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Presidenta Rousseff: A New Model of Global Leadership

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Does it make a difference when a president has herself been arrested and tortured for her commitment to bringing about democracy through protest? Can women leaders change how global crisis are managed by demonstrating leadership through negotiation and not force? Yes!

In January 2013, I had the pleasure of interviewing members of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's cabinet and staff for a documentary I am directing, titled Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.?, scheduled to debut on WQED Multimedia (PBS) this fall.

The film, produced by the Women and Girls Foundation in association with ELAS Fundo de Investimento Social in Brazil, explores how Brazil came to elect its first female president just two years after the U.S. failed to do so.

While in Brazil, we interviewed dozens of people about their new presidenta and her path to the presidency. We met with members of the cabinet in Brasilia, domestic workers in Sao Paolo; moms in flavelas; city leaders, samba school teachers, and leaders of indigenous women in Rio de Janeiro.

This week's protests in Rio, of course, have all the world's eyes on Presidenta Rousseff. To understand her public response to the protest one must understand her own background in protest movements. Some referred to her earlier speech this week as "conciliatory" or "lacking leadership." But when she praised the protesters for their "greatness," and said "Brazil has woken up a stronger country," we were not hearing from a weak leader. We were hearing from a proud revolutionary. Someone who herself had been imprisoned and tortured in her protest efforts to bring about Brazil's new democracy.

We are used to seeing world leaders respond to protests in their streets with violence or threats. What does it mean when they respond by saying that they have heard the voices of the people, agree that they can do better, and present a list of reforms?

One of the people we interviewed for our film, was Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project and one of the co-founder's of the Ms. Foundation for Women. In that interview, Marie shared, ""I think that there is something that Dilma and Michelle Bachelet actually share. And that is that they came out of a real resistance movement. There is something about being tested by resistance that makes you strong and also you have to forgive."

I reflected on these words from Marie this week. Marie continued, "She [Dilma] has had to actually bring people together and that is what women do. I think that's why women are getting into leadership in these countries, they have had to bring people together across difference to get anything done."

In fact, as we researched our film, we found that of the 17 other countries that currently have female heads of state all of them have constitutions that have been rewritten since World War II and women were involved in almost all of those processes. And from Chile to Liberia to Kosovo and South Korea the places where women govern are places that have often recently experienced war or revolution, and harness the need for negotiation and reconciliation.

I was so proud and impressed to hear the president's remarks on June 21. In them she said she will ask her cabinet to "draft a new plan to benefit public transport and that all oil royalties would be used in education." And continuing that she promised to meet the leaders of the peaceful protests saying, she needed "their contribution, their energy and their ability". This is not an example of her "giving in" this is her being true to herself, and being respectful and celebratory of the "new Brazilian democracy" which she helped fight so hard to establish. This is about her governing from a collaborative and not antagonistic place with the people.

When we interviewed Eleonora Menicucci for our film (Eleonor is a former cell mate of Dilma's from their time in prison and is now Cabinet Secretary for Women's Policy), I was so impressed with how she continually said the Presidenta Rousseff's number one priority was "to eliminate misery caused by poverty." She spoke of how the president felt it was the government's responsibility to get rid of corruption and to take care of its people, providing better heath care and education to everyone regardless of economic circumstance. And that their goals were to find ways to ensure that Brazil's wealth was "evenly redistributed" across the country to all people. This was what I heard and what our film captured the Presidenta Rousseff's administration saying before the protests.

I agree with the protesters, there is horrific poverty and economic inequality still throughout Brazil and corruption. But the protest movement has a friend, not a foe, in their presidenta. She has offered to meet with them, to listen to them, and to work with them to make Brazil even stronger. I hope they take her up on the offer.