Dinho. “We Are Not the Favela”
BRAZIL An encounter and life changes; the possibility to study and work… An approach to Brazilian poverty that draws human dignity out of the mud of the favelas

by José Eduardo Ferreira Santos

My encounter with the Movement happened in the 1990s with Fr João Carlos Petrini, when I was 16 years old. In that period, my life changed completely. I was able to study, to graduate in Pedagogy, helped by my friend and “spiritual father” Giancarlo Baccalini, friend of Fr Luigi Valentini (Gigio). Now I am going to get my master’s degree and am already beginning a very intense and important new job. I have good working conditions and a salary that enables me to support myself and help my family concretely, and I see an ever-deepening and ongoing path of realization in all the aspects of my life: my affections, vocation, work and involvement in the social and cultural reality here, in my country. In 1996, Petrini invited me to work in a scholastic assistance program maintained by the Human Progress Association and supported by the Abbondio family. In 1999, the John Paul II Educational Center was inaugurated, where I worked for three years, and leaving there I began a master’s degree in Developmental Psychology at UFBA. When I finished my master’s degree, Fabrizio invited me to work in the Ribeira Azul Program in Salvador de Bahia as an agent for formation. It is a methodological-educational project that involves about 70 social projects (intermediate bodies) in the area of the Novos Alagados favela of Salvador de Bahia, and it involved more than 130,000 people through a process of health and social intervention. The objective is to improve the quality of life of an area that has already undergone various fruitless interventions.

New points of reference
in Novos Alagados

For three years, I worked in the John Paul II Educational Center in Novos Alagados, an AVSI center, as pedagogic coordinator. I proposed an integral education based on the experience of encounter I myself had with the CL Movement, keeping in mind the individual realities of about 360 children and adolescents of Novos Alagados and at the same time trying to help them learn to read and write, proposing activities aimed at promoting their exposure to all the cultural richness and tradition of Bahia and of Brazil. The educational work produced positive new references within the reality of the Novos Alagados favela, characterized by criminality, drug use and violence, through meaningful encounters with culture and study. Currently, I am working with a Bahian sociologist, Bethânia, with the support of Maria Grazia Figini and Benedetta Fontana of AVSI, to set up methodological and educational support for already-existing social projects (intermediate bodies) in the areas of Alagados, Novos Alagados, and Península de Itapagipe.

Human and social wealth
The work is very intense, because it involves meeting the directors of social projects in the area, doing interviews and then finding ways to reinforce the efficacy of these projects. Even though they are living in conditions of violence and poverty in difficult situations, they are succeeding, with their personal commitment, in realizing activities that help others in the community, principally children, young adults and women. What makes the difference in this work is the application of the AVSI method that we use during the entire formative process–when we meet people, and in the social projects–which is based on the centrality of the person, on doing with, and on positivity. It’s really striking to see the richness of the human and social reality, so different from the descriptions that emerge from the welfaristic talk promoted by the governments, that tend to reduce poverty to a lack, a negation. I am happy to work in this area of Alagados and Novos Alagados because, among other things, it has been remembered with affection in the magisterium of our Pope John Paul II, who visited the area in 1980 and continues to have our local population at heart.

Understanding the problem
Facing the situation of the poverty of the people I meet makes me suffer and has generated in me the need for a deeper understanding of the problem. In particular, there are four aspects that most draw my attention: 1) the great number of adolescents and young adults who are killed by the police and by bandits, many before reaching their 18th birthday; 2) the increasing violence in the favelas and the big cities that is reducing the spaces for “encounter” and shared living among people; 3) unemployment; 4) the low level of education in Brazil, with a high number of people who are functionally illiterate–that is, unable to read and understand an elementary text.
Notwithstanding all this, I continue to have hope because I see that a great deal of effort is being made in Brazil on various levels–the population, the NGOs, the churches, and the government. But I still believe that any change happens only starting from the subject, from the encounter with the real person, not from what emerges from government studies and statistics. And encountering the real person means satisfying his principal need, that of being respected in his dignity. In my daily work, I have learned that in order to look at the other person I need to keep in mind his history and his way of interacting with reality. The poor are much more organized and are greater protagonists in their own lives than the politicians and scholars think. There is a strength and hope in them that overcomes any difficulty or limit, achieving works with impetus and dedication, like the pelican that feeds its children with its own flesh. I have learned that people in situations of poverty have a patrimony of experience and a richness of life, and my daily desire, every time I meet them, is that their lives and their human potential be realized. This way of mine of seeing things is only possible because I learned from my friends that the person is not determined by his economic and social situation, but by the fact that he shares a need for dignity common to all men, which means, as I often say to the young people at the Educational Center, that “we live in the favela, but we are not the favela.”

of the whole person

The solution for Brazil will not come from one man alone, or from a welfare program that seems more like a propaganda slogan to sell to whomever. It seems to me that the government’s job should be to promote social development, acting in such a way that its people can exist and grow through education, work and access to a home.
The experience I’ve had shows me that the road to follow is to provide favorable conditions for the development of the whole person, within a human encounter that opens up new possibilities of existence. It is necessary to recognize the person as the center of every action. If one doesn’t have this way of looking at the person, every action can become a reduction of the person to a tool to be used by a power that dictates orders. In order to avoid welfarism–an attitude typical of Brazilian governments in dealing with social problems–it is necessary to look at the people and at the responses that they begin to give to their own needs.