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Brazzil - Social Issues - May 2004

An American Dream: To Aid Brazilian Favela

Favela Rocinha's Two Brothers Foundation has counted on the
energies of a handful of volunteers, generally of university age
who have felt the allure of the shantytown for its color and the
charm of its people. Volunteer teachers over the past several years
have come from all over of the U.S. and many universities.

Gabe Ponce de León


Picture In June of 1990, Paul Sneed, a Political and Social Thought major from the University of Virginia, would have been well-cast for the role of typical college student abroad; full of wanderlust and optimism, Paul was enraptured by the idea of writing a bold new chapter in his life's story. The setting, Rio de Janeiro and the prestigious Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC-Rio), was nothing less than ideal.

Moreover, through the International Programs office at PUC-Rio, Paul was assigned to live in a multi-million-dollar mansion in chic São Conrado, with an elderly German man and his Brazilian wife. In a city widely regarded as one of the world's most naturally splendid, São Conrado occupies one of its more sublime enclaves.

The prosperous neighborhood is flanked on the west by the colossal Pedra da Gávea (Rock of Gávea) and on the east by the famous twin peaks of the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Mountain). Indeed, São Conrado, whose sky-rises spring out of a tropical littoral, is the stuff both poetry and chapters in Lonely Planets are made of.

Yet São Conrado's scintillating buildings, housing thousands of affluent Cariocas (natives of the city Rio de Janeiro) cower in the menacing shadow of Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela (shanty-town).

Sprawling along the northeastern fringe of São Conrado, Rocinha is a ramshackle of cinderblock structures, inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people—of which most are either first or second-generation migrants from the impoverished northeastern region of the country. Nowhere else in Brazil is the striking divide between the nation's haves and have-nots so grippingly visible.

Owing to Rocinha's singular immensity—the favela is sometimes referred to as the "City Within the City." Relatively large, concrete buildings now dominate the lower region of the favela, into which well-known businesses such as McDonald's, Bob's (a Brazilian fast-food chain) and Claro (a telecommunications company) have moved. As one climbs uphill the favela, however, the structures become increasingly dilapidated and traces of commercial life evaporate into the mountain air.

Like other Rio de Janeiro favelas, organized crime dominates Rocinha, under whose aegis residents live in security. Street crime and burglary are virtually non-existent and organized crime often invests the spoils of drug-trafficking into community projects. Traficantes, or drug-traffickers, fill a gaping void opened by the inadequacy of municipal services, most notably security, but often as basic as sewage drainage, running water or electricity.

To say that Paul Sneed was moved by that shabby, yet colorfully alluring city that he passed everyday on the bus is an understatement. Riveting tales of the social bandits of Rio's slums, sometimes portrayed as Robin Hoods of Rio's down-trodden, captured his imagination.

After only a few months in Rio, Paul had already made up his mind to live in Rocinha. But more importantly, he was driven by a visceral longing to learn about life, and life in Brazil—a spiritual coming-of-age of sorts.

An opportunity to penetrate what, to outsiders usually seems a guarded, impregnable fortress, presented itself when Paul befriended a young woman who lived in the favela. The woman had previously told Paul that she lived in São Conrado, near the favela. To Paul's surprise, however, one day she took him to have dinner with her family, and she took him into the actual favela, not stopping until they were smack in its middle.

Before long, Paul had comfortably ensconced himself in her family's Rua 1 apartment in the room of her brother—off completing military service at the time—where he remained for the duration of his semester at PUC-Rio.

International Exchange

Back in the United States, Paul earned an MA in Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison over the next several years, returning sporadically to Brazil for short visits. It was not until 1998, eight years since his initial Brazilian sojourn, that he finally launched the not-for-profit organization he had come to envision during previous trips to Brazil, calling it Two Brothers Foundation, or Fundação Dois Irmãos in Portuguese.

After an initial pitch to the Ação Social Padre Anchieta, Rocinha's oldest NGO, had been rebuffed, Paul, along with two locals, Vivianna Rodrigues da Silva and Socorro Gomes de Andrade, decided to proceed alone.

Vivianna, who ran a kindergarten in Rocinha called the Escola Moranguinhos (Little Strawberries School), offered Paul use of the school in the evening. In an informal manner, Paul began teaching English night courses a couple times a week and the response was "incredible"; a motivated group of fifteen local youngsters started showing up to class regularly.

