Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Human Rights Champion

“WITNESS was founded on the belief that putting cameras in the hands of human rights advocates would create a new way to mobilize for change.”

Tamaryn Nelson in WITNESS’s office with the weapon of a new generation of human rights defenders, December 2009. Photograph by Ryan Dorsett.

I was six years old when I first wondered what I was going to be when I grew up. I asked my mother, and she said, “Don’t worry about that now. It’s probably a profession that doesn’t even exist yet.” She was right.

I always knew that whatever I chose to do would transcend borders and be related to social justice. Born and raised in Brazil, with an American mother and a Brazilian father of Belgian and British descent, I have three passports. Our home gatherings were a medley of people and languages: we once counted 33 nationalities at our table. So it was natural to see myself as a citizen of the world. That was accompanied by a sense of justice, which was an important value to my parents.

In 1992, when I was 14, I saw a news report on a rebellion that had just broken out in São Paulo’s Carandiru Prison. In what turned out to be Brazil’s bloodiest massacre since the return of a democratic government in 1985, 111 inmates were killed and 130 injured at the hands of military police. The report showed body bags being removed from the prison and people protesting against police brutality, and I remember thinking that I wanted to be there too. My parents had taught us that mobilizing people is what creates change. If my brother or I mentioned something we didn’t agree with in school, my mother would say, “Get a group of five or six of you and write a letter to whoever is in charge, telling them why this should change.”

The era of mass disappearances, torture and other atrocities has largely ended in Latin America. Most countries enjoy free and fair elections, and the region now largely boasts a high degree of political stability. The change is reflected in our leaders. Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is a former metalworker. Chile and Argentina have elected women presidents, and Bolivia is led by an indigenous president. And to the north, an African American under 50 is president of the United States. Social and political actors who would have been barred from power 30 years ago are now seated at the table.

But Latin America is still plagued with human rights problems. And the lessons I learned as a child about fighting for justice and mobilizing for change continue to serve me well in the work I have chosen as an adult…


Tags: Tamaryn Nelson, Video Advocacy and Human Rights, WITNESS
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