Casa Weekly

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Visiting Asa Branca

Today we did some of our local bridge-building work in Rio, taking visiting American university students to visit a local community. Not one of the formal "favela tours," where tourists are taken in safari jeeps up into communities they barely learn about and rarely invest in. Rather: we work to form bridges and constructive dialogues by doing walking tours in communities where solid and exciting community development work is going on, guided by local leaders.

Today it was Asa Branca, in Rio de Janeiro's West Zone, a community with some 7000 residents settled 18 years ago along the edge of a stream in a wetlands region where not one building was located. Now luxury condos sprawl up from the ground everywhere surrounding Asa Branca, while local residents struggle to provide for their own basic services.

Fortunately Asa Branca counts with "Bezerra" (Carlos Alberto Costa), the President of its Neighborhood Association who has helped residents organize everything from their own sewerage system to theatre, bingo tournements to home-building: directing both the installation of pipes and the writing of plays.

In 2005 Bezerra had a full-page feature in a Rio de Janeiro daily as a result of a personal civil disobedience (of sorts) campaign he launched whereby he stopped shaving and cutting his hair, while attending dozens of his regularly-attended political and networking events across the city (Bezerra is well-networked, attending meetings whenever he's invited, from city government to local leadership councils). Each meeting he went to participants would ask "Bezerra, why are you growing your hair?" Bezerra would explain that a local politician had promised to pave Asa Branca's streets but for years had neglected this promise, so he decided to grow his hair until the asphault was dry. Over months Bezerra attended meetings, his hair and beard growing. A local daily covered his story. Leaders and politicians witnessed the act. One day Bezerra appeared at CatComm's Casa shaven with his hair cut short. "Bezerra!" I exclaimed. "Yes," he replied, chuckling, "he finally paved the road."

During today's visit Bezerra showed 15 students from the University of North Carolina's MBA program the two main areas of Asa Branca: the older section, inhabited by residents in 1988, and a new section less than 4 years old. Students were able to compare and get a sense for what a community that self-organizes effectively can accomplish in a given period of time.

Asa Branca is partially successful because residents have organized various means (physical and social) to keep the drug traffic from entering their community and impairing them from self-organizing. It's success has also been due to a charismatic, creative, and modest leader concerned and aware of a host of issues, from the environment and conservation to health and education. Finally, Asa Branca has benefitted from being in a part of the city with plentiful employment in construction -- from the condo industry to the Pan-American Games. Thanks to their proximity to new wealth areas, the community also benefits from its location near two new and well-stocked hospitals.

One of the highlights of today's visit was the community's drumming group, organized by a local resident. The youth marched and performed in the streets of Asa Branca to the delight of residents and UNC students alike.

In 2005 a similar UNC group visited Asa Brana, the highlight then being a new recycling cooperative that had been started in the community. At the end of their visit, what would later prove to be a golden picture of the visitors was taken: 16 American business students standing clearly in front of Asa Branca, next to their taxi marked "Posto 6" on the side (indicating the taxi had come from the elite end of Copacabana beach where several nice hotels are). The students sent this photo to Bezerra with a certificate of appreciation from UNC. Thrilled with this, Bezerra proceeded to carry these documents with him to city meetings, showing local politicians: "I've got future business leaders of America visiting my community, and you can't even pave our streets?!"

The 2005 group also raised $1,000 which Bezerra and leaders of 4 other nearby communities invested in a series of "Sunday in the Community" events to the delight of the residents of these 5 communities. These events included dance, theatre, singing, capoeira, and more.