There can be no new realities in Rio’s favelas without youth organisations centre stage.

Throughout the COVID19 crisis young people in Brazil’s most marginalised communities have gone to extraordinary lengths, they deserve a seat at the table post-COVID, says Daniel Calarco.

For those living in Rio’s favelas the fight against COVID19’s spread has become a fight for survival. Measures adopted by the Government in Brazil to face the COVID19 virus showed to be ineffective, with many living in informal settlements left behind. Minorities and marginalised areas have had little or no support from institutional power. In many favelas the only COVID19 responses were youth-led. As one of Restless Development’s co-researchers on the Resilient Realities project, I had the opportunity to connect with youth groups going to extraordinary lengths to keep their communities safe and well, despite lack of infrastructure, public investment, or social services. Their actions are incredible, inspiring and laudable, but they also reveal a deep inequality and injustice in Brazil.  

Youth take the lead. 

When COVID19 hit Rio de Janeiro, young people from different backgrounds became leaders by getting together in collaborative and self-organised spaces in their communities called “crisis cabinets.” They helped to identify problems, create solutions, and mobilise donations and resources.

In Jacarézinho Favela, a community in Rio de Janeiro, more than 120,000 reais(about USD$24,000) were raised to buy food supplies for more than 2,000 families. In the favela Cidade de Deus, well known abroad as the City of God, a youth-led group organised more than 10,000 food basket donations. In Santa Cruz, young people supported more than 3,000 families with food and essential items. 

These numbers suggest that youth organisations are outstripping the support and impact provided by local governments.   Young people made the decision to take action when they realised that the government was either incapable or lacking the political will to help their communities. As young black people, they understand deeply how their lives are vulnerable in this country.

‘’I didn’t want to be giving food baskets, cleaning kits, and everything. Because it doesn’t make sense for the most vulnerable groups to have to save themselves. We are fighting for essential things, basic needs to stay alive. I’m really mad about it all.”

Ricardo Fernandes, City of God Favela.

Is quarantine a right or privilege? 

This was one of the questions I posed young people in Brazil over social media. The response was unanimous: it should be a right, but in reality it’s a privilege. Dynamics of race, age, gender, and territory can determine if you can afford to be in quarantine or not.  The majority of people here are labor force workers, in informal positions or in atypical contracts. They can’t work remotely and have little or no access to government support, unionisation or labor protection. 

The pandemic made evident the role that race plays in the social dynamics and how violent the status quo is against the black population and intersectional groups. New realities demand debate and responses to prejudice and racism. 

In Brazil a young black man is three times more likely to be killed than a white man, and youth represented more than 50% of the violent killings in the country despite being only 23% of the population. Violence, from  armed conflict and extrajudicial killings of black young people, is another layer of this lethal pandemic. This opened up a debate about which bodies deserve to be protected.

As a black young woman, it is really unusual to be perceived as a leader. It is not a place that we occupy very often. I am trying to redefine what it means to be a leader from a community perspective, in which all roles are important.  Being a leader is a role of active listening and effective response to collective demands.”

Mariana Galdino, LabJac

Young people have an important role not only by developing actions to mitigate the COVID-19, but also to create a more sustainable future focused on promoting human rights, equality, and economic inclusion. Now it is time to make sure that youth are not stopped, but supported in, leading the change. These locals, leading grassroots work, must be included in the decision-making process adding to the public debate and providing an accurate picture of the day to day realities and challenges of their communities. Only with this participation will the state create inclusive and effective policies.

Feature image: Andy Falconer on Unsplash


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There can be no new realities in Rio’s favelas without youth organisations centre stage.

by Daniel Calarco Reading time: 3 min