Alessandra Orofino is one of those people who identifies a problem and immediately starts planning possible solutions. She's an organizer, which is complicated in the digital age given the speed with which you can connect to a huge audience, but also given the ease of clicking "like" on Facebook can limit people's willingness to do much else. By using web and mobile technology, Orofino is not only helping organize Cariocas, but is helping change the way Cariocas interact with and influence public policy. And she's only 23.
The Origins of Meu Rio
Orofino's big idea came from her different experiences abroad and at home. She grew up in Rio, and lived in Montreal for part of her adolescence. She got a scholarship to study political science in Paris, but after a year at a training ground for French public officials, she decided to go back to Rio. In Brazil, she began working for Promundo, an advocacy group against gender-based violence and violence against children. There, she gained experience in campaigning.
After that, she went India to work on gender-based violence research. In New Delhi, she worked with a local NGO and interviewed victims of violence. “I knew that I wanted to work with organizing because one of the things that were most striking to me in India was that every one of the girls I talked to felt so lonely,” Orofino said. Through her experience, she knew there was a community of people with the power to change things, while there was a lack of public policy action happening. She wanted to organize, but couldn't do that in a research role.
Her next step was to go to Columbia, where she got a scholarship to study economics. But before she left, she had an important conversation with a high school friend, Miguel Lago. It was in 2008, right after Fernando Gabeira had lost the Rio mayoral election to Eduardo Paes. Gabeira had a really interesting campaign, said Orofino, that was “pretty bold” in its premise and execution; he lost by a small margin. A group of young people were engaged in his campaign, but felt frustrated after the election, almost wanting the city not to work and "for everything to go to hell." Lago and Orofino discussed the fact that the energy of these young people wasn’t being channeled toward the good of the city to build something positive. They talked about how to organize people in Rio to become "a real power toward accountability, transparency, and participation in government, regardless of who was in power," explained Orofino. They wanted to create a voice for the city that wasn't subject to the electoral cycle.
So Orofino got to work, examining organizing efforts work in other parts of the world. She discovered Get Up, the biggest political movement in Australia that uses new and innovative tools to organize people. Jeremy Heimans, the founder of Get Up, was moving to NYC to start a new organization called Purpose just as Orofino was about to start at Columbia. Two weeks after arriving in New York, she knocked on his door, and he hired her. After starting at Purpose, she found the perfect place to incubate an organization in Rio. After working at the organization in New York, she went back to Rio to open Purpose's Brazil office and start fundraising for her own organization. At the end of 2011, Meu Rio was born.
Channeling the Power of Technology to Mobilize Cariocas
Meu Rio is an online platform that allows Cariocas to have a say in what's happening in the city. "We think about our work as translating public policy issues into a language that is understandable to broader society and young people," said Orofino. The site gives people an opportunity to act on things they think are important, and allows both organizers and users to identify areas for change and action. Meu Rio has a team dedicated to researching public policy so they can mobilize people effectively.
There are a number of different components to the organization. First, there are online petitions, on both Meu Rio and on a subsite called Panela de Pressão. This site allows petitioners to email the responsible party directly when they sign a petition. Meu Rio also does video and design work, creating short clips and infographics to explain public policy. The organization also has a blog called Blog de Olho, which serves as a watchdog for the city council. Meu Rio sends a person to cover what's happening there every day; not even the media does that anymore, Orofino points out.
Keeping an eye on the city council has helped inspire campaigns. One, for example, demanded open data from the city council. It gave in, and by July their data should be accessible. Another came out of the state legislature. Meu Rio discovered that a state-level bill had been introduced at the last minute to change the city's environmental codes. It would give the executive the power to choose which projects would go through an environmental licensing process, and which would be exempt. The criteria for deciding which ventures would be exempt would not be released to the public, nor would the bill be discussed with civil society. "It was an open door for corruption," said Orofino. The vote was due to take place the same day, but Meu Rio mobilized quickly and got 7,000 people to sign a petition and several hundred people to call their legislators. Around 150 people showed up to the vote. The legislators got scared and didn't vote, and just days later, the governor killed the bill, saying it was flawed.
