LOS ANGELES, California — “Favela” is a cultural term used in Brazil to describe the country’s shantytowns or slums. Nowadays, some people advocate that this term is diminishing and should be replaced by “comunidades” [communities]. There is no consensus on the origin of the favelas. Some theories defend that they started to spread and grow as a consequence of slavery abolition in 1888 as well as immigration in the 1930s and 1940s. Other research points to a big wave of immigrants leaving the countryside for the cities between 1940 and 1970. From shelters made of discarded materials to houses made of brick, most living spaces in favelas do not offer protection and coziness to their inhabitants. Fortunately, TETO Brasil, a non-governmental organization, works together with local residents, building housing and improving the quality of life in Brazil’s favelas.
Seeing Brazil’s Favelas Beyond the Stereotypes
Camila Jordan, executive director of TETO Brasil, believes that its work is essential to fight inequality and that nobody should see people living in extreme poverty as acceptable. “I think the world needs TETO and other organizations like us because we need to come together to think about solutions and better questions,” she told The Borgen Project. Understanding the problems in the favelas is important to improve these spaces. But, portraying them as entirely bad environments overlooks their positive aspects, such as the resilience, strength and organizational skills of its residents.
To begin with, residents are usually responsible for organizing and providing themselves access to “sanitation, medical care and transportation” since the government fails to extend these services to them. Jordan points out that favelas’ residents build the totality of their man-made structures, features and facilities. “All their effort, the time they put in and the money they spend should be recognized. They have to work together to build everything,” she says.
Jordan also highlights the protagonism of black women in the organization of the entire community, “they’re doing an incredible work, most of the time completely invisible, also in a volunteer manner.” Besides, favelas’ residents develop their own literacy, art and sports projects, daycares, shared kitchens, solidarity networks of all kinds and then some. Favelas are unique and complex environments that carry the history of their residents in their alleyways and on their walls.
TETO Brasil’s Mission and Strategies
TETO Brasil was formally established in 2006 in association with the international organization TECHO. TECHO has been tackling poverty in Latin America since 1997 and is now present in 18 LATAM countries. TETO’s mission is to improve the living conditions in the most vulnerable shantytowns by working together with their residents and volunteers. Its work has four basic stages:
- First, it evaluates different favelas, talks to their residents and decides which ones to help.
- Second, it creates community roundtables to talk to the families and community leaders to understand their problems and think of possible solutions. “That’s when we sit together and say, ‘What are the dreams for this community?’ ‘How can we achieve them?’ ‘How can we work together?’ We understand that alone we will never solve the problem of poverty and inequality,” Jordan explains.
- Third, volunteers and community members join forces to build emergency housing, recreation areas, pave roads, renovate sports courts and community halls.
- Finally, it evaluates what has been done and plans further actions.
“We never want to be the protagonists of the stories. The protagonists are always the family, the resident, it is the community,” says the executive director of TETO Brasil. Favelas’ residents are the ones who got to decide what is best for themselves, so any organization willing to help must facilitate their access to high-quality information and be active listeners before anything else. “All the time we ask, […] ‘Are we fortifying their identity?’ ‘Are we helping them in terms of organization, mobilization and self-management?’,” Jordan added.
TETO Brasil’s Impact
TETO Brasil works with the most vulnerable communities, “favelas
Jordan explains that the precarious situation in which those residents live impacts their ability to keep a good state of mind to think about the future. She mentioned some of their concerns. For example, will the rain damage their belongings or will an animal bite their kids? She also shared some feedback received after building the emergency houses. “What we hear the most is, ‘Now I can have a good night of sleep.’ ‘Now I can focus on other things that I wasn’t able to focus on before,’” she says.
Besides building housing and improving the living conditions in Brazil’s favelas, TETO Brasil’s impact can also be verified within its organization. Jordan told The Borgen Project that “some years ago, TETO’s administration asked volunteers in Latin America to complete a questionnaire about their experience at the NGO.” According to her, “the results showed that 70% of people changed their career or academic path after working for TETO. It really changed their outlook on life and the direction where their lives were going. They had this really powerful experience of working together with the community and understanding their own privileges, their duties as citizens and that it doesn’t really make sense to do anything alone,” she says.
Jordan believes that the emergency housing is a starting point that helps to lift favelas’ residents out of the extremely vulnerable condition in which they were living, but they deserve more. She mentioned the difficulties associated with working at a more political level, mainly regarding Brazil’s current scenario. But, she said that they are starting to work on additional projects that go beyond the emergency.
To anyone desiring to replicate TETO’s work, she recommends finding committed people to volunteer. “Without the volunteers, we are nothing,” she says. She also recommends putting the ego aside. Remember that the community is the reason for the work and that listening to people is more important than finding perfect solutions. “You really need to focus on the community and work with them; always work with them,” Ms. Jordan says.
Improving the quality of life in Brazil’s favelas and similar environments is a must. However, it is imperative that any improvement plans consider the history of their people, their identity, potential, qualities and achievements.
– Iasmine Oliveira
Photo: Provided by TETO Brasil