“This is common in Brazilian culture: we have been educated by all institutions - family, church or school - to believe that we are not able to change reality, that it’s impossible. And this is great for keeping the scenario we have. An individual thinks everyone is [incapable] just like him/her, that his/her vote does not change anything, and becomes more and more selfish. Thus, the young ones feel incapable and incompetent, and often give up goals, such as going to university. We need to create actions and movements to show that, yes, it is possible [to change reality]! We are here to encourage and change, by acting and organizing, and show that these lives have full potential. I am utopian and I believe it’s possible to transform ourselves into another type of society.”
A resident of the Maré Complex, which gathers 16 slums in Northern Rio de Janeiro, Shyrlei Rosendo grew up seeing the landscape of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). She never knew, though, that this great building was a university. And never thought that, if she wanted and tried to, she could study there one day. For her, the University Campus was a leisurely place where she could play outdoor sports. "My parents didn’t go to college, and at school, no teacher told me I could be there one day," she says.
For the first time, Shyrlei considered the idea of going to university thank to an autonomous community project. This project gave rise to Redes da Maré (The Tides Network), which Shyrlei is now part of, and which started in 1997 by the residents and former residents of the slums within the complex. Many of these early members of Redes da Maré were part of the 0.5% of young people from the outskirts who managed to enter a public university. No wonder the first initiative of Redes da Maré was to open the Entrance Exam Course to the Maré Community. Throughout more than 20 years, over 1,200 young people entered university through the entrance exam course.
Shyrlei is part of this statistics - twice.
At 18, she started studying at the Redes da Maré community course and soon joined the fashion course at a private college. As classes began, she soon realized that was not quite what she wanted. "It was a disaster. I always thought 'what am I doing here?'", she says. "I studied for a year and a half, then I quit."
While studying, Shyrlei had to work hard to pay the fees. One of the jobs she got was in a program of Redes da Maré in the complex's schools. Little by little, and unexpectedly, she found the motivation and inspiration she sought. "It bothered me how educators deal with students and residents. They didn’t see those people as potentially powerful, as people who could be protagonists of their own transformations," she remembers. That is how she decided to redirect her efforts and build her path in education.
Shyrlei returned to the pre-university course of Redes da Maré and passed Pedagogy at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), where she completed her degree. Years later, she finally entered the UFRJ as a student, and graduated with a master degree in Education. "I studied education to improve public educational policies in the slums. I want to understand and solve this issue - and I see that when the teachers come from there, they become an inspiration for the student," she explains.
Social action to transform reality
Today, at 34, Shyrlei has been involved with Redes da Maré for more than a year. A year and a half ago, she coordinated actions in public safety. "This was the last place I wanted to be: public safety. The community people are very afraid because there is a lot of tension as we are in a territory occupied by armed civil groups," she says.
Within the current scenario, and with the occupation of the Maré Complex, the organization's actions are even more difficult - and at the same time, more necessary. "Public safety is a right such as health, education and basic sanitation," she says. "And this idea of public safety with police operation in the slums and drug policy is a lie. There is no drug plantation or weapons factory in Maré. The State needs to be smarter in its actions," she says.
The high number of violent deaths – 42 people died in Maré in 2016 – and the invisibility of these violent stories are major issues for Shyrlei. The outrage at this picture calls for mobilization. "We don’t want to play the State’s role. Our role is to create exemplary actions and encourage residents so they can be in charge of the changes," she explains. "Citizens do not have to go there and mix the cement to pave the street, but they have to use their knowledge and their collective action to demand it from the State," she says.
Despite many mishaps, the strategy is working well. As of the forum "A Maré que Queremos", for example, 16 residents' associations get together monthly to think about urban planning solutions. In 2009, the City Hall of Rio de Janeiro was pressured by collective action to install 28 educational devices in the complex.
"I don’t cry in front of people, but I get emotional inside. I do think this battle is worth it," she says.