Things I learned Volunteering in a Brazilian Favela

Things I learned Volunteering in a Brazilian Favela

By Sydney Pensky on 25/01/2018

In December 2015, during a time where most of society was focused on presents and holiday parties, I decided to take a trip to a Brazilian Favela called Vidigal, located in Ipanema with a colleague of mine. We wanted to experience the holidays among those that may not be as fortunate. As an upcoming photojournalist, I feel it’s important to have my work represent topics that are of great importance to me. I have always found a dire need to help; help with raising awareness and help by educating others. I wanted this encounter to be my first of many as a visual storyteller.

A little background insight–I grew up typical household-type poor–“poor” in terms of financial assets and stability, but in a family that stressed education, curiosity, and hard work. With that being said, I have a keen understanding of the wishes and desires of being a kid and having to come to the hard realization that some things are out of reach. One of the many things that are often overlooked when it comes to talking about childhood poverty is the psychological effects a person can have as an adult – even if you manage to break out of it. Growing up in a poverty-stricken state of mind gave me the perspective of wanting to give back and share my understanding of what it felt like to be in this vulnerable position.

brazilian favela

Preparing for my trip to the Brazilian Favela

Preparing for this charitable milestone I think, for me, was the most sentimental. You’re putting thought and effort into making someone else happy. That is the most rewarding feeling in the world and little did I know it would be fulfilled by something so “small”. As we headed out towards our trip to the Brazilian Favela, we loaded our bags with as much as we could fit. We made sure to pack with a majority of toys, first aid kits, and clothing to give away; boxes of shoes and outfits, crayons and coloring books, building blocks and toy cars. As well as games for the children of this Brazilian Favela to play with during their holiday. I also added a card to each present with a few sentences explaining my vision and hopes that they could too pay it forward the next opportunity they had. This was my personal token of gratitude for allowing me into their community and to share their holiday with me. Showing that you care is the most priceless gift that you can give to a child or a person.

The production of this Kickstarter project was created to help and support those in need by bringing awareness to their situation. By delivering this message with my trade as a photojournalist, I took the responsibility as a photographer to go into this project with an open mind and heart. I wanted to explore their town, hand in hand, with the locals while gaining their trust and hoping they understand that I am there because I want to interact with their children in a generous way. Stepping in on parents’ protective territory has to be done with the utmost respect for their vulnerability. Keeping those thoughts in mind, I did a little research beforehand.

The History of the Brazilian Favela: Vidigal

brazilian favela

The neighborhood, Vidigal, was named after a former commander of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro state in the 19th century, Major Miguel Nunes Vidigal. The favela is a slowly thriving population of 1,680 citizens. Today, there are an estimated 1,000 favelas in Rio, and they are home to about 1.5 million people or close to 24 percent of the city’s population. The favelas are diverse — some have a rudimentary infrastructure, while others have homes hooked up to electricity with phones and computers. Most favelas lack effective sewage systems, access to potable water and waste management systems. Access to public transportation, medical services, and good schools was (and still is) limited. The communities have become so densely built up, that modern roads and utilities are nearly impossible to install. With so many people living in packed and illegal tenements, the communities have become a hotbed for crime and drugs. Many are ruled by drug lords who traffic cocaine and encourage gang violence.

Despite this Brazilian Favela’s spectacular views (in my opinion the best in all of Rio de Janeiro) and warming neighbors, before 2011 you likely wouldn’t have entered Vidigal unless you had an insider to escort you. Vidigal clings to the Dois Irmãos (‘Two Brothers’) hillside, the two egg-shaped hills that can be seen at the far end of Leblon. Located between two of Rio’s wealthiest neighbourhoods – São Conrado and Leblon – Vidigal was once one of the most dangerous favelas in Rio, notorious for its high levels of violence and presence of powerful drug lords. Violence was prevalent, especially the farther you went up the hill.

