Uncovering the Future Voices of the Favelas

A field trip reveals flaws in a well-intentioned mapping project

The taxi driver is reluctant to take us all the way into Paraisopolis, Sao Paulo's second largest favela. He leaves us roughly 6 blocks away from the community center where we are about to have a meeting. With a makeshift printed Google map in hand, we hesitantly make our way into unfamiliar territory. This will be our first experience visiting a favela, and needless to say, we were a bit nervous.

Ironically, we'd spent the last 14 months digging into the complexity of favelas and, in the process, became huge advocates for pushing beyond the stereotypes and the stigmas of crime and danger. And now here we are, nervous about our short journey through the neighborhood. Our fight or flight response to the place, would end up characterizing a large portion of our trip; it would also become a much larger metaphor for the residents of the favelas: There are those who want to fight for improvement, and those who want to do all they can to get out. This favela dichotomy is demonstrated as we make our ascent through winding streets, towards our destination.

James and I came to Sao Paulo, to meet some of our largest research questions head on. Having successfully built out a dense network and defined a series of assumptions that we were acting upon, we had not yet begun to develop a deeper understanding of our users—the residents of the favelas. We'd come to Sao Paulo for two weeks, with hopes of uncovering the true value of maps and data collection for these communities and the systems that exist within them. From a government and NGO perspective, creating a tool to generate and capture informal data would be a monumental success. We just weren't sure if the residents themselves felt the same way.

Courtesy Meagan Durlak, 2013

After our apprehensive tour through the winding streets of Paraisopolis, we made it to our destination, the community center. In comparison with other São Paulo favelas, or even all of Brazil for that matter, Paraisopolis is well developed. There is a soccer field, an orchestra, a ballet group, and an education complex. Our main contact at the community center, Gilson Rodrigues, is a lifelong resident of the favela and current director of the center's operations. Gilson wants to garner as much government support as he can, in order to make crucial improvements for his community. Our conversation with him validates our belief that maps and data collection would help in his government advocacy process. But the question remains: Would, the community care?

The next favela we visit, Heliopolis, is the most populous favela in all of São Paulo, peaking at some 150,000 residents. Here, too we had set up a meeting with the director of their community center, Reginaldo. In complete contrast to Gilson, Reginaldo tells us flat out that his main motivation is not to create numbers for the government, but to create empowerment for his community. As a matter of fact, he feels that the best way to achieve success would be to tap into the youth movement within the favela. In his mind, they are the force that can create space for adoption of new projects within their community. As we walk through the streets of the favela, this becomes exceptionally apparent—we see young people everywhere; they’re working in shops, flying kites, walking to school; even the local radio station is run by volunteers who don’t look a day over 18. This insight would prove to be of immense value to our project further down the road.


Courtesy Meagan Durlak, 2013

Two days before we leave São Paulo, we’re invited to a youth meeting in Real Parque, a small community. This favela feels like a realistic snapshot of life within an informal settlement, especially in contrast to Heliopolis and Paraisopolis, which are considered the most developed favelas in all of Brazil. The buildings are in great disrepair, garbage is everywhere, stray dogs run rampant, and people are unaccustomed to seeing “outsiders.”

At this point in our trip James and are feeling uneasy about our ideas on mapping and wonder if it has any value to the everyday people in the favelas. In coming to Real Parque we hoped to witness change- making passion and motivation from within the community. While we’re still proponents of creating a system that supports advocacy by the community, we’re starting to realize that maybe maps aren’t the answer. Walking into the youth group’s classroom that day changes everything, in both our spirit and the direction of our project.

Courtesy Meagan Durlak, 2013

We had made a commitment to enter into this project with a transdisciplinary approach, hoping to understand the complexity and scalar qualities of the system surrounding favelas. Our goal was to uncover the most sustainable and impactful points for an intervention, without bias to any one discipline. This approach calls for a willingness to be agile, and to work towards uncovering the true value for a community, and not get caught-up in misconceived early ideas.

In that moment, in that favela classroom, we had to put this approach to the test. We quickly realized that these young people are a force to be reckoned with within their communities. They are activists, artists, students, mentors, and most importantly, they represent a readiness to fight for change. They are accustomed to having to fight for their rights. This is their daily reality. Their endeavors suddenly became way more important to capture, than data the date we were accumulating. They live in an environment that ask them to thrive in the moment. And to ask them to wrap their heads around a project that projected long-term change is hard for them to grasp. Thus we realized that we had to step back, and reevaluate our approach.

Courtesy Meagan Durlak, 2013



Courtesy Meagan Durlak, 2013

By constantly checking back with our value statement that focuses on community-led empowerment, and by challenging our approach, we have come back from Sao Paulo with a whirlwind of new questions. How can we connect these motivated youths to others like them, in different favelas? How can we create a louder voice for the work and activism that these kids are engaged with? How can we build a foundation that they can build upon and make their own?

Such questions, and our willingness to reflect and evaluate, are leading us down a new path that is more inline with our core values than any of our other ideas have been. Needless to say, the next few months will be about refining our theory of change, and working with the amazing young people we met, who have truly inspired us to create something that they can use to change their own lives.



Meagan Durlak is a recovering graphic designer. After spending the last five years working with a handful of great clients, (such as the Ontario Ministry of Health, Canadian Film Centre, Journalists for Human Rights, MaRS Discovery District, Makeshift Magazine and the Royal Ontario Museum) she has come to realize that she wants to pursue design in a new way. In hopes of making life a little more interesting, and exploring this new dimension of design as an approach, not just an end-goal, she is currently pursuing an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons the New School for Design.

James Frankis uses his personal lens of science and coding to bring logical analysis to the design practice. His experience in coding, science and data visualization have taught him an appreciation for attention to detail and complex but elegant solutions. These skills help to maintain complexity, define narrative arguments, ground projects, and hone details. Through an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design, James is currently focused on empowering people through informal and self-directed learning.

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