Sowing the seeds of diversity in UNHCR’s Brazil operation

Lauren Parater
Mar 6, 2019 · 19 min read
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Illustration by Ailadi.

The Innovation Services’s Diversity and Inclusion project “Reflections” advances efforts to drive cultural change within UNHCR and the wider humanitarian eco-system to increase diversity, inclusivity, and gender equity. The project seeks to dig beneath the surface of our conversations around inclusion and paint a picture of the change that UNHCR wants to see. Employing innovative communication methods and techniques, we have reached out to people inside and outside of UNHCR, where vibrant discussions are ongoing, to find the stories and experiences that exemplify and educate us on the lessons that, when adopted, will help drive structural and behavioural change.

One of these conversations took place with two colleagues who have created pathways for change for this global network. Vinicius Feitosa, Associate Research and Information Officer, and Diego Nardi, Associate Protection Officer, offer their insights into supporting gender and sexual equality at the field level, their shared and unique experiences as gay men at UNHCR, and their visions for how the organisation can systematically be more inclusive to the most marginalised communities.

Both Vinicius and Diego are at the forefront of UNHCR’s innovation work, having previously supported the creative activities of UNHCR’s Brazil operation and through their recent work as Innovation Fellows for UNHCR’s 2018 cohort.

Vini: My name is Vinicius Feitosa, and everyone knows me as Vini. I’m currently working as an Associate Research and Information Officer in the Refugee Resettlement Determination (RSD) Section in Copenhagen. Previously, I was working as a Senior Protection Assistant in UNHCR’s São Paulo Field Unit in Brazil. And before UNHCR, in my previous lives, I worked with other United Nations organisations and the European Union.

Diego: My name is Diego Nardi and I used to work together with Vinicius in Brazil, and I was stationed at the Branch Office in Brasília. First as a Protection Assistant and then as a Durable Solutions Assistant. Now I work as Associate Protection Officer (Community Based) in Nampula, Mozambique. Before UNHCR, I was working with community development with local communities in Brazil, and I also worked with community-based organisations in Japan.

Vini: I can start with an introduction to some of the challenges we had working with gender issues in Brazil from the São Paulo and Field Unit perspective. One of the things that we faced when consulting our population of concern, was how binary our programmatic cycle was, in terms of women versus men when we started our consultations. I realised that there was actually not so much flexibility in terms of our programme cycle to create more targeted interventions. In the beginning, we were focusing our vision of gender very much on women, but we actually realised that we had to include men in the conversation on gender. When I started working in Brazil, in 2012, nearly 70% of our constituents were male. I don’t know if that percentage changed over time, but we had many more men than women.

Diego: I agree with Vini. I think one of the main issues in our operation, at some point, was the fact that we were mainly focusing our gender discussion on women. And as Vini said, the majority of our population of concern in Brazil is comprised of men. Although we’ve had some changes recently with the Venezuelan situation, this profile somehow remains in the rest of the country. To change this focus and engage more men into the discussion, we developed some very nice initiatives in the operation. One of them was the development of a booklet called Avante! (“Let’s Move Forward” in English). It was a gender-sensitive leaflet that was prepared by a feminist group, together with UNHCR. The main idea was to share basic information on local integration in Brazil for refugees while working towards a greater gender awareness by our population of concern. The main character of this leaflet is actually a male refugee, and throughout the story, he’s supporting his wife while she’s looking for a job and supporting her in the household. He’s performing a non-hegemonic masculinity, while being exposed to topics such as sexual and gender diversity, racial inclusion, and this was one of the main tools that we shared with our partners to push forward discussions surrounding this agenda. Our partners used it to compliment methodologies that they were already implementing. For example, one project that I really liked was the so-called street football in Rio de Janeiro, where they gathered a mixed group of men and women to play soccer. Through soccer, they discussed gender issues and the results were just amazing.

Vini: I was going to add, two takeaways that we had from both processes. I think that from when we started mapping the concerns of the community to having a booklet with cartoons and educational material, we have matured a lot in terms of our community mapping. I think that within the operation, there was a greater understanding of the needs to keep mapping and mainstreaming gender concerns into everything that we do. So much so, that we had a Portuguese book as a foreign language for refugees and this book also stemmed from participatory assessments and the needs of the community, but we also included human rights as one of the topics for the book. The final chapter discussed issues such as gay marriage, women’s rights, and it was very well received by the community.

