Re-writing the Future: An Interview with Neuza Nascimento

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Celebrating its 10th birthday last week, the Integrated Center in Support of Community Children and Teens (CIACAC) has grown into a community institution in Parque Jardim Beira Mar, a neighborhood within the Parada de Lucas favela, in Rio’s North Zone. Known for years of drug wars with neighboring Vigário Geral, Parada de Lucas had no alternative options for its children, until Neuza Nascimento, a mother and book-lover, at the time working cleaning homes, decided to take her son and some friends on a field trip one weekend to tease them away from the baile funk. That small act sparked Neuza to set foot on a new path. One of guaranteeing that the children in her community, those she came into contact with, would have a different relationship with the world, than that which was “written for them.” She set off to found CIACAC, which celebrated its 10th birthday last week.  We chose to focus RioOnWatch’s first community leader interview on Neuza, in honor of her fantastic achievements over these ten years, and the inspiration her story holds for many of us.

ROW: Where were you born? What were the most memorable events of your childhood and adolescence?

NN: I was born in the city of Santos Dumont, in the state of Minas Gerais. We were very poor and we lived in a remote area, far from the city. What marked the memories of my childhood are some birthdays celebrated with a can goiabada and my first communion, when my sister brought me a pair of white Havaiana sandals with blue thongs from Rio and my mother bought me a white dress, that was already used, so I could go to church. We walked for almost half an hour to get to church, I was walking so carefully, not wanting to get my new sandals dirty from the dust. I think I was about 8 or 9 years old back then and it was the first time I was actually wearing shoes. At least as far as I remember. I was feeling beautiful and I could not stop looking down at my feet. My adolescence was marked by work, all the time, Soul dance, many boyfriends, Christmas and Easter with the family, pregnancy at 17.

ROW: What is your profession?

NN: I have never had a profession in the formal sense of the word but I worked as a housekeeper or, as Rose used to call it, “ambient restorer” from when I was 8 until 47. And today I’m still not sure if I have a profession, but I consider myself a community organizer.

ROW: What are your biggest passions?

NN: Reading and writing.

ROW: What are your biggest talents?

NN: Writing, making friends easily, and providing a lap for all who need one, without tiring out. I speak a lot, I always have some story that I believe is worth telling, but I’m not sure if that is really considered a talent.

ROW: How and when did you learn to read?

NN: I don’t remember exactly when I learned to read, the only memory I have of my school years in Minas is of the vaccine I was given. Many years later I discovered it was against BCG. After moving to Rio a long time passed before I went back to school. I became aware of literature when I was 13 or 14, in the 5th grade. I had access to the comic books of the daughter of the person I was working for (cleaning) and I was also reading the Portuguese books given to me at school.

ROW: When did you take your first collective action?

NN: I organized a meeting with some women in the community, to discuss how the reality of the children living in our community could be changed. I invited 30 or 40 women but none of them showed up.

ROW: What was the action?

NN: In 2001 I took a group of 8 children, including my son, to a visit UERJ – Rio de Janeiro State University.

ROW: What led you to take this first step?

NN: The fact that the children from the community where I live have no leisure option or cultural options besides the baile funk. I wanted them to get to know other realities in the hope that in each of them would rise the ambition for a different future than that which was already “written” for all the children born and raised in poor communities.

ROW: When did you first see yourself as a leader? In what situation?  What steps did you then take?

NN: I am unable to think of myself as a leader.

ROW: What led you to start CIACAC? In the beginning, what was your intention with this project?

NN: I didn’t create CIACAC, it happened without me perceiving it. But in the beginning my only intention was to take the children out of the community so that they could see and know other things. And that is still my intention.

ROW: What have been CIACAC’s “5 top moments?”

NN: There were more than five. In 2003, when I was feeling burnt out due to lack of support from the community and those responsible for the children, I organized a meeting with the children themselves that were participating in our projects at that time, and I told them that, if they didn’t help me, I would put an end to this work, because I was no longer in condition to continue by myself.

