Interview of the Month: Mônica Sodré

Network prepares political leaders to practice sustainability

According to Monica Sodré, the challenge is to get out of the diagnosis to offer solutions  

Seven years ago, even before the June 2013 political demonstrations and yet another presidential impeachment in the country’s recent history, a group of people from different sectors interested in stimulating and investing in the formation of new political leaders founded the Political Action Network for Sustainability (RAPS).

Since then, the organization has trained approximately 60 politicians each year, who participate in debates and events on a wide range of topics, but always have sustainability as a background. One of the discussions, for example, in partnership with the Escolhas Institute, is about federal housing policy. The main objective is to elaborate proposals for its improvement, based on the results of the study “Living Far Away: Minha Casa Minha Vida program and the Metropolis expansion”, published in January this year by the Institute.

Without favoring parties, and completely free of charge, RAPS, which lives solely on donations from individuals or nonprofits, has already trained 581 politicians – some in office, others in their first term and most of them not yet in office, but motivated to enter institutional policy in the short or medium term. 

In this interview with Escolhas Institute, Mônica Sodré, RAPS Executive Director, reveals the major difficulties in implementing the sustainability agenda in everyday politics. And how is the perception of Brazilian politicians regarding topics such as the global climate crisis, among others.  

The following are excerpts from the conversation.

Escolhas Institute – How did you get interested in this agenda that unites politics and sustainability?

Mônica Sodré – I have a journey that is not only from the Academy, but that originated in it. I graduated in Social Sciences at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), amended my master’s degree at the same university and moved to São Paulo in 2013 for a doctorate at the University of São Paulo (USP). I joined the International Relations program that, at that time, had just left USP Political Science. Also in 2013, along with my doctorate, I joined RAPS as a RAPS leader. That year came the invitation of Marcos Vinicíus, founder who led the organization for six years. He invited me at that time to join the team as a consultant. I was getting more and more into the routine of the organization. In 2018, I gave up almost everything because the invitation came to take over as Deputy Director. I often joke that 75% of the work is not letting things explode. 30 parties are within the organization.

Escolhas – What are the main missions of the network?      

Mônica – RAPS was born with the purpose of preparing political leaders to incorporate sustainability into their daily activities. When we speak it can sound very generic. A commitment of the organization has always been to demystify the debate and try to simplify the theme, bringing elements of daily life. Another commitment of ours is to broaden the understanding of sustainability beyond the environmental area. Sustainability is often trapped by the environmental dimension. Talking about sustainability is, first, about the emergence of human rights back in 1948. With the idea that all people who are born are free and equal. We are seven years old and very proud to be an organization that was born at a time when much of the third sector and Brazilian society were not looking at institutional policy and leadership formation. It was before the June 2013 demonstrations, before the impeachment as well. Before this social upheaval we have been living ever since.  


Escolhas – Does the organization only work with novice politicians?

Monica – The organization was created to prepare new leaders and made from the beginning an option that did not seem obvious at the time, which was not working only with newcomers.  We have two very clear points from the start. There are very good people in politics that we need to identify and bring in, because these people have baggage and experience. They have a lot of knowledge that needs to be shared with who is coming. The second point is that the network was not born to replace traditional forms of organization, such as parties and parliaments. We were born to be a complementary space where people of different views, ideologies and backgrounds can talk safely and respectfully on all topics related to sustainable development. A lot has happened since we first emerged. The organization has grown in terms of numbers. We were just over 100 in 2013 and today we are 581. I say we because I am, besides being a director, a RAPS leader since 2013. We also grew in number of parties. Today there are 28 of 33. The number of mandates has also grown. There were 5 in 2013 and today there are 134. We have 26 federal deputies, 6 senators. We also refine the way we work. 


Escolhas – Therefore, isn’t RAPS necessarily a policy renewal group?

