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By Jaylan Boyle, Contributing Reporter

Complexo do Alemao favela, Zona Norte, Rio de Janeiro, photo by Nicola Dracoulis.
Complexo do Alemao favela, Zona Norte, Rio de Janeiro, photo by Nicola Dracoulis.

RIO DE JANEIRO – In many respects Brazil is a country of striking contrast, where else can one walk down a street with chic condos on one side and a favela on the other?

In a country where a tiny fraction live in conditions comparable to Western Europe while the less fortunate eke out an existence well below the poverty line, there is plenty here to occupy the time and energy of the selfless few who try to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Cariocas.

One such individual is American Zak Paster, founder of the registered NGO (Non-Government Organization aka Non-Profit Organization) Community In Action, based in Complexo do Alemao, Zona Norte. Zak came to Rio in 2003 after a stint in Buenos Aires and spent a year volunteering with numerous NGO’s around the city. His initial impression would later become the impetus behind Community In Action, which celebrated it’s fourth birthday last month.

“I saw that even though in the favelas people had nothing, there was a palpable underlying desire to create social change. People had the will to start social initiatives, and I felt that people really wanted to help each other, but they lacked the resources and the administrative structure to get these things off the ground. So ideas invariably stagnated. That’s where I saw an opportunity.”

Having a background in Business Administration, Zak recognized that the most sustainable and effective way to create lasting change was to provide the structure, then let the community get on with it. Rather than well-meaning foreigners imposing measures they consider effective, Community In Action seeks to foster the development of leaders who can help the community decide for themselves.

“The goal is to give people the opportunity to either be a student or a teacher. We provide a platform from which members of the community can launch their own ideas. And we are never short of people with good ideas, so there are always new programs starting. Ultimately, we want to empower people.”

Community In Action focuses on vocational and ‘personal growth’ training to facilitate this ideal. Classes range from instruction in artisan skills, to computer training, English classes, and interviewing skills.

“At the grass roots level there’s arts and crafts. We teach people to produce for themselves the sort of thing you’d see in the Copacabana market, so people can learn sandal design, sewing, painting, that sort of thing.”

Another Community In Action program that Zak sees as a powerful tool is the ‘Balcao de Emprego’ (Job Balcony) partnership with the Secretary of Employment, which seeks to provide a liaison between the State Government office and favela residents. Essentially, the goal is to provide a kind of job center in the community, as an alternative to the prohibitive reality of physically getting to the centrally based state office and then having a meaningful interaction there.

The practical application of Zak’s idea has of course not been without challenges; few will be surprised to learn that bureaucracy has been an ongoing issue, but it is funding that still provides Zak with plenty to think about.

Although he’s now back in the US with his Carioca wife and has handed to others the ‘on the ground’ responsibility, long-term strategic thinking keeps Zak very much involved in maintaining momentum on the project. Appropriately for someone so passionately dedicated to social improvement in Rio, it’s the people that he misses most.

“I miss the liveliness, the optimism… I think that despite the violence and poverty they live amongst, these people capture for me the true essence of what it is to live and enjoy life.”

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Community In Action is always looking for foreigners in Rio who want to get involved in a range of capacities, from teaching English to helping with strategy. Visit www.cia.communityinaction.org to learn more, or contact Zak Paster at zakpaster@communityinaction.org. Donations can also be made via the website.

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