However, Brazil’s police force was ordered to crack-down on criminality in Rio, and Vidigal was one of the first favelas to be successfully pacified. Unlike shaky attempts of pacification in other local favelas, Vidigal flourished under its new pacified status and it gradually became an attraction for tourists looking to understand what a Brazilian favela was like. In 2011, the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) began taking over favelas, kicking out the drug lords and establishing a presence in the favelas that were meant to usher in peace and security. All of the favelas are different, but in many ways, the pacification in Vidigal was successful. Nowadays, it can be considered more of a community with typical favela architecture than a stereotypical ‘shanty town’ and is enjoying its growing hipster culture. There is still a strong police presence, though many community residents will say that the police are less respectful than the drug lords who once ruled the neighborhood.

My day in Vidigal and what I learned

Many taxis drivers won’t go into Vidigal. This is in part due to the steep hills, but it is also due to the remaining reputation that this Brazilian Favela is too dangerous to visit. Luckily, we found a friendly taxi driver that promised to take us. When we arrived, we were welcomed with reggaeton music blaring off in the distance, echoing throughout the city streets. Children were walking home from school along the side of the road with their books in hand. Sunshine was peeking through the trees and the slight subtle sound of mothers sweeping off their patios would send the dust into the air making abstract shapes with the sun. The locals seemed very curious but surprisingly welcoming. Glancing up and down the busy streets, peering through clothing lines full of laundry and skimming through the smallest of nooks and crannies through the neighborhood maze just to get a peek at what the commotion was about. Looking behind our backs every so often, my colleague and I slowly took the toys and first-aid kits out of our bags. I was suddenly overwhelmed with smiling faces and laughter in the air. I was taken back by how happy we made the children and parents of Vidigal. Seeing the youngsters open up their presents and play with their new toys in the streets and alleyways gave me a tingling feeling of accomplishment. Overall I felt extremely safe walking through the favela at all hours of the day.

streets of vidigal

My first impression of this Brazilian Favela was a fun, bright and lively neighborhood—an impact that would only strengthen my excitement. Overall, I felt extremely welcomed in the Vidigal community by those who lived there. When your donation is going to something more concrete and tangible it combats a sense of futility (Will my donation even make a difference?) and makes you feel like you are making a more direct impact. This feeling of personal impact makes you more likely to give and increases your satisfaction level after you have given.

If growing up underprivileged taught me anything, it made me realize that I don’t want to just survive, I want to live. Giving to others gives you pleasure and makes you have a sense of purpose, which follows with a feeling of being fully alive within. It makes people happier which in turn leads to more generosity, which then increases happiness… you get the picture. Volunteering isn’t one of the plushest, easiest, or glamorous of jobs, but it is one of the most beneficial and uplifting. While no monetary compensation is received, many will tell you that their experience gained as a volunteer was worth more than any money they could have gotten from another line of work. Additionally, without the accelerating pace of change and the use of social media; social, ethical, environmental and political ills would have minimal visibility. Increased visibility of issues has shifted the balance of power from the hands of a few to the hands of the masses.

With this conclusion, I made it a career-oriented goal to raise awareness and focus predominantly on human stories that explore social differences, cultural diversity, and economic effects of geographic isolation. Using visual storytelling, like images help paint a realistic picture and allows for problematic issues to be on the forefront. This, in turn, encourages individuals to become more involved. You end up “giving back” simply by raising awareness through communication and media which in fact, accelerates the push for additional help.

Since my experience in the Brazilian Favela, I have volunteered my time to countless volunteering organizations in New York City and abroad; from PWB to Artists4Israel, to soup kitchens during the holidays, the Annual Challah Bread Baking in Brooklyn, Bronx Documentary Center and other countless local community cleanups in the Bronx. Each time I participate in these events, I offer my services as a documentary photographer in order to highlight good deeds that are performed by selfless individuals with their time, effort and dedication. Currently, I am abroad working on several international and local stories that are based on aiding, educating and creating awareness on current matters of concern. Ever since my encounter in Brazil, I have finally found my purpose and concentration of my trade and career of photojournalism.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well. Believe in your heart that you’re meant to live a life full of passion, purpose, magic, and miracles.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Project Favela and EduMais are two non-profit organizations that you can check out if you are interested in volunteering in the favelas of Brazil. If you are interested in volunteering in any capacity in Brazil, please click here for a list of non-profit organizations.

Written by Sydney Pensky, a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer based in New York City. You can check out her website here