeting, they shut down my voice, and I was censored. This is my story. Español, Português

Raquel Rosenberg
14 May 2018

Ripped banner during the final plenary session of the 8th World Water Council. Brasilia, 23 March, 2018. Photo: Igor Viera, Engajamundo.

Ever since environmental journalist Sávio de Tarso, my father, was murdered (in January of this year), I hadn’t been able to write a mere line that wasn’t about him. I was incapable of posting on social media.

Perhaps because it’s impossible not to avoid a state of speechlessness when faced with such an absurd injustice. Perhaps because he inspired me and taught me to write. Perhaps because the reaction of some affected by the tragedy has been to let it out; mine apparently, has been to collect myself, to thank the ones closest to me for their affection. But in any case, this story has been carved into my very interior.

When I accepted the invitation of Ashoka to be at the same table as the CEO of Nestlé, Mark Schneider, at a private event prior to the 8th meeting of the World Water Council celebrated in Brasilia in March 2018, the first thing I thought to do was carry out a militant act that evidenced at least a few of the many contradictions of this multinational giant.

But, after several conversations with my social justice partners from Engajamundo and with other outsiders, understanding that we can’t always show people on that level the way in which we see the profound transformations that are so necessary in the world today, and of course inspired by my father who always insisted upon dialogue with businesses as a way to achieve our objectives, I decided to act differently.

I forced myself to leave my comfort zone and write a speech that would open minds and reach the hearts of the 150 privileged individuals that would be invited to that event.

When a great friend of my father appeared with small puppet theatre piece that the two had created together during their university years, I became overwhelmed with emotions upon reading the poem about water that the piece represented.

It wasn’t until the morning of the event when she herself informed me that I could no longer speak, that the audience wasn’t adequate for my “type of speech” and that Nestlé needed to shield their CEO.

Suddenly, I knew how to start my speech and to gain the comfort I needed before such an uncomfortable space in which I was going to find myself. I was inspired by Vandana Shiva to speak about paradigm changes and to relate social inequality to a lack of access to basic resources such as water (read the full text here). 

When the representative of Ashoka Switzerland asked me to send her the speech in advance so that she could “align it with what would be said at the table”, since there would also be other speakers, I didn’t doubt her, trusting in the years of collaboration I accumulated working with Ashoka Brasil, where I’m currently recognised as a fellow.

Despite showing her discomfort and having proposed modifying certain aspects of the final text, it wasn’t until the morning of the event when she herself informed me that I could no longer speak, that the audience wasn’t adequate for my “type of speech” and that Nestlé needed to shield their CEO as he was new and nobody knew how he would react.

I couldn’t believe what was happening, in an environment as attuned as Brazil and only two days after the murder of Marielle. I attended the event from the audience, dumbfounded at the superficial nature of the content, with the certainty that my speech would have clashed with the others.

The only person that remained standing during the whole event to denounce the lack of young people in a debate about the younger generations was Izabella Teixeira, the ex-environmental minister, the same that delivered a ‘deadpan trophy’ during the militant act we organised during the COP21 in Paris.

Even so, I participated in the exclusive VIP diner for speakers of the event, and it was there when I discovered, in a conversation that appeared initially unimportant, that the moderator of the table, Rob Cameron, Executive Director at SustainAbility – and the kind of sexist you can smell from far away – had also read my speech.

Who else had read it? Who else had decided that my speech wasn’t “aligned with the table”? To this day I still don’t know with complete certainty. During the verbal clash we had with the dreaded CEO, we only had time to comment that I should have been the one on the panel with him, and in response to his question as to why I wasn’t there, I smiled and said “well.. it seemed like I was going to say some things that you’re not so used to hearing!”

Regarding this question, one of the officers for Nestlé Brazil made her concerns over what happened clear from the very moment she asked me about the content of my speech in a meeting the week after, during which she confirmed that she didn’t know where the censorship came from or why it occurred.

Ashamed, the Ashoka Brazil team, who in their majority were not present in Brasilia, apologised immediately, giving me excuses in every way possible, and reflecting on how these kinds of situations impact the structures of large organisations, inasmuch as they reconsider many of their principles.

The representative of Ashoka Switzerland also apologised to me, and said that it wouldn’t have made a difference confronting anyone that made up the powerful structure that was behind that veto.

They don’t want to admit that they’re shutting down young women in the very few spaces open to us in this system. It’s censorship of their censorship.

And it was then that I learnt a profound lesson: the value of courage. Institutions, the government, businesses – are all made up of people. They're not black boxes completely dark and closed off from humanity. And in the same way that in organisations there are people that commit errors, the representatives of the government on the other side admit their mistakes only when they come to light.

Within businesses the process isn’t all that different, and it’s necessary to (and here I’m listening to the voice of my father speaking to me) guide them towards the right path in order for them to realise their errors, and so they have the courage to resolve them.

But on the other hand, the realisation of the absurdity that is the world we live in, in a profoundly interconnected system, was very real when I saw that environmental journalist Hannah Carol Amaral couldn’t publish the material in any traditional media outlet.

They don’t want to admit that they’re shutting down young women in the very few spaces open to us in this system. It’s censorship of their censorship: the frustration and impotence that drowns us.

More than ever, life has showed me that change needs to incorporate an all-encompassing vision. One week later, the banner that we displayed at the final plenary session at the World Water Council meeting read: “We are the unheard voices”.

The system can try to shut us down, but one way or another, it will have to listen. Thank you all for not letting this story die out. Thank you to my father for being alive, through my words and my attitudes.

This text refers to: 

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