I think one of the other takeaways is the fact that we have the Refugee Cup that is organised by refugees every year. This year, and in previous years, they have also mainstreamed gender concerns in promotional events before the Cup, and during the Cup, by giving women a very central role in the organisation and in the awareness-raising components of the event. The workshop on new masculinities was given by a regional consultant that specialised in new masculinities and we piloted these workshops in Brazil in 2011/2012 when I started there São Paulo. These workshops then became the participatory assessments that were developed with the feminist group that Diego mentioned.

Diego: While working with LGBTIs, one thing that I have noticed is that bringing this discussion to the operation catalysed colleagues to rethink their beliefs about sexual and gender diversity. And you can see significant changes in the way colleagues react to these topics for example. Before I left the Brazil operation, one of the biggest allies I had regarding this agenda in the office was someone who was less open to discussing gender equality when I joined the operation back in 2016. He was someone who was always complaining about inclusive language, but it was amazing to see him changing his views and becoming an active supporter; giving visibility to gender equality on social media, in our printing materials, in our reports. It’s meaningful because when Vini left the operation, we were the only two people who were openly gay. Somehow I felt alone after he left. When you know that you have other colleagues that you can count on, this will not be viewed by others as solely a personal agenda (although the personal is political), as an a agenda solely related to our own sexual identity, but as an effort within our wider compromise as a human rights organisation committed to celebrate diversity in all its forms.

Actively bringing this agenda to the operation made colleagues relate to it in a way or another, and it became more easy to move this agenda forward in the operation. More recently, the Brazil operation has actively supported the inauguration of an LGBTI refugee shelter in the context of Venezuela Situation, and we had 100% support by the operation to push this initiative forward.

However, more than an inclusive and supportive environment for LGBTI refugees and staff, it is extremely important to have representativeness in our organisation. It is fundamental to have LGBTI colleagues who can openly share their experiences because these experiences shape the way how we relate to the world and they are very enriching when it comes to implementing our mandate and deconstructing our assumptions. Moreover, it is important to have LGBTI colleagues who can be recognised as such by persons of concern. If LGBTI refugees do not recognise themselves within our organisation through representation, how can they build trust in us? Representation matters.

Shared truths and experiences of being a gay professional at UNHCR

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Vini: Building on what Diego said, I think that it’s super important that we have a diverse group of people in UNHCR. Particularly because we are working with age, gender, and diversity (AGD) mainstreaming and because we are coming with this background in our lives, as gay men, or belonging to a specific group within AGD. I think it is important that we look at our human resources (HR) in a way that we incorporate these principles also when we’re hiring people. So, I think that inevitably, Diego and I, we were allies in that sense, and this was an agenda that was really important for us.

I think that to me, the experience in Brazil, and now that I live in Scandinavia, is a huge contrast. Brazil is seen as this amazing, gay-friendly country where a lot of people assume, “It must be really easy or really amazing to be gay in Brazil,” but the truth is that yes, while we’re a progressive country for LGBTI+ rights, we are also one of the countries that has the highest homicide rates in the world related to homophobia. I think it’s important that we talk about these facts. In the office, I’ve never myself felt discriminated but in the community work, I was also a little weary about how I am going to come out or if I am going to come out. And I think that some small symbols help. I remember always wearing the pin with the rainbow flag, I remember one refugee came to me and identified himself as gay because he saw security in the rainbow flag at an event that I was doing in São Paulo, which was really cool. These small signs and symbols are super important.

I have a second point to add, that most of the time and this is something that has really bugged me recently. Perhaps because I have been thinking more and more about trans rights, but most of the time when colleagues use LGBTI, they are actually only talking about gay men. And it’s important that we don’t forget that we have other letters in the acronym that have a lot of challenges. I feel that gay men and lesbian women have already gained a lot of rights in specific parts of the world but for transgender and intersex, there is still a long way to go. I think it’s crucial that when we talk about LGBTI rights we acknowledge that we are talking about a group of people who have different rights.

