Politics of Poverty

Awards to Puerto Rican advocates shine light on problems and solutions

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Puerto Rico Ayuda Legal.jpg
In San Juan, Lcda. Ariadna Michelle Godreau Aubert, Founder and Executive Director of Ayuda Legal, was recently featured in a video about an award to her legal aid organization. Courtesy photo

While awards can be fleeting and fragile, they can do something profound and lasting: shine a light on problems, people, and solutions. We're so happy to join the celebration around the great work of two partners in Puerto Rico.

Oxfam has a strong track record of local humanitarian leadership, amplifying voices and strengthening local partners to pursue an equitable, climate-friendly and gender-just economic rebuild in Puerto Rico. But it’s a challenge: The scars are so deep (from disasters to colonialism to racism) and the problems are so large (from poverty to lack of infrastructure). Where to begin, and how do we keep supporting local leaders to ensure a recovery is equitable?

Still, many people and organizations remain deeply embedded and committed to the people and the place, and have dedicated themselves to addressing problems and finding solutions. Every day, they do the hard work of chipping away at stubborn systems that are built on foundations of extraction and exploitation.

While, most of the time, these advocates work long hours in the shadow of great challenges, the last few months have elevated the work of two good friends and partners of Oxfam. Both Ayuda Legal and Todas recently won prestigious awards for their work on the island; and while this kind of recognition can be fleeting and fragile, for those of us who love our home so deeply, it does something profound and lasting: it shines a light on the problems, the people, and the solutions.

While both organizations deal with entrenched and problems—misogyny and femicides, and discrimination—they also have shown great facility in pivoting their work and adapting to new technical and economic realities.

Addressing gender-based violence head on

Cristina del Mar Quiles, journalist, cofounder and editor of Todas, remembers lying on the floor one Sunday in October of last year, nearly overwhelmed by the problems facing women and gender fluid people in Puerto Rico—especially the waves of violence in the wake of all the tragedies on the island (including the COVID-19 pandemic).

She looked at the ceiling, and started mapping out a story to commemorate the lives of women and gender fluid people who have been victims of feminicides and transfeminicides in recent years. (The Observatory for Gender Equity tracks these tragic losses).

She reached out to the other cofounder of Todas, Amary Santiago, along with seven other journalists and students who had worked on the ¡Cambia ya! Campaign in Puerto Rico. (Supported by Oxfam America, the global ENOUGH campaign is a 28-country initiative to end violence against women and girls.) And they began the process of shining a light on the people lost to senseless violence.

On November 25, 2020, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a report was published: Digamos sus nombres: los feminicidios que hay que contar (Let’s say their names: Femicides that must be counted).

Almost a year later, in October of 2021, the Puerto Rico Association of Journalists awarded them the National Prize for Journalism for this effort.

According to del Mar Quiles, “[this is a] recognition of the possibility of speaking from journalism sector about the lives of women and trans people beyond the violent events that made them news; to state that they mattered in life, and that their memory matters. It is and will always be the duty of journalism to cover stories using a human rights lens.”


Using law (and technology) as a tool for great equity

Hurricane Maria exposed structural problems in Puerto Rico – both physical (eg, the fragile power grid), and social and economic systems. One of these is the thorny legal landscape on the island, along with the intricate maze of federal processes on the mainland.

For countless Puerto Ricans, navigating the legal system proved nearly overwhelming in the wake of the storm that decimated homes, families, and community buildings. They had neither the financial resources nor the legal education to wade through the complicated waters.

However, in the four years since the storm, legal aid organizations have been on the ground across the island, lending help in filing claims with FEMA, and following up.

Ayuda Legal has been at the forefront of this effort, offering free legal education and direct support to low income communities. And in the last month, the organization has garnered two prestigious awards: American Legal Technology Award and the 2021 Reisman Award for Legal Innovation. Through a combination of digital tools and in-person advocacy, the organization is singlehandedly transforming the legal landscape in Puerto Rico,

“Technology helps us amplify our legal empowerment work, socialize legal tools, and build housing, land, and climate justice strategies,” says Lcda. Ariadna Michelle Godreau Aubert, Founder and Executive Director. “Technology helps us achieve a tremendous impact without requesting or receiving any governmental funds. Additionally, access to justice and tech innovations we produce here on the island benefit people and organizations abroad.”

She goes on to say: “All of the work that we do is geared toward the idea that we can transform society using law as a tool … Access to justice is a not a flaw, not an accident of the system. It’s part of a system that is designed on inequity, on the fact that some people will never be able to exercise their rights. So innovation is not going to be a solution, it’s going to be a path towards some sort of change. We need to make information available in plain language.”

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