This month, the U.S. consulate in Rio launched a brand new pilot program that brought two young New York journalists to Rio and will later send two young Carioca journalists to New York. The program, called Empowering Underserved Youth through Social Media: A Community Journalism Exchange, was inspired by a visit from young Brazilian journalist Rene Silva and his colleagues to the U.S. consulate in Rio last year. In an email, Press Attaché Sara Mercado explained how she created the program, appealing to an innovation fund from the State Department and also winning funding from the U.S. embassy's public diplomacy resources.
Mercado said that the United States is looking to expand people-to-people diplomacy in Brazil, and the program was a perfect opportunity. "Our ambassador, Thomas Shannon, has said that diplomacy in the 21st century is increasingly done people-to-people, and less between national governments," she explained. "The goal for the program is to support those critically important exchanges of people between the U.S. and Brazil that lead to real mutual understanding among our people and institutional linkages between groups." For the partner city, the consulate decided to pick New York. "We looked for big, urban cities which had grappled with some of the same challenges currently being confronted in Rio," Mercado said.
The consulate chose to partner with Harlem organization Brotherhood-SisterSol, and later picked two young people from New York, Nicholas Peart and Marsha Jean-Charles, to participate in the one-week program in Rio in early January. "In speaking to the Harlem-based team, we discovered that the communities shared many of the same challenges, and had each found different solutions to some of those issues," explained Mercado. The consulate also partnered with Bridge Language School, which offered free Portuguese and English classes to the participants. Two youth from Rio were also chosen--Silva and Daiene Mendes--to travel to New York in the coming months.
In the Rio exchange, the consulate designed a program to expose participants to underserved communities in Rio, as well as non-profits, government, the arts, public security, and other key issues. The two Brazilians who will travel to New York accompanied the Americans throughout the visit; Mercado says the consular staff was happy to see they formed a "cohesive bond." The program even garnered media attention, including Globo's Bom Dia Brasil. The two New York participants chronicled the visit in blog posts, which were also shared on Facebook and Twitter; highlights from the trip were also featured on the U.S. embassy's social media pages.
I met Peart in New York after he returned from the exchange. A mentor at Brotherhood-SisterSol who graduated from Borough of Manhattan Community College in liberal arts last year, Peart is easygoing and well-spoken. He described the exchange as "life-changing" and "magical," and already wants to go back to Brazil.
In 2011, Peart wrote a powerful opinion piece for The New York Times on stop-and-frisk and police brutality in New York, and continues to speak out about this civil rights issue to the press. So for Peart, seeing police engagement in favelas to improve the relationship between communities and the government made an impression. In visiting the UPP in Complexo do Alemão, he saw a lot of potential in improving police-resident ties, even though problems persist. Meanwhile, he said, New York has a long way to go. "The relationship between the police and the [Harlem] community is so hostile," he told me. "It would take an entire generation for it to change." He was also unfazed by the violence in Rio. "Violence happens here, too," he said.
That said, Peart was struck by the poverty and divisions between rich and poor in Rio. "What about the people on the hills?" he wondered out loud. "These are the forgotten people left to govern themselves." But he was also impressed by the resilience of communities. "There's hope," he noted. Though he really liked Ipanema, he noticed the high gates that dominate the neighborhood.
It was Peart's first visit outside the U.S. other than Jamaica (he is of Jamaican descent). He loved Rio culture, from the music to the beach to the food. He was happy to discover the gastronomical similarities between Brazil and the West Indies, especially rice and beans. Peart's favorite stop during the trip was Afroreggae, where he said they "use art as their weapon for change." He's still learning Portuguese, and hopes more high school students from New York have a chance to participate in exchanges so they're inspired to learn a language. Peart studied Spanish in high school and college, but wasn't too interested. "You have to give things meaning," he said.
Peart and his American colleague spent a lot of time with their Brazilian counterparts, even spending time with them after the official activities had ended. Meeting Silva and Mendes, Peart was struck by their maturity and self-awareness. But he also found they had a lot in common, even as they communicated through a translator. "We're not so different," he said. "It's just where the boat left us at."