That day the Children and Youth Board was created and I actually perceived that my work was important to them.  Then there was the first field trip in which 45 children participated; the aquisition of a space of our own; obtaining the CNPJ (legal status as an NGO) and after that, the authorization for our organization to work on its premises; the arrival of the first foreign volunteers; the launch of the website; the party celebrating 7 years; the launch of our computer lab; the first project partially sponsored through a grant; celebrating 10 years of existence; a partnership with another NGO in our community and with two European institutions, the Study Aboard Department of the University of Nottingham and AIPC Pandora; and qualifying in 9th position as a semi-finalist for the Itaú/UNICEF Prize.

ROW: What were the 5 most fragile, frustrating or worrisome moments of CIACAC?

NN: In the past my primary frustration was not being able to convince the community to participate and believe that change is possible; moreover, the community’s lack of confidence that we, as a community, can bring about change (this is the case even today); and the lack of continuous financial support.

Today, most frustrating for me is the public sector often attributing more importance to paperwork than to the work itself, bureaucracy in general, and the scarcity and vulnerability of social programs in the community, whatever that may be.

ROW: What is CIACAC today?

NN: Today CIACAC is an institution known and recognized inside the community and in several countries around the world.

ROW: What does CIACAC represent for you and your life?

NN: Overcoming obstacles and succeeding.

ROW: What does CIACAC represent for the community?

NN: I don’t yet know what CIACAC represents for the community. For the children it represents a space where they can have fun, make discoveries, a space for learning, for feeling free. A space they are learning to consider their own, where there’s a lady that insists on not being called “tia.”

ROW: Please list the diverse activities CIACAC has organized over these 10 years:

NN: More than 60 educational and recreational field trips outside the community; workshops on citizenship, writing, drawing, and rights; English classes, basketball, capoeira, arts, IT, and today we offer guitar classes, tutoring and homework support classes. It all depends on volunteer availability.

ROW: What do you see in CIACAC’s future?

NN: The next big project? We are now working on the construction of volunteer accommodation and, through developing this international volunteer program (with housing), we’ll be able to provide some financial autonomy to the organization. 5 years from now? I can only see through to December, when we’ll have our big party celebrating our 10 years of existence. It is impossible to see far into the future. Even planning the next day can be challenging.

ROW: How do you feel now, upon completing 10 years?

NN: That wishing and thinking are not enough. It is necessary to take action.

ROW: What do you think, among your talents, was the most important in helping CIACAC reach this point?

NN: Awareness of my surroundings. And other factors? The participation and involvment of the children, their desire for the program.

ROW: Is the project run primarily by you?

NN: Administrative work is mostly done by me, and sometimes I benefit from the help of foreign volunteers. The planning of activities is realized with the support of both parents and volunteers.

ROW: And your son, what is he up to these days?

NN: He is studying and working at the university.

ROW: What does he think of his mother and CIACAC?

NN: He now believes a little more in my potential, in what I do, and still continues believing that I am crazy for doing what I do.

ROW: Did you ever think about abandoning the project, as it’s so common to feel overwhelmed with all the difficulties and responsibilities inherent in building an organization? If so, what was the reason?

NN: Back then, the reason was the lack of commitment and involvement of the community in resolving the problems that affect all of us, who live in this community.

ROW: In what sense are all the transformations occurring across the City today affecting Parada de Lucas?

NN: Parque Jardim Beira Mar, located in the Parada de Lucas favela, is a closed community, with little access to outside information or where information circulates and spreads through informal channels, mostly as rumors. Being a community of middle size and not being localized in a wealthy area or one that attracts attention, it is not currently experiencing any change whatsoever.

ROW: What is your biggest fear with regard to your community over the coming 2-10 years?

NN: Not knowing what is going to happen.

ROW: What is your biggest hope with regard to your community over the coming 2-10 years?

NN: My hope is that the community stops suffering superficial changes and is actually upgraded.