Vaga Lume Brazil is a country with continental proportions. All over its 8,516,000 square kilometres one can experience different weathers, try a wide range of new flavours and meet the most diverse (and amazing) peoples and cultures.
The greater part of Brazilian territory (61%) is taken up by the Brazilian Legal Amazon region, which is home to 30% of the world’s biodiversity and important natural resources such as potable water. This you may know.
What you may not know is that this region is also home to 24 million people (13% of the Brazilian population) of which 42% survive on only half the minimum wage of the country. That means: one of the richest and most celebrated regions in the world is considered a poverty zone in Brazil, with the worst HDIs in the country and limited access to public services, including quality education and cultural facilities.
In a region where you only find 503 libraries (47,000 inhabitants per library, while the USA has one library for 2,000 people), you may also find 10.2% of the adult population illiterate and 32% incapable of managing daily activities that require reading and writing. Being capable of reading and writing is not only a basic step of children and youth education, but also, and more importantly, it is vital for the exercise of democratic citizenship. How can Amazon people take care of such an important region for the future of the planet without realistic opportunities to access education?
How can Amazon people take care of such an important region for the future of the planet without realistic opportunities to access education? How can they be actual guardians of the natural resources without a broader perspective on the interdependence of territories in Brazil and worldwide? How can they play this role with no voice to stand up for their basic human rights?
With these worries in mind, Vaga Lume Association was founded in 2001 to promote access to books and reading in remote areas of the Amazon. Vagalume means firefly in Portuguese and, as the fireflies, the organization went on an expedition all over the rainforest providing a simple reading aloud training and a powerful collection of literature books, to be kept in any community facility and managed collectively, making it accessible for all community members.
This initiative is ongoing – Vaga Lume is currently working in 150 rural traditional communities – indigenous, African-descent, riverside and roadside – spread all over the region, with the support of more than 1,000 local volunteers trained and in partnership with local public schools. Vaga Lume believes that education is far more than literacy, having an important mission of bridging cultural divides. That is why the community is encouraged to turn the library into an actual center of community development where communitarians can meet to travel around the world through the books, but also to talk about a better world for themselves. Vaga Lume believes that education is far more than literacy, having an important mission of bridging cultural divides.
The results of 15 years of work are shining as fireflies in the eyes of these avid reader communities. Children and young people are now dreaming higher and are empowered to fulfil their dreams – so that André, 20 years old, entered education college; Mateus, 13 years old, met an important Brazilian writer and started his first book; Tássia, 20 years old, works in partnership with UNICEF to bring a voice to youth demands for her city; and the list goes on…
Connecting the Amazon with São Paulo
Since the beginning, Vaga Lume realized the importance of connecting people it met in the Amazon with their peers in São Paulo (where the organization’s headquarters is located). As said, in a country with continental proportions, you can find the most diverse peoples and cultures, and they live in very different social and economic conditions.
The city of São Paulo is located in the most industrialized region of Brazil, being home to 11 million people, almost half of the population of the entire Amazon! Most of the paulistanos (people born in São Paulo) had never been to the Amazon and were only introduced to the region via schoolbooks focused on showing its environmental characteristics. On the other side, many Amazon people do not have the chance to actually visit São Paulo, having as reference the violent news about the high levels of criminality or the glamour routinely portrayed in the soap operas. The differences between the two regions are obvious and they give a very accurate snapshot of how unequal Brazil is, despite its image of a welcoming country, free of prejudice and conflicts.
Being in the Amazon and in São Paulo at the same time, Vaga Lume accepted the challenge of bridging the gap between such important regions in Brazil, and the idea was to start with the youngsters, so as to promote intercultural understanding from an early age. The organization established a network of partnerships with different education stakeholders – public and private schools, community libraries, municipal secretariats of education and other civil society organizations – to promote intercultural dialogue between teenagers (from 10 to 14 years old) from those remote communities in the Amazon where it had installed the community libraries and from the city of São Paulo.
Vaga LumeYouth from different backgrounds are put in contact on equal terms to get to know each other, sharing their cultural identities – very informally talking about their routine, likes and dislikes, favorite songs and books, fears and dreams – and also their environmental concerns – also casually chatting about where their schools are located, the natural resources around them, their patterns of consumption, etc.
At first they communicate remotely by letters, drawings, videos and crafts. But by the end of the interchange cycle, they finally meet up at Camp to strengthen the learnings, the dialogue and confirm, at this point, a beautiful friendship.
Vaga Lume created a methodology aimed at promoting intercultural dialogue while developing teenagers’ social emotional skills, such as relationship skills, responsible decision-making and social awareness. The intercultural dialogue promoted can on the one hand, help teenagers from different parts of Brazil to see the world with different lenses and perspectives; and on the other, empower them to actively exercise their citizenship.
The results are inspiring. Teenagers discover from their new friends that there are lots of different cultures and peoples within the Amazon and also different realities in the huge city of São Paulo. They find out that there are also lots of similarities among them – many of them support the same football team, are fans of the same singers or groups, and have similar and ambitious dreams for themselves, their family, and their nation.
It sounds simple, but the impact is powerful: teenagers realize together that they live in a multicultural and interdependent society and that they should appreciate and value what they can learn from each other. They take the lead in actions towards promoting intercultural understanding by inspiring their families and communities to advance the necessary changes for a more sustainable and pluralistic society.
So, Brazil is huge, but not as big as these teenagers’ dreams. They wanted to fly higher and they motivated Vaga Lume to win a United Nations award capable of taking the initiative to Tel-Aviv, in Israel. For the first time, youth from the Amazon will meet their peers on the other side of the world in a pilot-project that will show us the capability of the initiative to promote intercultural understanding worldwide. The expectations are high but are also based in very well-achieved grassroots efforts.
Fireflies shine brighter when they are together and what gives Vaga Lume’s the strength to fly higher is its capability to gather more and more fireflies. Such as Eduardo, 16 years old, whose words I borrow to conclude:
I had a significant perspective change when I met other teenagers that are part of Vaga Lume’s initiatives, being able to contribute to the discussions and learn from all they had to say. I learned how to climb trees and how to produce manioc, while actually learning more about the human being, and that made me want to be more and more involved with the organization. All this had a big influence in my thoughts about the future and how can I contribute to the society as an educator. This network really transforms our lives and brings many good experiences in a unique intercultural dialogue opportunity.
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