By Mira Olson, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO— This month marks the fifth anniversary of the small grassroots NGO, Community in Action (Comunidade em Ação), located in the Complexo do Alemão neighborhood in Zona Norte, one of Rio’s drug-trafficking strongholds.
The project seeks to inspire positive, lasting change within the community by offering English lessons, computer classes, after-school tutoring and arts and crafts activities to community members of all ages. Nevertheless, it stands out from other NGOs and social development projects.
“There are a lot of things that make the NGO unique,” states Peter Isaacson, Manager and Director of Community in Action. For starters, the NGO does not use a prescribed formula or set of activities that are deemed to promote growth and development by the program directors; “the service offerings are determined by the demands of the community rather than internal decisions.”
Additionally, the NGO was founded as a joint foreign-local effort. Zak Paster, co-founder, is an American with a background in business and finance who came to Brazil to do strategy consulting work for local public and private institutions. In 2005, Paster was approached by members of the Complexo do Alemão community, including co-founder and now-wife Luiza Paster, who perceived a need for the sort of structural organization that Community in Action would provide.
In order to ensure the grassroots nature of the project most positions aside from the director and the English teacher are held by community members. The NGO’s only salaried employee is favela-resident Rosângela Maria dos Santos, the administrative secretary and, according to Isaacson, a true force behind the project.
In conjunction with its five-year celebration, Community in Action has re-initiated its Balcão de Emprego program, which helps community members find jobs through a partnership with a job agency in the center of Rio. Additionally, this year it will officially launch its favela tour program to help finance the NGO and to bring income into the community through restaurant and store visits, as well as to raise awareness outside the community.
“Complexo do Alemão is an area not frequented by foreign visitors and volunteers—not even by Brazilians—and we offer a gateway into the community,” states Isaacson. “We hope that the tour will not only serve as an interesting experience, but attract more attention and volunteers to the area, both for our NGO and others.”
Complexo do Alemão is commonly referred to as Rio’s “Gaza Strip” due to the frequent violence caused by ongoing war between drug traffickers, rival gangs and police.
It is a neighborhood comprised of twelve favelas and roughly 97,000 residents in a 1.1 square mile area, according to the Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílio (National Housing and Population Statistics Research Center).
This area is considered one of the most violent in Brazil; Community in Action reports that over forty percent of crimes that take place in Rio occur in the Complexo do Alemão.
The majority of sponsorships for social programs in Rio are concentrated in the Zona Sul, where most tourists are likely to frequent. Community in Action does not count on regular sponsorship, and therefore depends on the small tuition fees charged for classes and occasional donations to finance daily operations.
In spite of its small size, Community in Action’s work has been recognized in the past in the form of small grants from both the International Monetary Fund and Booz Allen Hamilton. Isaacson expects that upcoming collaborations with other NGOs and public and private entities, such as the favela tour program, will help bring this much needed attention and support to the organization.