We Are Not Those We Aim to Help

Favela Verde 3Emily Simmons – Emzingo Fellow (NexGen Brazil)

Recently, the Emzingo Brazil cohort participated in a session in Rio de Janeiro on the B-Corp movement across Brazil. One speaker, Guilherme from Brownie do Luiz, made a profound statement on a key challenge of the social impact sector stating, “We are not the people we are trying to help.”

As a development practitioner, that assessment resonated with me. It’s easy to forget that solutions to social issues don’t come in neatly packaged, off-the-shelf kits, ready to assemble and use. Effective, lasting interventions must be developed in close collaboration with all the key stakeholders, but most importantly with the intended beneficiaries. The people we aim to help often do not have the same economic opportunities, educational background, or access to resources that can support realization of one’s dreams that we do. Co-creation can be a frustratingly slow and disjointed process as we seek to build trust, understand one another, and develop our personal and professional capacities to offer feasible solutions. It can also be incredibly rewarding.

Favela Verde 2The Emzingo Brazil Fellows have been engaged in co-creation in our field projects and numerous educational sessions. Three fellows share their reactions to the collaboration process from our participation in the TETO Build weekend, an Innovation Workshop (in which fellows worked with two NGOs to design a joint project), and Favela Verde, a field partner who seeks to develop and implement innovative projects addressing social and environmental issues for community empowerment and urban sustainable development in neighboring protected landscapes of favelas.

“In the weekend 24-26th of July we built a house in Jardim Gramacho with TETO, one of our field partners. We were aware that this would be an intense physical activity and were mentally prepared for it. What we did not expect was that the construction will be done in front of the future owner of the house—a 19-year old pregnant girl and her family. Initially it was difficult to communicate with them since few of us could speak Portuguese and English was not an option. Nevertheless, as time passed by, something strange happened: smiles, hugs, gestures of kindness and affection took over words. We were understanding each other in simple ways which seemed impossible at the beginning. It was all so natural that only after we left we realized that we actually built more than a house, we built a bridge between two worlds.” – Cezarina Niculae


“For me spending the day working with Despertar Para o Suceso and ALDEaA was a great reminder that we are not the people we are trying to help. One key insight shared with us was around a failed attempt to address the issue of high levels of teenage pregnancy—in the story information and access to contraception had been provided to the young girls in the community. The initiative was not effective and the insight gained was that the girls knew about contraception and how to avoid pregnancy but that becoming pregnant had been a choice. It is impossible to adequately summarise in one sentence the complexity of the culture and feelings behind this choice but to provide some context their choice to become mothers had often been an attempt to gain legitimacy, self-worth and respect within their communities. We can never truly provide a solution when we look at a problem for the first time believing we have the answer. We must listen and learn and be shown the way, only then through a process of co-creation can we offer our skills and resources to help.” – Amy Lee Petrini


“Working with bottom of pyramid (BOP) communities changes you forever. To recognize the emerging future and to become a great leader in the BOP context one has to be intrinsically in-tune with one’s own internal pain and suffering. Empathy for how a person reacts and expresses their needs, wants, fears, and aspirations in favelas begins with tearing down all preconceptions of others and perceptions of yourself. Nothing can prepare you for the strength, innovation, spirit, and love that people muster when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds and challenges. It humbles you, shakes you to the core, and makes you question everything you thought to be true, authentic, and sacred. We are not the people we are trying to help is a true statement. The people we are trying to help are a mirror on what our lives could have been and that image stares you right in the face calling you to act.” – David M. Chee

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