Environmental Education Takes on Race in City of God: Alfazendo’s EcoNetwork #SustainableFavelaNetwork [PROFILE]

Sustainable Favela Network* Profile

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Initiative: Alfazendo / EcoNetwork
Contact: Facebook | Email
Year Founded: 1998 / 2010
Community: City of God (West Zone)
Mission: To provide education to lead a sustainable life using pedagogy centered on understanding life and real-world learning experiences.
Public Events: Events organized by the initiative can be found on Alfazendo’s Facebook page.

How do you work towards creating a sustainable society in a community afflicted by a lack of basic public services, disinvestment in public education, and violence?

For nearly her entire life, Iara Oliveira—an educator and community leader in City of God, in Rio de Janeiro’s West Zone—has been grappling with this question. Since her introduction to activism at the age of fourteen, Oliveira has been organizing and advocating alongside fellow residents of City of God to secure rights that their community has been denied due to the near-complete abandonment by the government and failure to provide basic public services. It was these fights for access to water, electricity, and waste collection that prepared Oliveira to co-found and launch Alfazendo, a community-based nonprofit organization in City of God that focuses on creating and enhancing educational opportunities for youth and adults in the community.

Alfazendo began in 1998 as a program offering literacy classes and tutoring for college entrance exams for black and low-income community members. Drawing on her experience from years of engagement in social movements and her intimate knowledge of City of God, Oliveira and the instructors at Alfazendo developed a curriculum and teaching methodologies that were specific to the needs of their community, yet flexible enough to be accessible for the diverse groups of students that enroll each year.

A major element of Alfazendo is its EcoNetwork, a project launched in late 2010 to supplement traditional school curricula with courses that focus on socio-environmental issues. The EcoNetwork consists of a team of university students from diverse disciplines who work together to design socio-environmental education classes and activities around themes that are decided on with input from local educators. Although the themes change annually with each new group of university students, Oliveira stresses the importance of continuity, seeking to imbue each lesson with a deeper understanding of the relationships among individuals and communities and with the natural world. She says that those who work with the environment “have to understand that this environment is changing every day. What cannot change are our ethics and values in this environment.”

While it has existed for less than a decade, Alfazendo’s EcoNetwork has already become an integral part of the curriculum in 28 local schools, reaching over 7,000 students. Oliveira attributes the success of EcoNetwork in large part to their participatory approach to education and to their creative teaching techniques which often include theater and arts and crafts. Another key to success is their ability to place the issues faced by favela residents at the center of the curriculum and to imbue environmental education with lessons on racism, sexism, and gender. While the vast majority of the schools that EcoNetwork serves are located within City of God, the initiative also has a presence in the favelas of Complexo da Maré, in Rio’s North Zone. When the EcoNetwork began working in Maré, Oliveira explains that they had to collaborate with local schools and educators to reimagine their lesson plans. “When we arrived in Maré, we had to deconstruct our methodology. It is a different territory…and we have to understand that social relations, time constraints, and people’s lives are different.”

As part of their presence in local schools, Alfazendo’s EcoNetwork constructed and helps maintain several community gardens in City of God. Planting and caring for these gardens provides students with hands-on experience working with nature and presents educators with an educational opportunity to teach about the environmental and health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Exposing students to experiences and perspectives otherwise absent from the classroom is a critical component of Alfazendo’s EcoNetwork. In Oliveira’s words, a major goal of the EcoNetwork is “to broaden the view of these youth, to [consider] the place in which they live and to reflect on their lives, so that they may have the option to choose how they would like to live.”

In addition to their educational programs in local schools, Alfazendo’s EcoNetwork also provides training for recyclable materials collectors to streamline and formalize their work. One of the major improvements that the EcoNetwork supported was the construction of fourteen eco-points in City of God. These eco-points are designated locations for residents to dispose of recyclable waste in order to facilitate the job of recyclable materials collectors who previously needed to sort through large piles of trash and walk the entire community on a daily basis searching for discarded plastics. The EcoNetwork also provides educational materials to encourage residents to recycle and think more critically about their relationships with the waste they create and with individuals who work as recyclable materials collectors.

The hard work of Alfazendo and its EcoNetwork in City of God has helped mobilize residents to contribute to the positive transformation of their community and reimagine its potential. The group’s educational campaigns have improved relationships between recyclable materials collectors and residents and they have served thousands of youth and adults through their school programs, college preparatory courses, and literacy classes. The longevity and success of Alfazendo and the myriad benefits that the organization has brought to City of God are the fruits of a long process of building local relationships rooted in cooperation, trust, and collective participation. Oliveira explains that “a social relationship is not one of employment; it is one of trust. It is understanding what your role in society is… I am not the teacher. I only facilitate the educational process. People will change only when they feel that it is important for them to change.” Alfazendo’s EcoNetwork continues its work in City of God and in Maré with the hope to engage more youth and to make them more aware of the opportunities to learn, grow, and give back to their communities.

*Alfazendo’s EcoNetwork is one of over 100 community projects mapped by Catalytic Communities (CatComm), the organization that publishes RioOnWatch, as part of our parallel ‘Sustainable Favela Network‘ program launched in 2017 to recognize, support, strengthen, and expand on the sustainable qualities and community movements inherent to Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities. Check out all the profiles of mapped projects here.