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YBRAHINN CORDERO

Venezuela,

Ybrahinn Cordero is transforming the attitudes and stereotypes of an increasingly polarized and prejudiced Venezuela. With an approach based on a powerful concept of individual dignity and responsibility that rejects the marginalization of the most vulnerable populations, Ybrahinn is pursuing a Venezuela that is 100% Discrimination-Free. 

This profile below was prepared when Ybrahinn Cordero Rojas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.

INTRODUCTION

Ybrahinn Cordero is transforming the attitudes and stereotypes of an increasingly polarized and prejudiced Venezuela. With an approach based on a powerful concept of individual dignity and responsibility that rejects the marginalization of the most vulnerable populations, Ybrahinn is pursuing a Venezuela that is 100% Discrimination-Free. 




THE NEW IDEA

Ybrahinn’s work with Artgnosis is founded around a core principle that rejects any and all types of discrimination and accompanying stereotypes. Instead, he considers an individual’s specific realities as a basis to address the severe social problems that affect them. In Venezuela there are different social organizations fighting against discrimination; yet Ybrahinn offers a novel approach and perspective that not only sets his strategy apart, but also has the powerful ability to influence other organizations. Ybrahinn first founded his citizen organization (CO), Artgnosis (Art with Conscience), in 2008 to promote new public health strategies for HIV/AIDs and STD prevention, premised on his vision of non-discrimination. This vision does not isolate vulnerable groups but instead embraces them in a holistic community, centered on personal dignity and responsibility. After having achieved widespread success with this pilot project, Ybrahinn is ready to leverage his experience and relationships across the citizen sector in Venezuela to catalyze a national 100% Discrimination-Free movement. At a time when Venezuela is polarized in all directions across society, Ybrahinn is manifesting a powerful, holistic call for cooperation.

Understanding that the problem of discrimination is common to different groups of people, Ybrahinn is creating zones that are 100% Discrimination-Free; where individuals, through relationships with people of different backgrounds, social conditions, and sexual orientation, can understand the diversity that underpins our society and thus recognize that respect is an essential pillar for development. Under Ybrahinn’s approach, people from the most vulnerable groups in Venezuela—members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, HIV-positive individuals, and those physically disabled—join forces with the mainstream population to participate collectively and to construct solutions that overcome social stigmatization and prejudice. Furthermore, such spaces are a place for non-discriminated classes to reflect on what it means to experience discrimination and to emphasize the possibility that anyone could be subject to discrimination.

Ybrahinn does not aspire to create a society that is automatically empathic toward traditionally ostracized groups. Instead he believes that the first step to achieving 100% Discrimination-Free zones will be to recognize everyone as individuals with the same rights and freedoms. After having achieved considerable success working with the most vulnerable groups, Ybrahinn is preparing the core Artgnosis team to recruit new spokespeople and trainers that can spread his proven methodology, adapted from the original “sub-group” approach, to the broader society. He is launching media campaigns and fundraising activities (i.e. marches, walk-a-thons, and the like) to promote a Venezuela 100% Discrimination-Free, and is creating a “discrimination watchdog” mechanism to monitor and denounce instances of prejudice. On a national level, his coalition is advocating for a comprehensive omnibus bill against discrimination to substitute the existing piecemeal laws that only denounce certain types of discrimination (i.e. racial or sexual orientation). Such a law would codify Ybrahinn’s conviction that dividing discriminated groups weakens them, while uniting every person and mainstreaming them is the most powerful force against prejudice. 




THE PROBLEM

One of the great challenges to organizations that defend vulnerable groups is the dearth of updated and systematized numbers of reported cases of discrimination—whether racial, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or social in nature. In fact, the government tends not to publish data seen as “unfavorable” or “unsavory,” leading to an obvious lack of information in the mainstream. However, more fundamentally concerning is that society is kept unaware and ignorant of some of the most troubling and often violent acts against the most vulnerable. Despite the efforts being made to eradicate some types of discrimination through legislation, Venezuela is still witnessing various forms of discrimination, the most dramatic being the killing of a large number of transgender people in 2011. In 2012, at least a dozen transgender individuals were killed in Caracas and Zulia. Although there is no official information about the number of instances of racial discrimination available, it is widely known that many establishments in the country’s main cities often deny access to people based on their appearance and origin. In fact, in the last two years several establishments have been temporarily closed or fined after denying access to individuals of African descent. Since the country suffers from widespread violence, discrimination is often committed on the grounds of crime prevention, when the actual cause is a deep contempt for specific groups.
In the last decade, in attempts at building a progressive social society, the Chavez administration did promulgate specific laws against discrimination. These prohibitions, however, were on a very case-by-case basis and focused on specific classes of people. On a more concrete level, no law passed protects the specific rights of the LGBT community, especially transgender and transsexual individuals—in fact they have been given almost no legal protection whatsoever, despite the progressive Chavez rhetoric. Meanwhile, these groups have been subject to high rates of harassment and violence, most of which goes unreported. Overall, the attempts to protect against prejudice only perpetuate the social demarcation and categorization of people into groups, allowing pervasive stereotypes to remain and a sense that these groups are nonetheless distinct and apart from larger society. This does not promote an ideal of a broad and diverse community of equals, nor does it lead to a general prohibition against discrimination.
The last two decades have been influenced by a marked polarization in society, which has heightened segregation among Venezuelans and has brought forward new forms of discrimination to the country. Until the elements of empathy, fairness and justice start to permeate throughout Venezuela, society itself will become a bottleneck toward development. Discrimination is a critical obstacle to social progress, and the cleavages that are rending apart Venezuela will only grow more severe while prejudice persists. 