Diego: Similar to Vinicius, I never felt discriminated against in the office in Brazil but it did occur outside of the office with colleagues. Colleagues would say inappropriate jokes about gayness but I had a very easy approach to say, “This is not nice,” and they were very open to understanding why. I used to feel so safe in Brazil that I was actually the guy who would say, “Hi my name is Diego, and I’m a proud gay UNHCR staff.” I believe it is important to show who we are so people become aware that we are a part of this organisation. For those of us who are LGBTI and who happen to be working at UNHCR, we are ourselves a privileged part of this community. It’s important for us to bring visibility to this issue if we can, if we have the privilege and the opportunity, so others can join us.

But now I am in Mozambique and I am having a completely different experience. Before arriving here, I started to think about how I would deal with my own sexual identity in the workplace. Coming out is not a simple thing, especially in the workplace. It’s not that colleagues must know that I am gay, but — as I said — it is important to show we are part of this organisation to avoid — for example — people taking for granted that we are heterosexuals. Moreover, I have a partner, and when visiting me, I want my partner to be with me in the spaces where I may find colleagues. I do not want to be hiding who I am due to fear of suffering prejudice. And it’s not that I think that colleagues here will be homophobic, but you cannot also pretend everything will be okay, especially when we know colleagues in the field who have suffered prejudice by supervisors and fellow colleagues.

During my first days in the new operation, I had a meeting with the most prominent LGBTI organisation in Mozambique — which is not recognised by the local government — and while discussing with them our willingness to implement activities in the refugee camp to promote awareness on gender and sexual diversity, one of the representatives of the organisation told me, “Look, you can do whatever you want as UNHCR, but as you do not have LGBTI staff, people will not be able to relate with you and build trust.” And this was extremely difficult to hear because at that moment, in other contexts, I would say, “No — but I am LGBTI myself.” But I had other colleagues from the organisation in the meeting and I didn’t feel safe to do so. My colleagues here have not shown any sign of prejudice so far, but it’s not an easy task. Every place you arrive you have to make this choice: passing through the experience of coming out again and again, or stay low-profile. Both are right decisions, both options must be supported, but I expect, and hope, we can build an organisation where it will be commonplace not to take for granted the gender or sexuality of our colleagues and persons of concern and where everyone feels safe.

For me, one of the reasons that we, colleagues in the field, are afraid of identifying ourselves as LGBTI is because we don’t have a clear support network to tell us that it is okay, that you don’t need to fear the situation, that there are reliable mechanisms in place to protect us against harassment, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, etc. And we need more Senior Managers who understand that raising awareness on diverse gender identities, sexual orientations, is a core element of our mandate towards our persons of concerns, but also a core principle for building an inclusive organisation

As Vinicius said, many times when we’re talking about LGBTI experiences we are talking about male experiences. About gay, cisgender, white men. And LGBTI is much more than just about its G, about gay men. However, within our organisation itself when we talk about LGBTI, we are often talking about gay men. How many transgender colleagues do we have, how many lesbian colleagues, bisexual colleagues? Most of the LGBTI persons you know are gay men, and most of them from the Global North. They will have a very contextualised experience and this is not diversity. If we want to embrace diversity we should be actively looking for transgender professionals to join our organisation, for example. This is not only about LGBTI but also about persons with disabilities, about black colleagues occupying higher positions, and also about refugees themselves. It is important for us as the LGBTI community within UNHCR to foster this relationship among ourselves, to fight together to improve safe spaces and improve visibility, for better and more inclusive HR policies, to create solidarity bonds with other groups within the organisation.

UNHCR is now pushing equality and inclusion more than ever before. But there is a long way ahead. We should foster solidarity among ourselves to support each other’s agenda, for the inclusion of one is the inclusion of all. At the end of the day, when we are facing homophobia or transphobia, for example, it’s also about recognising gender equality.

It’s about surpassing the association of our LGBTI existence with this place of disempowerment and inferiority that women themselves are also fighting against, showing that occupying the space of the feminine is occupying a positive (and powerful) space. It’s about bringing more diversity into the organisation and into our discourse surrounding the LGBTI inclusion within the organization. I want to have black transgender colleagues working with me side by side — I know many of them who would do an amazing job. We need an HR policy that does more than just waiting for people to arrive at our doors, but who actively seek these profiles that are not well represented within our organisation.

