In this article, I will be reflecting on my summer internship with Transition Brasilândia and Oficina da Sustentabilidade in São Paulo, Brazil and thinking about how Transition Brasilândia functions as a community development model. I wrote a personal reflection piece on working in the different groups and projects of Transition here while this one employs an analytical lens to frame the aspects of Transition Brasilândia that make it a successful model for community development.
Transition Brasilândia operates in Vila Brasilândia, a low-income community (in comparison to the rest of SP) in the North of São Paulo, a community that has been established since the 1950s. It is unique in being the first low-income urban community to be involved in the Transition Town movement. The Transition Town movement began in 2006 in the UK as the idea of permaculturalist Rob Hopkins in response to peak oil and climate change, two challenges he identified as being pertinent to this century. The movement has spread since then with diverse groups, cities and towns choosing to transition and adapting the model began in the UK to their own situations in order to move from a state of dependency on outside resources for basic needs, to one of local resilience emphasising local jobs, social ties, food production and people for these resources.
Transition in Brasilândia involves different groups and partners that encompass social, cultural, economic and ecological aims and initiatives and some are shown in this infographic.
Out of these, I got to know and work with 2 solidarity economy enterprises- Os Doces Talentos and Grupo Brasilianas; 2 social-cultural groups- Grupo Sambaqui and Projeto Guardiões Griô and 2 ecological initiatives- Plantios/Seguranca Alimentar and the community ecocentre.
Doces Talentos is a community bakery and restaurant run by a group of currently 3 women. While I got to know them, I helped them make a video for a crowdfunding initiative to raise funds to move to and renovate a new space closer to the community and to potential customers, as their old space was not suitable for business.
Grupo Brasilianas is a women’s group that makes and sells bags from recycled materials such as used textiles and advertisement banners. I worked with them in dismantling the textiles and bags that they got from some of their partners, or those they collected as discards. I helped in making bags and learnt to make one myself; taught basic computer skills to the leader of the group to help them enhance their presence on social media sites; and did some translations of brochure material from Portuguese to English for use with foreign visitors.
I got to know 2 social-cultural groups- Projeto Guardiões Griô, a project whose aim is to reclaim and disseminate the history of Brasilândia through interviewing and recording the lives and stories of elderly residents in the community. The idea behind this is that if you know your history then you will have pride in your neighbourhood and be motivated to do more for it. This is especially pertinent because Brasilândia being a low-income area and part of the periphery of Sao Paulo often has a negative image associated with it (as with other similar communities). Below is the video from the first memory project in a section of Brasilandia- Vila Terezinha.
Grupo Sambaqui works with similar aims to disseminate Brazilian and particularly Paulista (from São Paulo) folkloric/popular culture. As a group, they learn and teach drumming, dancing and singing amongst themselves, and teach community members including children as well as perform at events.
Both of these groups were in moments of pause when I was in Brasilândia due to different reasons, however. Guardiões Griô was in a period of reflection after working on a project to record oral histories in Vila Terezinha, a section of Brasilândia, and putting together a DVD and booklet containing these. The project leader, my host brother Dimas Reis Gonçalvez, was also putting together a new event (writing up the proposal, booking the space and applying for the funding for it). O Grupo Sambaqui, was facing pushback from community members affiliated with evangelical Christianity who associated the drumming and dancing that the group taught and performed with witchcraft. These community members did not want their children learning folkloric culture, and for the period of time I was there, the group’s leader was rallying to find a different way to continue teaching. It was useful to see these groups in moments of pause- of reflection and challenges- in order to understand that community development work has periods of action and inaction and that both are useful and important.
I participated in the initiative to set up community gardens within Brasilândia with the aim of enhancing food security. We set up a new garden in a small park within a section of Brasilândia, which, to me, was an example of making a space of leisure one that provides food to community members who may need it as well.
Another initiative in which I took part was the renovations of an auto-constructed geodesic to be a community eco-centre. The eco-centre is envisioned as a space where community members will learn techniques such as setting up solar-powered heating and lighting and rain harvesting for their homes; as well as be an educational resource for children in the education facility within which the geodesic stands.
Transition Brasilândia as model
I think Transition Brasilândia works as a model for community development because it is holistic, functions in a way that leverages the best of everyone, fosters long-lasting relationships and partnerships and is adaptable to residents’ needs and schedules.
“Tudo que me circundar é o meio-ambiente.” Dimas Reis Gonçalvez. (Everything that surrounds me is the environment)
Transition Brasilândia is holistic. It includes social, economic and ecological aspects and the mix and balance of the three is necessary in order to have a community development that does not leave some behind. A community development that is aware of people, the relationships that sustain them, and the physical context within which they live and these relationships play out.
