It's a long way from Complexo do Alemão to New York, but a new program brought two young journalists to the Big Apple from the Cidade Maravilhosa this month. Empowering Underserved Youth through Social Media: A Community Journalism Exchange, created by the U.S. consulate in Rio de Janeiro, was launched in January, when two young journalists from Harlem traveled to Rio.
It's clear why Renê Silva and Daiene Mendes were chosen for the program. Renê is a textbook wunderkind. At the tender age of 11, he was inspired by a school project to begin a newspaper in his community in Complexo do Alemão, given the lack of local news available there. He began writing articles and printing 100 monthly copies, eventually managing to get paid advertisments. Within five years, he was already printing several thousand copies a month. Later on, Renê launched the Voz da Comunidade website and stopped the print version. The website, now known as Voz das Comunidades, covers not only Complexo do Alemão, but also Rocinha, Santa Marta, Vigário Geral, Vila Cruzeiro, and Maré. Now 19, Renê plans to start the print edition again in April with 5,000 copies and eventually expand to 10,000.
Though he gradually gained local fame through Voz da Comunidade, it wasn't until 2010 that Renê gained national and even international recognition. When the government sent in pacifying troops to Complexo do Alemão, Renê live tweeted the events, gaining nearly 20,000 followers on the Voz da Comunidade Twitter account practically overnight. Renê attracted some high-profile fans, including TV personalities Regina Casé and Luciano Huck. He served as a consultant for Malhação, a Brazilian novela, and worked for Casé as a consultant and writer for her show. More recently, Renê got an even bigger gig: famed novela writer Glória Perez decided to put him on her newest novela, Salve Jorge, and to feature Voz da Comunidade on the show as well. Renê plans to go to college to study journalism later this year.
Daiene, age 23, is in college studying communications. Along with a day job, she also works as a volunteer journalist for Voz da Comunidade. Daiene lives near Renê, and he invited her to participate in a Voz da Comunidade event last year. Since then, she's been writing the culture column for the publication. Like Renê, she's incredibly well spoken and constantly connected to social media.
Renê now has over 50,000 followers on his personal Twitter account and nearly 8,000 followers on Facebook. Voz da Comunidade has even more, with almost 115,000 Twitter followers. "The power of social media is infinite," Renê said. "A publication can generate a lot of noise in the media and the story can go all the way up to the government."
Renê tweets about everything in Alemão, ranging from events and local organizations to social problems--including problems happening in real time. "I think the Internet is breaking a lot of barriers," Renê told me. With just Twitter and email, for example, he can talk to someone like Luciano Huck every day.
The Future of Voz da Comunidade
Even when Renê finishes college, he wants to continue with Voz da Comunidade, which has become a source of tips for the mainstream media when it comes to what's happening at the local level in favela communities. Articles from the site sometimes lead to similar stories in large newspapers and TV stations, Daiene explained.
When I asked Renê what he hopes for the future of the organization, he was pragmatic: "I can't hope," he said. "I have to act." He wants to expand the publication to other communities with local correspondents. The Voz da Comunidade team also plans to start a new tourism project. "It's not they type of tourism 'para inglês ver,'" explained Daiene. They aim to create customized tours based on interests, ranging from public health to culture. As a registered tour guide, Daiene is working with Renê to put the project together.
Views on Pacification
Renê and Daiene showed mixed feelings about the UPPs. Renê explained that a lot of young people feel that "it's not exactly pacification; it's a process of occupation." Pacification is coming slowly. "We lived for years under a parallel power...it's a new way of life. Young people haven't adapted yet," he said.
Daiene agreed, saying the UPPs don't represent a magic bullet solution to get rid of drug trafficking. There are many other things that need to be done and the process isn't complete, she noted. "I think UPPs create a false sense of peace," Daiene said.
One of the issues for youth is dealing with police. Attracting the attention of officers can be random, and the way one dresses can affect how one is treated, they explained. An acquaintance of Renê's was recently arrested and imprisoned for two weeks after police thought he was part of a group of criminals. His crime? He had been eating lunch in bar where the criminals had allegedly been, and he was accused of being one of the group.
Daiene admitted, though, that without pacification, Voz da Comunidade wouldn't have gained the foothold it has, nor would the publication have garnered the attention of the public. Things the government had promised but never delivered finally arrived in the community. "This wasn't real before the occupation. Now it is," she said.
The New York Experience
The pair came to New York to learn not only about journalism, but also about local culture, black history, and civil rights issues in New York. Renê had already traveled to London to carry the Olympic torch, while it was Daiene's first time on an airplane. During the visit, they chronicled their travels on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube, sharing impressions of their meetings with peers in New York, visiting The New York Times, and filming their first Times Square experience. New York-based organization Brotherhood-Sister Sol played host to the pair, who also had a chance to spend time with their American counterparts who traveled to Rio in January.
They noted that the relationship between communities and police is similar in New York, particularly with stop-and-frisk. But some of the Americans they met tended to have a romantic vision of Rio, and were surprised to learn about some of the problems in the city. Similarly, Daiene said she had a different vision of New York, and saw that there were problems there, too.
Learning about some of the issues faced by peers in New York, both Renê and Daiene realized they were dealing with similar challenges, but may not have even noticed it. Renê realized that people in his community suffered with how police treat favela residents. "It's right in our face, and we don't even notice. We live there and we're used to it," he said. Coming to this conclusion inspired both to do something more. "We need to mobilize to tackle our problems," Daiene said. "What I learned from activists here is that I have to position myself...and act accordingly in a mature way."
Renê also put what he learned into a larger perspective. When it comes to low-income communities, he said, "We suffer as much as Americans do. These are global problems--not just from Brazil or the United States."