THE STRATEGY

Ybrahinn’s vision comes from 15 years of experience working with heterosexual and LGBT individuals and persons with sensorial disability (deaf and blind). He promotes universal interventions based on the rejection of all forms of discrimination, a value which is also promoted as their main element. The primary focus of Ybrahinn’s interventions is on personal responsibility and the particular life circumstances of each individual. He emphasizes treating participants not as a victim, but as a human person with the capacity to take risks and the ultimate responsibility to determine his/her own destiny. Keeping in mind his global understanding of discrimination, he helps an individual reinterpret him/herself from a feeling of “victim” (and the pejorative connotation that this label can bring as a consequence of discrimination) to a protagonist and assertive agent of change across society. 

Ybrahinn’s pilot project emerged through working with specific vulnerable groups. He began to apply a methodology involving personal workshops and discussion groups, art, music, and theater to ignite within each person the opportunity for self-reflection and a change in how they understand themselves and their role in society. For instance, Ybrahinn recognized that more realistic content, especially produced through art and audiovisual experiences, is more meaningful and persuasive for young people who engage in possibly risky sexual behaviors (and through these behaviors thereby increase their exposure to HIV). Through his work, Ybrahinn has also seen that solutions do not stick if participants cannot adapt them to their own realities. Therefore, the methodology involves participants in the construction of their own solutions. This means asking people to envision what they would do when certain situations arise instead of coaching them to avoid the situations. Since 2008, Artgnosis has produced 27 audiovisual resources exploring different themes of STD prevention, discrimination, HIV, and other topics. They also organized an exhibition called “Disability in the Comics” which attracted over 6,000 visitors. So far, directly and indirectly, Ybrahinn calculates that 15,000 people have been able to take part in workshops and campaigns sponsored or supported by Artgnosis.

After having had success in shifting individual mindsets, he seeks the more ambitious goal of creating 100% Discrimination-Free zones throughout the country—a campaign that bridges vulnerable groups and the larger society to spark a change in national consciousness against prejudice. Ybrahinn’s umbrella idea is the creation of zones that are 100% free of any kind of discrimination. These are spaces for tolerance rather than sympathy where people can experience diversity and understand that mutual respect is the basis to move forward as a country. A 100% Discrimination-Free zone can be developed in a classroom, in a marathon, within a social organization, or in any other place where diverse people can convene. Ybrahinn is specifically planning to include walk-a-thons, fairs, and exposés on television to spread awareness of these zones. These marches, much like the US-based Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure against Breast Cancer, will construct spaces that are 100% Discrimination-Free and enable discussion and dialogue about prejudice, as well as help raise funds and sustain the work of Artgnosis. He is planning a series of widespread campaigns to begin next year, including a marathon in Caracas as well as different artistic displays to promote the idea of the 100% Discrimination-Free zones, which he hopes to replicate nationally. 

Artgnosis is producing stickers and shirts to campaign for this idea and to familiarize people with the concept of the zones. The stickers demarcate areas that pledge to be zones of tolerance—and stick by them. Ybrahinn recognizes that the mind-shift has to occur with individuals as well as in public spaces. Sometimes people are overwhelmed by the idea of a discrimination-free zone, and Ybrahinn reassures them saying that the sticker can be posted somewhere where the individual has control—their cubicle at work, on their car, or even at home. Ybrahinn himself recalls going to an Internet café and observing the manager telling a customer, “We don’t serve people like you.” After the manager looked up at the 100% Discrimination-Free sticker, he corrected himself by saying, “Sorry, this is a zone free of discrimination. How can I help you?” Ybrahinn hopes that such episodes are repeated until everyone present in the zone is committed to a “discrimination-free” environment. Artgnosis is also working on a musical recording with songs that address discrimination and how stigma is generated. This activity is both an outlet for individuals in the program and a way of spreading the conversation. Additionally, proceeds from sales of the recording will support the organization. Ybrahinn is in conversations with music schools about partnering to produce it. This partnership would leverage the community service requirement at universities and would also provide a venue across the country for concerts and cultural activities related to the recording.

