Indiana State University Newsroom

Living Social: Indiana State students cross economic divide in Brazil trip

July 10, 2013

One by one, a group of Indiana State University students emerged from the seemingly endless maze of dark, narrow alleyways. While surveying an open space sandwiched between crumbling, multilevel homes featuring graffiti and moss-covered walls near piles of bricks, trash and debris blanketing the ground, Jaclin Huxford instantly noticed a powerful stench.

A stream of raw sewage flowing a few feet from where she stood emitted the odor that etched itself onto Huxford's brain. "That smell ... that smell will probably stick with me the most," said Huxford, a senior insurance and risk management major from Clinton.

The Indiana State students stood in the middle of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's largest favela, the heavily populated shanty towns scattered in and around the city.

"Can you imagine life in the favela here?" Aruna Chandra, professor of management at Indiana State, asked as she stood near the source of the odor. "This is raw, untreated sewage. Can you imagine raising your kids and living your whole life here?"

One doctor who witnessed the impact of such conditions created an organization dedicated to helping improve favela residents' lives in a social business that was part of a lesson that took the Indiana State students deep into the heart of Rio de Janeiro. Chandra took students in her social entrepreneurship in Brazil class to the city in May for a weeklong visit to learn about the vast economic and social disparity between the country's residents and visit social entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives to improving the conditions for the estimated 1.4 million people living in the favelas. Chandra organized the trip, and the students received additional support from the Unbounded Possibilities Center for Global Engagement initiative and the university's MBA program.


"We can spend a lot of time talking about Brazil and the polarization of society," she said, adding that 10 percent of the population is very wealthy, while 40 percent live in poverty. "But to bring them here, they just see and experience that reality, and that leaves an impression that can last a lifetime."The country's conditions have inspired some unique efforts to improve residents' lives. Dr. Vera Cordero, who has spent two decades battling sickness and disease within the favelas, created Sàude Criança, a clinic that provides comprehensive health care for children and their families. When a child is referred to the clinic, a team assesses the entire family and develops a plan based on five areas - health, citizenship, housing, education and family income.


"What we did as physicians in the hospital has its limits, and if you really want to change people's lives, you have to do something else to complement what the hospital does," said Cordero. At Sàude Criança, the team works with families to see if they are making progress towards their goals.

Sàude Criança has assisted more than 40,000 people, and with intricate data tracking Cordero has shown the dramatic impact that improving living conditions can have. Of those treated at the clinic, there was a 60 percent drop in days of hospitalization and an increase in family income of 35 percent through vocational courses.

Cordero discovered early in her career as a physician that the problem wasn't just treating the disease, but also addressing the conditions that caused the illness.


"I realized that sometimes when I worked with infectious diseases like pneumonia, the disease is the tip of the iceberg," she said. "If you don't think about what kind of life (a patient) is living, if you don't go deeper into the psychological and social issue of the disease, it is not a complete diagnosis."


Cordero was struck by the number of patients who would frequently return with the same illness.

"We saw the same children coming back (again and again) to the hospital because you treat the pneumonia and then they go back to the real cause of the disease, (the unsanitary) conditions in which they live," Cordero said. "So they come back (repeatedly). It's a vicious cycle."

The situation in Rocinha is not an isolated experience in Rio de Janeiro. From almost anywhere in the city, the stacked homes and colorful shacks that comprise the favelas fill the horizon.

"Poverty levels exist in the U.S. and Vigo County, but not in the number that it does in Brazil," Chandra said. "Here (in Brazil) that number is so large, and ... it hits you when you come here and you look at that contrast."

This disparity, Chandra said, has helped the rise of social entrepreneurs, some of whom live in the wealthiest areas of Rio but have dedicated their careers to addressing the country's socio-economic divide that has ballooned into a chasm.


Social entrepreneurs develop businesses that provide opportunity, training and employment for the underprivileged. They are self-sustaining organizations - not charities - that provide a benefit to the community.


Rodrigo Baggio, founder of the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI), has devoted the majority of his career to bringing technology to the favelas. "Our mission is using technology to transform lives and develop communities," said Baggio, who met with the Indiana State students at CDI headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. "We believe in the power of technology to change our society and to create a society with more freedom and solidarity."

CDI began in the mid-1990s, and now has about 780 community centers in 12 countries. More than 1.5 million people have received training from CDI community centers. The company provides training for locals to become educators and managers of the community centers.


"What is important is our work and the impact we have through technology in low-income people," he said. "That impact makes us happy and makes us fulfilled, and creates very important motivation to continue our work."Employment and job training also help break the poverty chain. Maria Teresa Leal, founder of Coopa Roca, employs women from Rocinha to create high-end clothing and attire. Some of Coopa Roca's designs have been featured in fashion shows throughout the world.

Leal's goal is to provide workers with an opportunity to showcase their skills and create a high quality product. "(Our customers) are proud to wear it, because it is nice, and it is cool," she said.


During their visit to Brazil, the Indiana State group traveled deep into Rocinha, witnessing life in the favela that stands in stark contrast to traditional images of pristine beaches, the Carnival, Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain, which tourists envision of the South American nation. At one point, they navigated through a series of graffiti-covered narrow alleys across a small wooden bridge over a stream of sewage.

For Ali Berumen, a nurse from California who is in the LPN-BS online program, the conditions were "anything but ideal."

"There is raw open sewage (and) there is no water filtration," she said. "So, the first thing I was thinking, with my background, is of sickness and disease and how easy it would be to spread in those living conditions, because (it's) just people" living in extremely close quarters with one another.

By providing technological and employment training, along with additional educational opportunities, social entrepreneurs are trying to chip away at the disparity between rich and poor. Closing the gap will not be easy or fast. In addition to limited resources, many favelas are caught in a battle between drug lords and the government, which is struggling to retake control of the favelas. That struggle has led to increased violence within the favelas.

Years ago, when organized crime was more rampant in the favelas, children in their play emulated those who were involved in the drug trade, Chandra said. Since then, she added, successful businesspeople have started to serve as role models for the area's youth.


"This means that kids there have better role models," Chandra said. "These are successful people, and kids always gravitate to anybody who is successful."


Expanding educational access also will play a key role in changing attitudes and creating opportunity within the favelas, several Indiana State students said. The services that social entrepreneurs seek to offer first focus on providing for people's immediate needs, such as health care, before developing educational opportunities or other resources to help improve people's lives, said Dan Burkett, a junior chemistry major from Terre Haute. "I think it is really inspiring to see these groups that are bringing different opportunities into the favelas, to help provide some opportunity for social mobility," he added.

Experiencing the favelas firsthand helped the group of Indiana State students to learn about poverty and living conditions far from where they have grown up. Chandra had the students take their experiences from Brazil back to the classroom, as they wrote reflections about their experiences in Brazil as part of their coursework.

"You know, we spend a lot of time in our classrooms on theory and reading about different things," Chandra said, "but unless we expose our students to some of these international realities, they are not going to get a good idea of what it actually means."

Photos: ISU group poses for a photo in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue, which overlooks Rio de Janeiro. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell Mountain offers stunning views of Rio de Janeiro. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell is the largest favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell wooden bridge allows pedestrians to cross the open sewer channel in an alleyway in Rocinha. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell Brown, an MBA student at Indiana State University from Warsaw, Indiana, looks over some of the selections on a clothing rack within Coopa Roca's offices in Racinha. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell State University student Dan Burkett gives a high five to a child in Rocinha. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell and communication lines snake across a roadway in Rocinha. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell zip along the busy streets dodging pedestrians and vehicles in Rocinha. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Writer: Tony Campbell, Indiana State University, photo manager, 812-237-2689 or