Why we need to put faces and stories to the entire LGBTI acronym

Vini: I think acknowledging my own privileges now is something; there are differences. A difference of access, for example, that I am having compared to other colleagues in this network because I am based at UNHCR’s Headquarters. I have a broader vision of the organisation now that I didn’t have in the field. In times that I felt a little helpless, I didn’t know who to speak to. There was a time that I felt discriminated against from someone in the community, in a participatory assessment, that I was doing when I came out. And I knew I could count on my fellow colleagues to talk about the situation — but were there any other global community that I could count on? So, I think that it is super important that we try to foster more spaces of dialogue in the organisation. I think we should make people’s voices equal in a louder way, in a more effective way. We need to think about supporting networks, both at the global, regional, local levels, community development, improving the visibility of these questions and these voices within the organisation. If we can do this, then we can definitely improve the way people represented and the fact that they are not alone and that there are many more of us in the organisation that can join this fight.

We have colleagues living in countries where being gay is actually a crime. It’s much deeper and everyone at so many levels, at this time in the world, are going through paradigm shifts. For example, in Brazil, it wasn’t so long ago that we had gay marriage legalised. And at the same time, we are also in an organisation that have people from countries that are criminalising it. I also totally agree that it is almost our obligation as UN staff to come out, that this is a huge part of our conduct because we are part of a generation that is cementing the idea that it is okay to be gay, it is actually politically correct, we have generations behind us who have fought for these rights. And I feel that we have a responsibility, to come out and give a statement, “Yes we are here to stay.”

Diego: Right now, this is an issue that I am really giving a lot of thought to because of my current situation. As I said before, every time we move operations or we move offices, we are coming out again. And everyone who has lived experiences of coming out knows how hard it is. It’s not something that you just say, “Look, I am gay.” People don’t need to know about my sexuality, but it’s important that we recognise we are part of a broader political and social context. And it is important to make ourselves visible because there is an unconscious bias behind the way the organisation works, and which is framed for cis-gendered, heterosexual persons. If we don’t show the organisation actively that we exist, it will take much more time for things to change.

I was really happy to know that they were changing the methodology behind this year’s Code of Conduct. And they have chosen diversity and inclusion as the first topic of this new approach, and I am really looking forward to the results. This will be an opportunity for me to maybe be more open with my new colleagues about who I am. It’s not good when you are in a place and I am telling everyone that, “Look I have a cousin — oh wait actually that person isn’t my cousin, it’s my partner.” I am pretty sure colleagues hear me talking almost every day about gender equality, sexual diversity. Sincerely, I don’t believe that they are thinking that, “Oh, this is a nice heterosexual guy who is a supportive ally of LGBTIs!” I think that it is a public secret, that everyone knows but no one talks about it. This is a very uncomfortable situation. But if I had arrived here in my new operation, and there was another LGBTI colleague, I think I would be much more comfortable. And really, if I arrived anywhere and there is another LGBTI colleague, I would be more comfortable to go through this new scenario, to go through this work.

We need senior staff to constantly pass a clear message of respect for diversity and inclusion. And they should create an environment where people feel welcome and embraced. But I don’t believe that this is the situation of most Field Offices in our organisation, despite UNHCR being pushing this agenda a lot recently. Again, to achieve a more inclusive and diverse workplace we need selection processes that are more inclusive and we need processes that actually assess candidates awareness of diversity and inclusion.

We must make clear for our staff from the very beginning that we are a human rights organisation, we have a human rights-based approach and that prejudice has no place here. We cannot rely only on documents expecting that people will read them. We should have a diversity induction. You may not agree with someone else’s identity but this is something that cannot interfere with our work. We are here to respect and advance human rights of every single person.

We also need a peer network, this is essential. One of the greatest advantages I have had is that I know other fellow LGBTI colleagues who are at diverse levels — some are more senior or at my level — but we informally support ourselves when facing challenging situations. We support each other on what to do, and how to do if we face a specific situation. The 2016 report on diversity and inclusion in the organisation clearly presented cases of homophobia faced by staff. And they were showing only cases that were officially reported, and we know that many just go out of the radar. If I read this report and I am aware of the situation, how can I feel safe to be who I am? Being aware that in other contexts people have faced prejudice, exclusion, and harassment for being who they are, how can I feel embraced by the organisation? Especially colleagues who are at higher levels and in more visible places such as Headquarters and Regional Offices, they should push forward this agenda, as many are already doing.