Similarly, Ybrahinn is seeking partners across many sectors both to boost the capacity of his own organization and also to construct a powerful coalition of stakeholders in favor of 100% Discrimination-Free zones. He plans to group together disparate and isolated efforts that are working with discriminated minorities (i.e. disability, LGBT, women, and race/ethnicity) around his common vision against any type of discrimination. This will help them all confront the prevalent sense that discrimination should be addressed on a “categorical” rather than universal basis. He has proposed addressing discrimination collectively, and to do so he focuses on training and prevention that takes into account the current challenges of an individual’s environment. He now offers antidiscrimination lectures and workshops to various groups, with current partners including two universities, three COs, a company, and the federal Ministry of Health. Ybrahinn offers new methodologies to these groups, taking advantage of the vast network that he has built during his years of experience as a facilitator. These methodologies, while adapted to the reality and needs of each organization, are all based around his philosophy and experiences. 

In these partnerships with companies, universities, and the public sector, Ybrahinn has learned to be persistent in order to integrate into an institution’s culture, and he knows he is successful when he begins to be invited to institutional events instead of asking to attend. The core Artgnosis team is implementing a train-the-trainer style of education to more quickly multiply impact. At the same time he has made his way into various international organizations such as UNAIDS, who invited him to give STI prevention training for the disabled. 

Knowing that the idea of the 100% Discrimination-Free zones is ambitious, Ybrahinn has considered different ways of expanding. He has managed to find allies in the state of Miranda and is trying to create alliances in the states of Bolivar, Delta Amacuro, and Zulia. His pool of partners is composed of other social organizations that are familiar with his work. As a way to build up the relationship, Ybrahinn starts by training them on STD prevention and organizational capacity-building, but with the goal of creating a longer lasting co-creation. Together, this growing coalition will expand exponentially the mass impact of his walk-a-thons, marathons and campaigns. They will also help him extend into the local municipal agencies and centers that will be key partners in facing and confronting prejudice. 

This coalition will also be vital in the national policy influence that Ybrahinn expects to spearhead. Taking advantage of the government’s inclination toward socially inclusive rhetoric and the laws that are already in place against specific forms of discrimination, he proposes an omnibus bill that addresses and prohibits discrimination on all accounts. Ybrahinn has attempted several meetings with legislators, in conjunction with his coalition, but has not yet had success in lobbying the National Assembly due to current political conditions. This project will also be bolstered by the creation of a watchdog or monitoring center to file discrimination cases of every kind. This place would be useful for those doing research on this matter and also for groups to expose their numbers and to design policies based on reliable data. Currently, the lack of reliable data is a challenge for social organizations devoted to vulnerable groups. With more powerful information feeding the coalition, and a mass campaign on several levels, Ybrahinn expects a nationwide commitment to a Venezuela 100% Discrimination-Free to unfold. 




THE PERSON

Ybrahinn is primarily a self-taught “fighter.” From a very young age, he was subject to the Venezuelan educational system’s injustices and discrimination against his sexual orientation and his shy demeanor. Circumstances of deep prejudice and harassment, coupled with deep financial constraints, led him to finish in an alternative high school. The fact that he was different and was not recognized as a free human being with rights, led him to identify with vulnerable groups. 

In the 1990s he began working informally with HIV/AIDS affected patients, during a time when stigmas about the disease were still prevalent. The experience of interacting with HIV/AIDS patients, some in terminal condition, had an impact on him, and he decided to devote himself to giving training on the prevention of STDs and AIDS to vulnerable populations, especially to disabled people that at the time had no guidance. Ybrahinn taught himself sign language to communicate with people with hearing disabilities, and was later asked by the Ministry of Health to be a co-author of Braille educational materials on STI and HIV/AIDS for people with visual disabilities. After volunteering with various COs in Venezuela, he grew frustrated by the limits that were often imposed on alternative and creative solutions, and so he founded Artgnosis to promote a broader vision of prevention and anti-discrimination that took into account the particular circumstances of every person. During part of this work, Artgnosis became the only organization in Venezuela that dealt with HIV and STD prevention among the visually impaired, and then expanded to all types of physical disability. 

Despite dealing with discrimination and hostile environments at different periods in his life, Ybrahinn emblemizes the ideal of a man who is master of his own destiny. Inviting the most vulnerable to take an active stance for their human dignity, he is developing and leading a powerful movement to change mindsets in Venezuela, the country he dreams of being 100% Discrimination-Free. 




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