[This interview was undertaken in September 2019 by Andrea Baertl and the article written by Cristina Ramos.]
Iara Pietricovsky is an anthropologist, researcher and activist whose main areas of work are related to indigenous peoples and environmental issues. Since 2001, she has been one of two co-directors of INESC (Institute of Socioeconomic Studies), a Brazilian organisation founded in 1979 with two goals: to strengthen civil society and to enhance social participation in policymaking. In this interview she discusses her trajectory, her functions and responsibilities as co-director, and her leadership style.
Andrea Baertl: Let’s start with your experience and how you became the executive director.
Iara Pietricovsky: I started in this organisation in 1987, when the process of rebuilding the Brazilian Constitution began. In 1988, I was an anthropologist working a lot with indigenous peoples, and I was hired to accompany the constitutional process. From this experience I was invited to remain in the organisation as an ‘advisor on indigenous issues’. During that time, I brought to the institution a very important debate at the time: we began to articulate indigenous issues with environmental concerns. Because of this, I started traveling and I got to know all kinds of organisations, and networks countries and began to act more on international issues.
There was a moment of change when the founder, who was an important former political activist in Brazil, left the organisation. New criteria for electing new directors were established and it was decided that it would be a collegiate of three people. I was chosen then as one of those three people. One of them stayed for a very short time because he did not adapt to the institutional culture. The other stayed, so today I have been with my partner, the co-director José Moroni, for 20 years.
I think I was invited because of my experience and because I had the skills as well. I had an academic career, but also experience of political activism, much stronger than academia.
AB: You mentioned an experience in theatre that you think helped your appointment as co-director. Why, and which skills from your acting background do you think facilitated your being elected?
IP: I believe that it is the ability to communicate. I am a very expressive person. I am not absolutely fluent in Spanish or English, but I speak a lot and I am not embarrassed if I make mistakes. I am very direct and very transparent. I think that helps a lot in the context of a political organisation. You must have a capacity for dialogue, to speak, to expose, to express yourself politically.
On the other hand, I also had accumulated experience working with indigenous peoples, around public policies, and with the government. It was a combination of experience together with acting skills, specifically the sensitivity of engaging with the other, because one of the most important things an actor does is knowing how to follow the game, moving on a stage with others, working collectively. I am very uncreative when I am alone, but when I am with other people, I am quite creative.
AB Now, going back to the time when you first were appointed. How was the transition process?
IP: Well, the transition was very painful. María José Jaime, the former director, who was a political activist in the 1960s, established INESC and worked there for 20 years. Hence, she had a very personal way of managing the organisation, very direct, very bold, very much in the way of the traditional Latin American left. When there was the debate about the transition, one of the questions was that they did not want to maintain a hierarchical structure, but a more horizontal one. The great debate was also how to structure an organisation that is more consistent with who we are or want to be, that is, not very hierarchical, but that fulfils obligations and responsibilities in a more collective way.
So, the solution was to have up to three people as directors. We have a management system that is collective with different groups. The management group of the executive group is made up of Moroni, the financial and administrative manager, the person in charge of advising the permanent group, and myself. So, we are a group of people who decide, discuss, meet and make deliberations jointly. Of course, there is always a part of the decisions that only include me, but I never make big decisions without first discussing it with Moroni.
During the transition there was tension and some people left because they did not adapt. They needed to have a boss who would tell them ‘do this’, ‘do that’. There are people who have difficulty with the issue of autonomy with responsibility. It is almost inevitable that people come the day after the task has been delegated to them to ask: ‘Should I do that?’, even though it has already been debated. And that is a challenge from an institutional management point of view.
AB: Can you tell me more about the functions that you and the other co-director (Moroni) fulfil?
IP: The decisions that he makes are combined with my ideas, but he has a better ability than me in administrative financial matters. He has more experience, and he has legal intelligence, so he takes care much more of maintaining our systems of personnel hiring, payment of taxes, to ensure that everything is compliant with the law.
I have the ability to make the institution visible in the international context – we raise a lot of funds, due to my fundraising capacity. I have a very strategic vision, of where to be and of how to promote the institution. These are complementary spaces – it does not mean that he does not do it, but I have a plus in that regard.
On the other hand, Moroni has a great recognition in the area of social movements in Brazil, especially peasant and youth movements. He is a reference at the national level, while I am recognised at the international level and I am more involved in climate issues.
From the point of view of the organisation’s political leadership, we are always chatting and we have personalities that complement each other.
AB: What does it take to make this model work?
IP: I think the essential thing is that a person has to be willing to share or distribute power. Also, you need to make sure that you have time and that you are available: it takes a lot of time to hold discussions when decisions need to be made.
It also requires a permanent exercise of being aware of and understanding the other; empathy and also a sense of responsibility. You have to be willing to take responsibility, to accept conflict and to accept criticism. Sometimes we have disagreements and there we have the management group, which is a more collective space. All decisions are shared and for me this is what is enriching about our by-laws.
But the challenge is with the mentality of the people, which is a mentality that is still very hierarchical. We will have another challenge because in a short time I will be announcing my departure and that will require a re-adaptation.
AB: And how would you define your leadership style?
IP: Well, I am a person who shares a lot in decision-making but I demand that each person is committed and I am very demanding so that things happen. It is autonomy with responsibility.
I am a strong person, I defend my ideas a lot, sometimes I seem authoritarian, but I don’t think I am. I think I am an empathetic person who is often perceived as authoritarian. I am a very fast person; I think quickly so people sometimes suffer a little with me because I am always very fast. Sometimes we have to promote a lot of talks to get everyone to be on the same page, but people have a lot of confidence in my work. I establish very strong trusting relationships and I am also very loving. We make jokes with each other and we have that kind of atmosphere.
AB: And, finally, what keeps you up at night as director?
IP: I would say that I sleep very well in general, but many times what has me really worried is the sustainability of the organisation. We have a big challenge to expand now and to do it in a more diversified way.
Also, thinking about when I am planning to leave in two years. We want my experience, what I have brought to the organisation, to remain. And that means having someone who may have other skills spend a lot of time with me. That is what the founder did with me when I started and I want to do that now, although the financial capacity to have two people in all the processes is difficult. But we are seeing how we manage to maintain everything that I built throughout these 30 years.