During the last RSD workshop that I delivered, together with colleagues in Brazil, we were covering LGBTI asylum claims. I invited colleagues from the LGBTI movement to join the workshop. One was a non-binary colleague, another a transgender colleague, and a black lesbian colleague. At first, the RSD Officers were shocked when they first met them. You could see it in their faces. You could see that they were feeling very uncomfortable. Because these persons are not part of their daily experience. We talk about LGBTI people, but unless it’s not a gay man, we are always asking, “Who are these persons?” Most people don’t have daily interactions with them. And if they do, they completely ignore or try to avoid them. The majority of people will not bring members from the LGBTI community into their inner circles. This workshop was really nice because during two days LGBTI colleagues shared their experiences with RSD Officers and they could put a face to the acronym, they could see who LGBTIs are, and understand their challenges. After two days, they were all taking pictures together and sharing contact information. They were no longer strangers causing discomfort on them. For me this was amazing. And this is about empathy. Diversity and inclusion create empathy for other persons’ experiences.

We often hear that empathy is one skill you need for innovation, and I completely agree. Empathy is a social ability that we obtain from walking away from our comfort zone, and that’s what happened in this RSD workshop. They challenged their own assumptions and perceptions about sexuality and gender. Then they were socialising and collaborating with persons different from them and learning how to think beyond their own mindsets. So, I’m pretty sure — or I hope, that the next time that they were interviewing a LGBTI asylum seeker, they will have a much better approach and performance.

Diversity and inclusion promote this environment where innovation can succeed. To allow us to think outside the box, outside our own identities. Beyond our personal experiences and we can then better innovate and collaborate with each other.

Vini: I mean, both Diego and I are openly gay. And we have worked with UNHCR for some time. But you can see, even we — who come from a similar background and the same country — are having completely different perspectives and stories. Even though they are comparable. The experiences that he is facing in Mozambique, concerning his partner and the way he is going to come out, they are very different from my experience living a comfortable life in Copenhagen. Here I am able to bring my partner to have lunch with me every day. And these are questions that I am not having in my day-to-day life. I feel like this is diversity — even within the LGBTI community. The more you talk with people who are having different experiences, the more you can create solutions that are tailored to them, and the more that you see that there are limitless experiences. The number of experiences within just the LGBTI community are limitless and I think that the more we talk about gender — the more we will innovate. We will see that people have very very different experiences when they are facing gender and LGBTI issues, especially if they are coming from historically marginalised groups.

Diego: We must always be aware of how gender and race are important identity markers and the role they play on structural dynamics in our organisation. Maleness and whiteness, they come with lots of privileges and we must be aware of them as an organisation and as individuals. When we talk about people with diverse sexual orientation, we must avoid what Vinicius has said — this single narrative on what it means to be gay, for example. We must avoid reducing this experience to a single category — the gay, white man. It is important for us to foster diversity within our group, and foster solidarity with other groups. So we must have positive discrimination, otherwise, we will be requiring much more efforts from these persons who are part of not so privileged groups to join the organisation. This is not fair, this is not justice and this is not equity. I am seeing the organisation move forward on these issues. UNHCR was probably one of the first UN agencies to talk about sexual and gender diversity. And I hope we can be the lead — or the number one agency as we like to say — on inclusion and diversity.

Discover more explorations in inclusion, diversity, gender equity and innovation from UNHCR’s Innovation Service at: https://www.unhcr.org/innovation/inclusion/

Originally published at medium.com on March 6, 2019.

UNHCR Innovation Service

Lauren Parater

Written by

Leading comms for UNHCR’s Innovation Service • social innovation enthusiast • thoughts on displacement, climate justice + storytelling • maybe a little wine

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

Lauren Parater

Written by

Leading comms for UNHCR’s Innovation Service • social innovation enthusiast • thoughts on displacement, climate justice + storytelling • maybe a little wine

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

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