Honoring Assassinated Brazilian Politician, Drexel Professor To Speak on the Global Fight for Black Lives

Sharrelle Barber with activist Marielle Franco.
Drexel's Sharrelle Barber, at left, with Marielle Franco the night the activist was killed.

Sharrelle Barber felt as if she was in a “hallowed” space when she met Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro city councilor and a rising activist for the country’s black and impoverished residents. 

The meeting room, Casa das Pretas, was adorned with images of black women like the late Lélia Gonzalez, a black feminist scholar and activist who founded the Black Movement of Brazil, perfect for an event celebrating the power of black women. Franco spoke. 

“Her message was bold, yet simple and one that echoes the global fight against racism and oppression,” Barber, ScD, an assistant research professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health, later wrote in an account of the night.

Less than an hour later, Franco was dead.

That day was a whirlwind of devastation for Barber, but one that she vows will change her life forever.

In light of that, Barber will host an event Tuesday, May 15 in Drexel University’s Nesbitt Hallto discuss Franco’s work and what people thousands of miles away, here in the United States, can learn from it. During “Marielle Presente! Racism, Health, and the Global Struggle for Black Lives,” Barber will discuss Franco’s legacy and what can be learned from her work in Brazil. 

“I think we have lessons to learn from each other,” Barber said. “But I think Marielle’s approach to politics and activism is particularly useful given the deep-seated issues of racism and economic inequality we face in the United States. Her activism was grounded in the Ubuntu principle ‘I am because we are’. She believed in politics from the grassroots, not just the top down.”

Joining Barber will be Drexel’s Gabriel Rocha, PhD,a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and a native of Rio de Janeiro, and Janae Morrison, PhD, of the Department of Education.

Barber had the opportunity to meet Franco because her research brought her to Rio de Janeiro. She especially focuses on health inequalities tied to race and ethnicity and, in Brazil, she has studied disparities in heart disease and the factors that play into it. Her latest study, co-authored by the Dornsife School of Public Health’s dean, Ana Diez Roux, MD, PhD,looked at race, neighborhood segregation by economic status and the likelihood for high blood pressure and diabetes, both risk factors for heart disease. 

It was this topic — neighborhoods segregated by wealth and race — that Franco particularly championed.

“Meeting Marielle and learning about ongoing struggles against racism has made me even more committed to the research on segregation and racial health inequalities that my colleagues and I started a few years ago in Brazil,” Barber said. “Some of the issues Marielle spoke out against — like inadequate public transportation, limited access to healthcare facilities, racial discrimination, police brutality — are issues that are reflected in our research that is ongoing."

Franco’s legacy also makes Barber more determined to get her research “into the hands of people on the ground who can use it for advocacy and positive social change.”

It’s this sentiment behind titling the event “Marielle Presente!”

“It means, ‘Marielle is Here,’” Barber explained. “It is a phrase typically used in Latin America when activists are killed to acknowledge that they are present in spirit, and that their work and legacy will live on through those they left behind.”

Obviously, Barber takes this to heart and hopes those who attend the talk will, too.

“’Marielle Presente!’ is the notion that her spirit will infuse the work of activism that will — and must — continue,” Barber concluded.

This event is being co-sponsored by the Dornsife School of Public Health’s Urban Health Collaborative, Drexel’s Office of International Programs, the Africana Studies Program, the Department of Sociology, and the Center for Science Technology and Society.