The fact of people’s interconnectedness was a point that my host brother who began the project Guardiões Griô pointed out- “I’m eating cornflakes- lots of people were involved in getting this maize to be in this form. It doesn’t make sense to think that we are singular. We have to realise that we are interconnected beings.” To find social, economic and ecological aspects enshrined within one movement especially speaks to the capacity and necessity of these three spheres working together even though they are sometimes seen as clashing. As Monica, the director of Oficina pointed out there is no point in caring for the forest and not caring for the need for housing for some people. “Because if you do that people will move into the forest and provide for themselves. There doesn’t exist a separated environment.”
“É uma rede decentralizada em que todos os pontos pulsam.” Monica Picavéa. (It’s a decentralised network-in which all the nodes pulsate)
Transition Brasilândia functions as a decentralised network such that each group or project works individually as well as together thus leveraging the best of each. In the words of Monica, the work of Transition is to be an agglutinator and an optimiser of the network while bringing the tools of working together to continue a transition that each part was working towards singly. The network connects residents and project leaders in Vila Brasilândia with each other to provide what is needed in each case, whether it be moral support, financial resources, human power, technical skills to amplify a project, or the resources to get the word out about an event or a protest. What is needed flows from whoever has it to whoever needs it and this flow and the length of time it takes is shortened by virtue of having the network in place.
“Sempre tem alguém que conhece alguém que ajuda a gente fazer o que a gente precisa. Sempre tem!” Priscilla Reis Gonçalvez. (There is always someone who knows someone who then helps us to do what we need to do. There always is!)
Transition Brasilândia embodies partnerships. In a paper in which I drew inspiration from the cities I had been in to frame the qualities of a solution to urban inequality and sustainability, I noted that joint solutions, i.e. ones where planners and policymakers work with city residents, are what are needed to tackle the urban issues we have today. I still hold this as true- that partnerships are what will make change happen. The partnerships to make Brasilândia better are among residents- such as the members of my host family; groups already implementing projects and initiatives in Brasilândia- such as O Grupo Sambaqui and the health centres; businesses and companies- such as various banks and Oficina da Sustentabilidade; people who didn’t live in Brasilândia- such as Monica, Oficina’s director, Marcela, of Projeto Fliperama and interns like myself; and the city government.
“União é sabedoria, unindo nossas forças contra o mal do dia a dia.” Transition Town rap. (Unity is wisdom. Uniting our forces against daily negatives)
Transition Brasilândia fosters slow-cooked relationships that are more likely to be long lasting and for this reason sustainable. Community development, I learnt through a class on engaging community is often most effective when relationships are built over time and engagement is long lasting, two things that often seem impossible to have with NGO-run community engagement projects (such as one I worked on 2 summers ago) that have time and budget limits . Oficina da Sustentabilidade’s work in Brasilândia offered what in my eyes is a more sustainable and fruitful approach- a for profit business with social aims. They refer to themselves as a 2.5 company – straddling both the for-profit and the not-for-profit worlds. Oficina uses their profits to support various Transition projects. This may involve ordering a coffee break from Doces Talentos to enable them to raise the money for their move or buying the soil-compost mix and seeds to get the community gardens going. To me this allows for a long lasting engagement with the community that can achieve permanent improvement, and one that is also more accountable. Brasilândia is very big with 40sth neighbourhoods within it and these with different characteristics. Transition’s future is to connect more people, to get more people working together to improve the areas that so far the network has not reached.
“As vezes o trabalho é isso. É dar uma ajuda.” Issa Menezes. (At times that is the work- to give help)
Transition as a model is adaptable. Each group that chooses to Transition has to figure it out on their own (with some basic guidelines). They come up with the vision of their community and decide on ways to reach there. In this way, the movement draws from its context in order to be successful and address the most pressing issues for that locale as they are able to. Furthermore, the movement is of the people for whom it benefits therefore, it is able to fit itself to the schedules and realities of these people. As Issa said to me after we visited Grupo Sambaqui and found out about the challenges they were having with the pushback from some community members, sometimes giving help and support (to other groups, projects and/or people) is the necessary work that the members of the network do.
For these reasons, I think that Transition Brasilândia is a potentially successful model for beginning or furthering community development. A community development that understands that there is always more to be achieved and that the resources available in the form of people, the relationships they have and their context are crucial to achieving the goals of building a better present and future.