Meu Rio uses technology not only to mobilize, but to have a direct impact. Last year, an eight-year-old student wrote to Meu Rio about her school, the Escola Municipal Friedenreich. It has around 300 students, and is one of the best public schools in the country along with specialized staff and facilities for the disabled. The city had decided to demolish the school to build a parking lot for the nearby Maracanã Stadium. There was no plan to rebuild the school or transfer the students, and the parents only found out through the local news.
So the organization set up a campaign to save the school and got 20,000 signatures on a petition. The campaign started attracting media attention, but even the secretary of education--who Meu Rio met with--didn't know what to do. So Meu Rio decided to try a new tactic. They set up a webcam at an apartment across the street from the school, and monitored the school 24/7 through a website with a live feed from the camera. People could sign up to be a "guardian" of the school and watch the feed, and if bulldozers showed up, those watching could press a red button to contact Meu Rio, which would send out text messages to followers in order to physically protect the school. Around 3,000 people signed up to watch the school, and using analytics, Meu Rio discovered that for the two months of the campaign, not a minute passed that someone wasn't watching the school. Public officials realized it would be a PR disaster to demolish the school, said Orofino, and gave up. The school will stay through 2013, and should it be demolished, a new school will be built in the same neighborhood.
Building a Movement: Next Steps
Meu Rio is working on three different objectives, aside from their mission. First, they're trying to grow their membership base. Any time someone takes an action on the website--be it signing a petition or signing up for an event--they have to register with their email address. After only a year and a half of existence, Meu Rio has 100,000 members who have acted on at least one campaign. Around 80,00 have acted on more than one campaign, and about half are ages 20-29.
The next step is fundraising. Orofino participated in initial fundraising rounds from around 80 individuals and a few local foundations. But it's not easy to be a non-profit in Brazil without receiving funding from government agencies or public companies. Since Meu Rio doesn't want to compromise its work, it can't receive money from the government or political parties. Now, it's trying to diversify its sources of funding, and started a campaign in April to allow people to give in smaller amounts online and to give monthly donations. Around 350 people signed up to give monthly, and Orofino wants to get to 1,000 this year. The goal is to be completely member-funded within three years, she explained.
The last step is becoming a completely independent organization. Meu Rio was incubated by Purpose, which is still an incubation partner and is technically the employer for some staff members.
Orofino's Rio de Janeiro
I asked Orofino about a worthy issue in Rio that doesn't get a lot of attention. Sanitation, she explained, is an invisible problem and a "perfect failure." Fifty percent of Cariocas lack sanitation, be it safe piped water or a connection to the sanitation system. Not only is it a public health risk, but an environmental risk for the whole city, Orofino pointed out, given that sewage ends up in the ocean or in someone's backyard. Since pipes run underground, it doesn't create electoral capital, since no one will see it. It's not as visible as other public projects, and it's not a terribly sexy issue.
Meu Rio has a campaign to change how CEDAE, the city's water and sanitation company, works. Its president, who has been there for a long time, has unchecked powers, since CEDAE isn't regulated by other government agencies. This allows the president to make major decisions, like changing the price of water or making changes to the sanitation system without any regulation or consultation. Meu Rio's campaign is still ongoing.
On the other hand, I asked her why people should be excited about Rio. For Cariocas, she said, "there’s a tremendous window of opportunity that is open now and will close soon." With lots of investment and attention, "Rio has the timing, resources, and momentum to tackle its historical challenges," she noted. The eyes of the world watching, too, she said. Since that's not always the case, Cariocas should use that to improve sanitation, education, urban mobility, and other obstacles to development.
For foreigners, Rio provides an "amazing laboratory," said Orofino. It's a city of contrasts that can remind one of Paris in one neighborhood or Nairobi in another. "What happens in Rio is relevant to the developed and developing worlds," she explained. Seeing what's happening in innovation and startups could be useful for people to implement all over the world. Plus, Rio is an easy city to feel at home in. "Rio has the willingness to lend its identity to whoever lands here," Orofino told me.
Finally, I asked about what will happen when the mega-events end. For Meu Rio, the work won’t change. "The most important thing will be to make sure that after the party is over, the people who are here are able to keep participating in the life of their city," Orofino said. "We talk about the infrastructure and social legacy of the Olympics, but not enough about democratic legacy. What does it do for democracy and participation? If we use those opportunities to create a culture of accountability and participation, that’s something that can then live on long after this window of opportunity is gone."
(Image: Courtesy of Meu Rio)