By David Chee
My time as an Emzingo NexGen Fellow during the summer of 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was transformative. The challenges were numerous as I worked in one of the hardest locations of my erofessional life in an area called Rocinha, the largest favela, or shantytown, in South America. In Rocinha, people struggle for basic necessities I took for granted in New York City: clean water, consistent electricity, proper waste management, open spaces for children to play, adequate airflow through homes, and access to education and jobs. In helping the Rocinha population, I realized how privileged I have been.
Working with bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP) communities and with residents who live below the poverty line inevitably changes a person. To recognize the emerging future and to co-create possible solutions, one has to see things with empathy, an open heart, and an open mind. Empathy for others starts with being in-tune with one’s own internal pain and suffering as it helps one recognize commonality with others. Empathy for how people react and express their needs, fears, and aspirations in favelas begins with tearing down all preconceptions of others and perceptions of oneself. I remember one debriefing with Ricardo, one of the elected Community Presidents of Rocinha, after a community workshop had not seen the participation he had expected. Ricardo expressed his anger and disappointment so intensely that, even though I did not understand any Portuguese, I had an understanding of his frustration because his emotions were palpable. His anger was warranted because he had expended considerable political capital within the community in support of the NGO we were working with. Everything in favelas is magnified because of a long history of mistrust with NGOs being proxies for government oversight, intrusion, and corruption, so Ricardo had a lot riding on the success of the event. Seeing the situation through Ricardo’s eyes was one of the many experiences that changed my perspective.
One of my most memorable moments on the Emzingo Fellowship was building a house for Maria, a nineteen year-old mother-to-be in Jardim Gramacho. The Jardim favela was the backdrop for the heartbreaking documentary “Wasteland” and is a desolate area nestled right next to oil and gas refineries near Rio. People scavenge from the daily garbage dumps of food and refuge during the day and try to sleep at night despite the incessant gas flares, gun shots, and loud music. We worked with a Brazilian NGO called Teto and built a pre-fabricated shelter for Maria and her family because she had no place else to go. She had lived in a tin shack that was uninhabitable when it rained too hard, which was often, but had resided there long enough to have squatter rights. Meeting Maria challenged me to be a better person and to ensure my career had purpose helping others.
For those interested in the Emzingo NexGen Fellowship in Brazil, Peru, or South Africa, my advice is surrender to the uncertainty with positivity, enthusiasm, and innocence. The complex problems the Fellowship tackles calls for an awareness of context, and a confidence to act, to fail, and to try again. The time on the Fellowship will be one of those times in a person’s life that there was a before and then there was an after, and he or she will be changed forever. I found myself more resilient with a stillness of heart, better able to see the world with empathy, and a deeper inner strength and awareness.