What I discovered on this third journey opened my eyes
to the possibility that the overwhelming challenges facing Brazil
might best be addressed by supporting communities
effectively predisposed to helping themselves.
By Phillip Wagner
When I first visited Brazil in 1996 I discovered a country, and a culture, that was far
more diverse and sophisticated than the media of that time would have led me to believe.
It was, in fact, at just about that time that Western media finally began to shift from
depicting any nation south of the United States as a "Banana Republic" to
earnestly exploring, and reporting on the complexities of life in Latin America. Wall
Street Week and the American Public Broadcasting System had just finished
collaborating on the "Emerging Powers" series, which redefined Brazil, Ireland,
Mexico, and other nations in substantial ways that went beyond the color and pageantry of
traditional celebrations and ethnic mythologies.
I would only later discover Paul Rambali’s revealing epic travelogue, In the Cities
and Jungles of Brazil (1993) and Joseph Page’s comprehensive treatment of Brazilian
history, culture and society, The Brazilians (1995). I myself committed to doing
whatever might be possible within my power to introduce America to an honest and
meaningful exploration of the Brazilian experience.
On returning to the United States I authored an article, which only later appeared
on January 19, 1997 as the cover story for the Indianapolis Star Sunday Travel
Supplement. A copy of my article fell into the hands of the Rio Convention and Visitors
Bureau. Rio, at that time, was trying to secure the 2000 Olympics, and I was invited back
for an insider’s view of the city. While there I discovered, quite by accident, something
beyond the pale of orchestrated introductions that profoundly altered my view of the
challenges facing Brazil and how to deal with them.
My original trip to Brazil had been under the auspices of an Information Technology
(IT) company introducing Brazilian IT professionals to process management. The general
idea is that there are certain things that all IT companies need to do in order to be
successful. Commitment to those activities represents a form of "process
discipline", without which success becomes marginal or even unattainable.
Institutionalizing process discipline is viewed by IT companies as the first of several
stages of maturation to be achieved by organizations pursuing constructive transformation.
In the most widely accepted process model (The Software Engineering Institute Capability
Maturity Model), discipline is internalized throughout an organization by asking each
individual to satisfy process objectives, or goals, associated with each of six "key
By so doing, the organization evolves away from chaos and toward stability. A more
stable environment, attained through commitment to discipline, allows the organization to
invest more of its energy and limited resources in more constructive ways since less
energy is required to address immediate crisis. What I discovered on my second visit to
Brazil was that an intriguingly similar approach was being used to transform the lives of favela,
or slum, children, and through them eliminate some degree of the chaos within their
In May of 1997 I encountered Alonzo Gomez on the exclusive south beach zone of Rio.
Alonzo is an artist who left his home in the mountains of Colombia in 1994 to find a
meaningful and rewarding opportunity. On the islands of Aruba and Curacao Alonzo
discovered he could materialize dreams by forming sands into castles. The sandcastles he
fashioned attracted homeless children, who existed in chaotic environments bereft of hope.
Realizing that beaches are the only playground available to many poor children in Latin
America, Alonzo attracted them to his work and began to instill in them the discipline to
adopt behaviors that might allow them to successfully integrate into society. The parallel
between what he was doing, and what I was instructing, seemed uncanny.
Many of the children responded to Alonzo’s encouragement, and he learned from them that
the plight of the poor had not diminished the possibility that they might rise above it.
Alonzo moved on from Aruba and Curacao to seed his work in his native Colombia, Venezuela,
Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.
On my second return from Brazil I was able to sell a story describing the music of
Marisa Monte and Zélia Duncan (July 3-10 NUVO Newsweekly Sound Section cover story
"Meet the Girls from Rio"), but was unable to interest any publication in the
story of "Alonzo’s children". I countered by having a website created depicting
Alonzo’s work. Fate intervened at that point when I received an e-mail from a young woman
in the city of Salvador, in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia.
Danielle Valim informed me that there were many such programs in her city, and that
many of them were well organized if not well funded. One striking difference was that
music, rather than art, was the "bait" that attracted the children. Having just
authored an article on Brazilian music, and wanting to further explore the transformation
of marginal communities through constructive social engagement rooted in process, I
returned to Brazil yet again.
What I discovered on this third journey opened my eyes to the possibility that the
overwhelming challenges facing Brazil might best be addressed by supporting communities
effectively predisposed to helping themselves. Widespread sponsorship, shared
understanding, effective change strategies and other fundamentals facilitating
constructive transformation were taking hold through ownership of problems within the
The Afro-Blocos and other projetos I encountered through Danielle and her
friend, lawyer Márcia Aguiar Borges, appear to have evolved from music groups that
compete at Carnaval time. (See "Blocos Afro e Bons Trabalhos na Bahia" at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/gooddeeds/index.html
visitors will find the information there in English.)
