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Cleaning up a favela: A Brazilian girl’s anger leads to change

June 2, 2015
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U-M students Charlotte Wilson (left) and Samantha Farr (right) consult with a boy who lives in the Santa Marta community. (Photo courtesy U-M Capstone team.)

U-M students Charlotte Wilson (left) and Samantha Farr (right) consult with a boy who lives in the Santa Marta community. (Photo courtesy U-M Capstone team.)

ANN ARBOR—Wiping tears from her eyes and hanging her head low, Ana Carolina spoke to a class of University of Michigan students. She thanked them in a choked-up voice for caring about her neighborhood thousands of miles away near the southern tip of Brazil.

The 15-year-old girl was struggling to keep herself together as she was overcome with homesickness and the anxiety she felt on her first trip outside of Santa Marta—a ramshackle collection of homes built of brick, wood and plastic tarps.

She first met the graduate students from U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in March when they spent two weeks working on a project to help improve the quality of life in Ana’s marginalized community of 7,000 people in the city of São Leopoldo.

“I’m very happy and excited because I believe we will be able to implement a majority of the students’ suggestions in my community. I can’t wait to share the results and start putting them into practice,” Ana said.

The journey was conquered after a lot of work. For nearly two-and-a-half years, Ana has been part of the Committee of Environment and Quality of Life at the Municipal School of Santa Marta. The committee was created to discuss problems related to the environment and social issues. The group also wanted to change the stigma of the community.

“Most people are ashamed to live in the neighborhood,” Ana said. “I’ve suffered a lot of discrimination for being a Santa Marta resident.”

Not a ‘favela’

Santa Marta was formed about 15 years ago when people began occupying the public land and building their own homes without the city’s permission. Many would call the community a slum or “favela.” But the residents and their advocates don’t like the term because they believe it further stigmatizes the neighborhood. They prefer to call their home “Vila Santa Marta.”

After one of her friends was murdered and her two brothers were arrested for assault, Ana didn’t want to be angry anymore. She got tired of just looking at the polluted stream—littered with plastic bags, cans and bottles—that flowed through the favela.

She wanted to stop worrying about the harm her neighbors caused by burning trash. She wanted to stop the consistent vandalism and scavenging of public property. It was time to do something, to turn her sadness into action.

Ana decided to do something to end discrimination and prejudice against Santa Marta. The project gained momentum after one of her teachers, Sandra Grohe, decided to work closely with Ana and other students.

“I understood that a change was necessary for any kind of progress in the community, which has been suffering with constant fighting and the destruction of the heritage. The students had to start learning how to take care of the classroom, their own space, to then be able to expand the notion of citizenship for the neighborhood,” said Grohe, who traveled to U-M with Ana.

U-M joins the cause

The students’ group drew the attention of the U-M master’s students, who began collaborating with Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul, a private Brazilian university.

U-M students walk through Santa Marta as they collect data. (Photo courtesy of the U-M Capstone team.)

U-M students walk through Santa Marta as they collect data. (Photo courtesy of the U-M Capstone team.)

The students went to Santa Marta in March to do fieldwork and collect statistical data with Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, a native Brazilian and assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Taubman.

“I saw that my students could help Santa Marta and learn from them at the same time. It was a collaborative learning experience,” Pimentel Walker said. “Now I really hope that our suggestions can be implemented. I wish for a community without discrimination and really hope Santa Marta’s urban infrastructure gets the appropriate improvements.”

The students’ suggestions emphasized that the community, government and external partners must work together to change reality. The first step is to prepare an interactive community map, including an inventory of public spaces, areas prone to flooding, excessive and irregular trash dumping, and areas with insufficient lighting.

The group also highlighted the importance of a public campaign to share information, change the perception about the community and develop some action plans.

According to U-M student Julia Mantey, the community should focus first on working hard with partners to get the streets paved.

“They have to improve infrastructure,” she said. “If the garbage trucks can reach all streets and collect trash, the residents will have more quality of life. This is my hope for them.”

U-M students and residents pass out flyers for a community mapping project. (Photo courtesy of the U-M Capstone team.)Smoke Street

Among the suggestions to improve one of the most problematic areas of the district, students proposed renaming a street called “Fumaça,” or “Smoke Street’—a popular place for dumping and burning trash.

They also suggested upgrading the streets with pedestrian paths, lighting, trash bins and native plants. Other ideas included closing off the street for monthly outdoor fairs and creating a group of  “ambassadors for clean streets” who would monitor dumping in the area.

After three weeks away from her home and family, Ana found a new dream.

“I want to eliminate discrimination and violence,” she said with teary eyes that were full of hope. “I want people to have pride and feel good about living in our neighborhood. I don’t want them to feel ashamed. I really want to be part of the group that will transform Santa Marta.”

A version of this story is available in Portuguese.

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