Monica – We are trapped by this policy renewal label. It doesn’t suit us much, because usually when you set renewal you look out for those outside parliaments. When we look at the data on renewal, when we talk about a major renewal in Congress, we look at whether the person was in that position in the previous term. If that particular Member had not been a Member for four years, this is considered renewal. When you look at this deputy’s journey, however, she was once a secretary, a state deputy, a mayor. She just became a federal deputy now. In this case, I often question this perception that there has been renewal. If we define renewal as based on who has never been in institutional policy before, the so-called renewal rate is not that high. There are some studies done since October showing that this renewal rate is slightly lower when analyzed within this other context. This society desire for renewal is fully explainable. Our biggest contribution is less about renewing people and more about ensuring that different people are talking. This has a lot of value to us in a Brazil that has had such a hard time talking. It is very symbolic for us when we arrived at the Legislative Assembly [of the State of São Paulo] and we have five state deputies. We managed to get them to talk and join the Sanitation parliamentary front, for example. 

Escolhas – How is the selection of members made?

Monica – The process is opened every year. It is free, as well as all the activities that are offered. There is no invitation. All 581 members of the network signed up. Applications go through a selection committee and everyone has their background checked. We make sure that people have a clean record. In the first year, they have a training package that is more intense. There are four meetings in São Paulo, where various topics are discussed, such as education, environmental agenda and public safety. In class formations, there is a concern to balance gender, racial, geographical and partisan issues.     

Escolhas – Are the members receptive to environmental and sustainability issues?

Monica – The first difficulty in this case is the concept itself. There is not only one. The academy has struggled with this since the 1960s and 1970s. For us, sustainability is about ensuring more quality of life for more people for longer period without compromising the ability of future generations to enjoy what is available. The first challenge is both conceptual and communication. The association of the theme with the environmental dimension is almost immediate. It’s hard for people to understand in general that when you talk about sustainability, you’re talking about at least 17 different things. It’s not just climate change, it’s not just ocean conservation. There is also the challenge, and this we have refined along the way, which is trying to get out of the diagnosis to get the solutions. The case of Minha Casa Minha Vida program is a good example. We bring Raquel Lira, mayor of Caruaru, who arrives with a bag of problems. Her head is boiling. From this we are informed that the program is not an example of sustainability because it stretches the city border, makes people move and carbon emissions become high. It’s very important for them to know that, but the institutions that are working on the topic should also understand that we need to offer something instead. It is going out of a diagnostic step and going into what is available as well as good practices. 

Escolhas – Is there any feedback from RAPS participants who have already attended the training?

Monica – We have regular monitoring of these people. We do this with some regularity before they leave. These returns revolve around the difficulty members have in finding other solutions. Sometimes parties are not very receptive to these sustainability themes. This varies due to ideological or statutory reasons. There is a natural difficulty for a parliamentarian who has two to three agendas and has to position himself on the most diverse subjects. For this reason, we have been preparing material that guides discussions, as well as debates with experts with different views. 

Escolhas – Will the RAPS have any specific action focused on the 2020 municipal elections?

Monica – The selection process that leads to the annual class usually takes place once a year. This year were two processes, because we handed over the 2019 class, which is in formation, and because there will be an election next year, we pulled back the new members’ entry calendar. Probably, the selected will be released until November for their formation to occur until June. We know that after this life begins to become completely crazy for them. We are concerned that both campaigns and mandates are oriented towards the goals of sustainable development. But this direction has to be based on data and evidence. That’s why we partnered with Datapedia, which has a municipal platform with information on mortality and access to sanitation. This monitoring of the regular municipal reality so that campaigns are based on this evidence is part of the training we offer. Our goal is to prepare candidates so that, when communicating with the population, they do not promise things without having as idea of what their municipality is. The other concern is always bringring different perspectives without fighting science. If you ask me, “Monica, is there room for a RAPS climate revisinist today,” the answer is no. Because science has already shown that climate change exists and it is caused by human action. We need to have the environmental, financial and agro sectors together. Because agriculture accounts for 25% of GDP and 19% of the workforce.    

Escolhas – Brazil has experienced recent droughts and floods. Do politicians in general realize that these events may be related to climate change?

Monica – For some, yes, but they are somewhat isolated events in everyone’s perception.  Our role is also to show the evidence. Guys, these things are not scattered. They are not happening because God wanted it. As I mentioned before, in addition to increasing this perception, we need to provide solutions. We should release by the end of the year a base of good practices. It is interesting to find out who is doing what and where. Show “look, such a city mayor has been able to extend street lighting based on a breach in legislation that required the power utility to invest a portion of the resource it received,” for example.