Theirs is more refined than Alonzo’s, and requirements for participation are more
formalized. They include elements, analogous to process management "key process
areas", which, when internalized, make it possible for a child living on the margins
of society to significantly enhance his, or her, chances for a better life. Those elements
Adoption of self-discipline
Pursuit of education
Commitment to community
Acceptance of civic responsibility
Focus on ethnic origins
Virtually all of the programs I’ve discovered in Salvador, Bahia seem to employ the
same approach involving most, if not all, of the elements described above. But, to the
best of my knowledge, there has been no serious effort to generate inter-organizational
coordination on a grand scale. Establishing a council representing each participating
program would offer a number of advantages. The council could agree that adoption of
certain, if not all, of the elements described above should serve as the basis for
membership. This would lend credibility to all of the programs by offering a clear,
public, definition of what it is they’re trying to accomplish.
The council could also establish common objectives, or goals, for each element. Doing
so would establish what the children would have to accomplish through participation in any
one of the programs. But how the children would accomplish these things would be
left up to each program to decide. One of the reasons these programs seem to be effective
is that they have autonomy, control of their own destinies. That autonomy should be
respected and preserved.
Establishing common objectives would also allow for meaningful assessment of what each
program is doing, and would create an environment within which expertise could be more
formally developed within, and leveraged between, the member programs. It would also
encourage potential private donors, who want to know how their funds will be spent.
Another significant advantage of inter-organizational coordination is that it could
facilitate the growth of political influence to generate public support leading to a
greater level of assistance from municipal, state and federal governments. It would also
provide an infrastructure to initiate voter registration drives within the marginal
communities supported by these programs. Doing so could franchise large numbers of
disenfranchised Brazilians while simultaneously creating additional momentum within the
communities for literacy and self-improvement.
The fact of the matter is that there is much to be done in Brazil, and for Brazil. The
strain on the fabric of Brazilian society is truly enormous. But it’s neither true nor
constructive to suggest that there’s no point in trying to do anything about it.
In his eulogy, following the assassination of his brother Robert in 1968, Senator Ted
Kennedy noted that "Like it or not we live in times of danger and uncertainty".
He went on to say that Bobby "said many times . to those he touched, and who
sought to touch him" that "some men see things as they are and say why, I dream
things that never were and say why not". I can think of no better words to express
how I feel about Brazil.
What You Can Do
Would be philanthropists can support the work of well established social programs like
Projeto Axé or Projeto Educacional Ilê Aiyê in Salvador, state of Bahia, and Cidade das
Crianças (City of Children) in Fortaleza, state of Ceará. Projects like Didá and Bahia
Street are less well established and offer opportunities for individuals with fewer
resources to provide much needed basic materials for educational activities or individual
participant sponsorships. Alonzo Gomez in Rio, and other individuals engaged in
constructive social engagement, often have no source of income and live on the generosity
of private donors.
Any individual can create, or have someone create for them, a web page publicizing the
work of individuals or programs like those described above. Sponsoring web sites or
individual web pages is another possibility. And underwriting the efforts of selected
individuals who would dedicate their lives to a better understanding of Brazil through
scholarship funding or post-graduate sponsorship and mentoring pose opportunities.
Some programs need reliable volunteers willing to commit to an extended period
instructing English or other subjects. But these volunteers must truly be focused on
giving, rather than on receiving. I periodically, through my websites, receive inquiries
from individuals expressing an interest in volunteering their time and effort. But I often
discover, only after extended correspondence, that these inquiries are from people looking
for me to assist them in securing sponsorship for travel and other expenses.
Many view their willingness to volunteer as an opportunity to travel while they’re
"between other obligations". Others have a religious motive. I neither condone,
nor condemn, "working vacations" or missionaries, but I have no interest in
promoting or supporting them either. I feel strongly that assistance should not be
intended to support a personal agenda. Helping people to help themselves means letting
them do it themselves too, and in their own way, according to their own perceptions of
their place in the universe.
Tourism offers an indirect opportunity to make a positive contribution to the
betterment of Brazil. And so does the purchase of Brazilian music and film. But I would
encourage everyone to consider more direct involvement. I’ve previously encouraged people
to write Netcard at firstname.lastname@example.org and
request them to add submissions I long ago submitted for their "Good Works"
category. This category was created by Netcard at my suggestion, as a means of bringing
attention to the efforts of individuals and programs engaged in constructive social
engagement in Brazil. The new submissions may be found at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/netcard/
Finally, I want to say that I, personally, am not a clearinghouse of contacts and
information for individuals wanting to help out. I’m more than willing to enter into a
serious dialogue with anyone who can bring significant resources to bear, and is committed
to assisting specific programs or in encouraging the work of one or more specific
individuals. I periodically hear from individuals whose commitment is not supported by
access to resources, and I truly haven’t the time to help them discover how they might
participate. My own resources are all too limited and I must necessarily devote them to
pursuit of my livelihood so that I may meet my responsibilities.
Phillip Wagner is a regular contributor to Brazzil. He’s a
freelance photojournalist who also instructs and consults on subjects related to IT
Process Management and Risk Management. In May of this year Phillip addressed a process
maturity model conference in the Dallas area, and will be presenting at the American
Society of Quality conference near Detroit in October. Visit his Página da Casa do
Phillip do Brasil website at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm
One of Phillip’s goals continues to be pursuit of postgraduate study focusing on Brazil.
You can e-mail him at email@example.com