The English course would become an integral part of a broader plan to facilitate horizontal cultural exchange between young people from low-income communities in different countries. Paul posited that people from inner cities in different countries faced similar social and economic challenges and that they could learn from one another, through cultural interchange.

The foundation's mission would be to "assist local efforts of community development" and "foster leadership abilities in low-income youths through education, cultural activities and international exchange."

In addition to the English class for children and adults, in past years the Two Brothers Foundation has offered art classes, the popular hora do conto (story time) for children and a computer training class, in addition to numerous cultural events that volunteers often recall with excitement.

One such event was the Festa dos Soldados da Paz (Party of the Soldiers of Peace) that consisted of hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and capoeira. Another memorable event was the Intercâmbio Virtual (Virtual Exchange) in which delegates from Barcelona, Madison, São Paulo and Brasília convened in Rio de Janeiro to discuss setting up on-line dialogue among youths from different communities around the world.

Another summer, St. Mary's College from California sent an entourage of students down to Rio de Janeiro for a month to work on a multimedia project designed to investigate the social terrain of the city. The students of the foundation volunteered as city guides to their American counterparts who, in turn, participated enthusiastically in the English classes.

From the outset, the adult course has counted on the youthful energies of a handful of volunteers, generally of university age who, like Paul, have felt the allure of the favela for its color and the charm of its people. Volunteer teachers over the past several years have come from all over of the United States and from many universities: the University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin, Georgetown University, University of North Carolina, Johns Hopkins, Bryn Mawr College, University of Minnesota and Boston College, to name a few.

Moreover, in the past year a wide range of people have comprised the volunteer corps, from a financial consultant to two vacationing high school girls from California. Volunteers generally hear about the Two Brothers Foundation via word of mouth, but occasionally a prospective teacher stumbles across the web site _ http://www.2bros.org - while surfing the Net.

As Paul's stays in Brazil have become increasingly truncated and infrequent—he recently defended a dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is now a professor of Luso-Brazilian Studies at Oklahoma University—he has relied on the dedication of volunteers, Brazilian and foreign, as well as long-time students, to oversee the English language instruction and administration of the day-to-day operations of the foundation in Brazil.

Paul credits volunteers who have passed through the foundation for many of the creative programs the foundation has implemented. "Sometimes there are volunteers that you have high hopes for" he remarks, "that turn out not to be too helpful. And other times, people who you never thought would become too involved, wind up coming up with fantastic ideas."

The Favela Energy

While volunteers invariably derive satisfaction from their work with the community, they take away insights into Brazilian society and culture through the experience that they might have otherwise missed.

According to Lucia Lifschitz, a recent University of Pennsylvannia graduate on her way to medical school, "What goes on here is a symbiotic relationship between the Brazilian students and the foreign volunteers. When I tell people that I work in a favela, they often assume that I am trying to save the world, or keep people from starving to death, which is ridiculous.

"I go to Rocinha because I want to go there, because I am fond of the community and I have great friendships with my students. I get out of it at least what I put in, I see a side of Rio that most people don't see."

Lucia's experience echoes Paul's sentiments about Rocinha. In discussing why he chooses to live in the favela—where he maintains an apartment that he often sublets to volunteers, Paul refers to a "certain energy" that pulsates in Rocinha and to the "community and family spirit" one discovers there.

"If you live in Rocinha, people are very open to you, and adopt you, in the same way that I adopted the community," Paul explains. "Besides," he continues, "it has many physical beauties, it's close to the ocean and it has a vibrant cultural life."

Washington Ferreira, a lanky eighteen year-old high school student, is the lone remaining student from the original class in 1998 and, now fluent in English, teaches the children and adolescents as well. For Washington, the Two Brothers Foundation represents more than a forum for learning and cultural exchange. "TBF is a place I feel welcome, where I have spent a large part of my life and made a lot of friends," he says. "It is something of a second life."

Orlando Santos, another long-time student in his early-twenties, emphasizes the positive influence the foundation has on the youths who become involved, especially in a place like Rocinha where it is so easy to fall by the wayside. "The foundation does an important job of keeping kids off the street here in Rocinha, kids who could become drug-traffickers," Orlando says. "Their mothers can stay calm and not worry."

An obstacle to recruiting new volunteers has been the perception that Rocinha—and all favelas for that matter—is very dangerous. Citing safety concerns, the International Program at PUC-Rio, despite serving as a wellspring of volunteers since the foundation's inception, declined Paul's entreaty to formalize the link between the foundation and the university.

