A New Meaning to "Living Across the Tracks" – Favela Style

Dr. Bruce Behn, Department of Accounting and Information Management
Dr. Randy V. Bradley, Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management

On one side, million dollar homes…across the street, a favela (i.e. loosely translated “slum” or “shantytown”). Who would have imagined? If you have ever watched the movie “City of God,” which depicts the story of Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas, you likely walked away with an eerie feeling and a sense that it would be brutal and miserable to live in a place like that. Given the portrayal of drug abuse, gangs, and gang wars, it is not surprising that equate the “City of God” with “Goodfellas.” However, after a recent visit to two of Rio’s favelas with the Aerospace and Defense MBA class of 2012, things have changed…including the two of us.

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Recognizing that Brazil is getting ready for the World Cup (in 2014) and Olympics (in 2016), it is not surprising that Rio has cracked down on drug lords and drug trafficking in the favelas with a significant military and police presence that is visible on virtually every street corner. But that still was not the thing that caught our attention or peaked our interests.

In our combined travels to places such as Cameroon, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Thailand, and even Appalachia, we have seen how the “other” people live — the overwhelming stench of sewage, garbage, and rotten food and the decrepit and unsanitary infrastructure. To our astonishment, that is not what we found in the Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. We did not find pollution; nor did we even get a whiff of any semblance of a rancorous smell in the streets. There were neither molehills nor mountains of garbage on the streets. As a matter of fact, we expected to find colonies of people sitting idly by begging for alms. But our greatest revelation occurred when we saw the streets filled with people buying, selling, working, playing — in essence, enjoying life. That is the thing that grabbed our attention and peaked our interests. The favelas we saw and experienced were not slums or shantytowns; they were “communities.” The people we interacted with were not begging or expecting handouts; they were busy living their lives. It didn’t matter that groups of tourists were in their midst, the people of the “communities” (formerly known as the favelas) went about their business as if it were any ordinary day.

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What can we learn from the people of the Communities? We believe there are several key lessons. One thing we can learn is that a true sense of community is priceless. The people of the Communities had a true sense of community; a common union and bond that causes neighbors to help neighbors, involves trust beyond measure, and instills a sense of purpose. It was apparent to us that people were proud to live in their community. As we watched people of different races, ethnicities, and genders work side-by-side with enjoyment, and kids play with one another as if they have no cares or concerns in the world, we felt, saw, and experienced something that most people in planned urban communities, and even gated communities for that matter, rarely, if ever, feel or experience — a genuine love between the men, women, and children in that respective community.

Another thing we can learn from the people of the Communities is that working pays more dividends than handouts. The people of the Communities take great pride in providing and motorcyclestaking responsibility for themselves and their communities. The Communities are riddled with entrepreneurs (although some operate on the black market). We saw and shopped at a number of small businesses within the Communities. The people of the Communities have a keen ability to identify the need for a service and provide that service. There were businesses fixing automobiles, cleaning motorcycles, and providing taxi services via motorcycles. Even the vertically integrated butchery shop (with live chickens in one area and the store refrigerators right down the hall), sold to the restaurants across the street or to the men and women operating grills in front of the butchery and serving hot meats and sandwiches to those meandering throughout the Community. The people of the Communities recognize that no job is too small or beneath them. Whereas a number of them work odd jobs around the Community, many more of them work outside the Community. To put this in perspective, consider that approximately one-third of Rio’s inhabitants live in the Communities, and the vast majority of them work in various capacities in the heart of Rio’s tourist and business districts. From this, it is quite apparent that the Communities and the people of them are very much part of Rio. Don’t they stand soccorout, you might ask? Of course they do! But not in the way you might think. We were told by natives that many of Brazil’s better soccer players and most beautiful women are from the Communities. We can attest that the Communities contain soccer training grounds (i.e. muddy soccer fields), salons, and clothing boutiques. As such, when the people of the Community leave for an event in the city (as some were preparing to do when we were there), they are sure to impress.

A third thing we can learn from the people of the Communities is to let children be children. Far too often, children in the U.S. are saddled with the ups and downs and the ebb and flow of their parents’ lives and professions (or the lack thereof). There is something beautiful and innocent about being a child — naive to the intricacies of life, while at the same time learning important life lessons and the significance of sharing precious moments with friends, even if it happens in a game of table tennis or on a seesaw. In the interest of full disclosure, there was an alarming number of young, unwed parents. But to their credit, it was refreshing to see them joyfully accepting the responsibilities that came along with their life-altering decisions and doing all they can to make the best of a less than desirable situation.

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What can the people of the communities learn from us? Perhaps not as much as we can learn from them, but here’s some background that sets the stage for at least one thing. While we were touring the Communities, a native told us that people in the Communities have three goals/expectations in life: (1) eat good/healthy food (they also love good drink), (2) good companionship, and (3) a flat screen TV. The third item shocked us, but it quickly made sense once we saw the myriad of satellite dishes (mostly HD) hanging from balconies and sides of buildings (see photo below). As we walked (tour guide-directed) through the narrow buildings, which extended into the bowels of the earth (and we were expecting hobbits to appear), there were combinations of authorized and what appeared to be unauthorized electricity conductors and conduits, as well as underground sewage systems connected to the multiple units in each building, even though sometimes it was hard to figure out how it is all connected, let alone functioned.

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So what is that one thing people of the Communities can learn from us. Take pride in where you are, but know that taking pride in where you are doesn’t mean you have to stay there. It is possible to leave the community without the community leaving you. The sense of community is ingrained in those who grow up in the Community, so working to create a better life and a better environment is not betraying the sense of community one has been taught; it is remaining true to what one has learned. All it takes is one person to break generations of a vicious cycle and start a new legacy. After all, the houses that are upon houses that are upon other houses in the community all started from a single building. So as you can see in the image below, this is community of more than one million people living on a side of mountain, building edifices one on top of the other (with little to no adherence to building codes or rhyme or reason as to how and for how long the building will support such structures). Yet they are a proud community and an economic force to be reckoned with. Yes, Rio would not be the same without the Communities. But imagine what Rio could be if the people of the Communities took the community mindset, left the social and infrastructural limitations of the Communities behind, and created a sustainable legacy consisting of a more inhabitable environment and higher goals for a better life. Now that is a Community worth building and visiting! In the interim, go visit the Communities in their current form (you will be changed) and hope for the Communities of the future that have the potential to be birthed out of the existing Communities. I know we will do both.

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Photos courtesy of Margaret Ashworth, University of Tennessee

About University of Tennessee

Haslam College of Business, University of Tennessee, Knoxville TN
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