Likewise, the American School in Gávea, Rio de Janeiro's most exclusive private high school, whose curriculum includes a community service component, dismissed outright the notion of students using the Two Brothers Foundation to fulfill this requirement.

"If you go into the favela as a part of Two Brothers, or any other similar organization, you're pretty safe," Paul claims. "Levels of everyday crime in favelas are much lower than those in the rest of the city. But at the same time, anyone who goes into a favela has to be aware of the [occasional violent confrontations] between the police and organized crime, just in the same way that anybody who visits Rio needs to be aware of high levels of urban violence there."

To downplay any safety concerns, Paul cites the example of one female volunteer, who took up residence in Rocinha: "She felt completely safe in the favela, anywhere and at anytime of the day or night. She would not have felt that safe anywhere else in Rio."

Not a single volunteer has been a victim of physical violence in Rocinha. It is the tight-knit community, coupled with the deterrent effect of the notoriously draconian punishment meted out by organized crime to local miscreants, that makes Rocinha's narrow alleys and streets safe around the clock.

In the words of Nicole Campo, a twenty-two year old New Yorker who visited the English class last year, "I think Rocinha is definitely one of those places that you hear all kinds of bad things about, and then you go in, and find out it's mostly myth. Probably the majority of people who talk about how dangerous a place like Rocinha is, have never been there."

Rocinha had not seen inter-gang violence in recent years which is one of the reasons that safety has never been a serious concern for volunteers. In the past few months, however, police incursions into the Rocinha—which generally provoke shootouts with drug-traffickers—have increased, in response to the specter of a gang war.

A former drug lord from Rocinha, Eduíno Eustáquio de Araújo Filho, known as Dudu, escaped from prison in January. Dudu, who is loathed by residents of Rocinha, immediately began planning an invasion of Rocinha, in order to take control of its lucrative drug trade, which police estimate at 10 million reais (3.3 million dollars) per week.

On Good Friday, Dudu finally launched the long anticipated invasion of Rocinha, which was thwarted by the police and local gangsters. Dudu managed to escape Rocinha and it is rumored that he is plotting a second attempt.

Little Break

Owing to the increase in violence in Rocinha, Two Brothers Foundation has canceled most of its classes thus far this year. "The organization takes the safety of students and volunteers very seriously," according to volunteer Christopher Cummisky.

"Since favelas in general have such a bad reputation for being violent, it's very important that to have the complete confidence of our volunteers that we would not put them into a dangerous situation. This situation is very rare for Rocinha, and nobody expects it to last too long. It is possible we are being overly cautious. But as soon as things return to normal, we'll be back as well."

In Brazil, the talk is always about development, about which economic model will allow the country to finally reach its economic potential, discarding once and for all the label of "país do futuro" ("country of the future").

But to some observers it seems that, lost in all the debate about interest rates, exchange rates, and external debt, is the problem of Brazil's appallingly deficient public education system.

Markus Stadler, a former investment banker in Deutsche Bank's London Branch and Two Brothers Foundation volunteer, views the foundation as an exercise in development.

"Development, in the long-term, has to be linked to a drastic improvement of the public education system," he remarks. "The way I see it, the Fundação Dois Irmãos is educational and, therefore, related to the development process. My students not only learned English, the international language, but they learned about the world, through close contact with educated foreigners."

Not having proficiency in English can be an impediment to gaining admittance to quality public universities. Rhea Pariana, a recent Bryn Mawr graduate and volunteer, asserts that "in order to get into the most selective universities, which are usually public, you need to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in a foreign language, normally English, that can't be attained relying solely on English courses at public high schools. Ironically the large majority of public university students come from private schools."

Layla de Carvalho, a 25-year-old Carioca lawyer who recently visited the adult English class, was impressed by the caliber of the lesson, notwithstanding that the majority of the volunteers had no formal training as teachers.

"I told some of those kids that they really have to take advantage of this opportunity, of the intimate setting with native English-speakers," she recounts. "I, like most people who can afford it, had to spend a lot of money on private English courses, and the teachers, most of the time, were Brazilian.

"Not speaking English nowadays can almost be a form of illiteracy—it's an incredible disadvantage professionally, and it usually correlates to social class. It's for that reason that programs like this are so important in Brazil."

Gabe Ponce de León is an American, but has been involved in the community in Rocinha, a Rio favela, for several years and has a photography studio there. Comments are welcome at

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