Initiative: Center for Multicultural Education (Centro de Educação Multicultural—CEM)
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Year Founded: 2012
Community: Complexo da Penha
Mission: “Multicultural education for environmental recovery, sustainability, and social transformation of the communities of Complexo da Penha, around the Serra da Misericórdia.”
Public Events: Regular agroecology and urban agriculture workshops and classes.
How to Contribute: CEM looks for local and international volunteers who wish to contribute to its agroecology, arts, language, or community development projects. It also holds periodic workdays to maintain its space and agroecological forest.
The Center for Multicultural Education (CEM) is an environmental and multicultural community center located in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone neighborhood of Complexo da Penha. It works to sensitize residents towards environmental practices, agroecology, and agriculture through the exchange of experiences between favela residents from diverse backgrounds and with guests representing other cultures.
Ana Santos, one of the project’s three leaders, explains that “CEM is about simply being a space of coexistence, of relationships, and of exchange.” She continues: “All the activities hosted in this space are proposed by the people of the community. There are capoeira classes with Professor Allison, a teacher in the local school with whom we work. There is another resident, Vitor, who teaches boxing and also another who… gives graffiti classes.”
CEM is situated in a colorful, art-covered building on a hill that is surrounded by an agroecological forest where the organization cultivates fruits and vegetables following principles of ecology and permaculture. In this space, local children are welcome to come and experience nature, eat fruits from the trees, and enjoy a green playground. Santos and her partner Marcelo Correa live at the CEM and sell the produce grown every week at vegetable markets and through Rio’s Ecological Network in order to fund the center.
For Santos, agroecology “is a rescue of local knowledge. When we define ourselves as agroecological here it’s because it is part of this knowledge going from within the community to the outside. Here [in Penha], there are thousands of women making teas… A woman [I interview] will say, ‘I go walking when an herb calls me and I go collecting and making a syrup [for tea]. My syrup has been in the family for twenty years.’ This to me is agroecology.”
The center also identifies with the idea of multiculturalism. Santos explains that the center’s “name came from the idea of being many and different people in the same space, so here we are a multicultural center. It is also for people to be able to propose diverse activities, always in dialogue with agroecology… Our central theme is agroecology, and starting from this generating theme, we understand ourselves through the [lens of] multiculturalism.”
Although both from the North Zone, Correa and Santos both previously worked in the South Zone, Correa as a programmer and Santos in various offices. However, Correa explains that to him something was missing: “I abandoned everything, I was feeling… that I did nothing, I only worked for myself. I rented an apartment in the South Zone. I went out with lots of women. I lived a very good life, very relaxed. But it didn’t fulfill me. So I was distressed. [Ana and I] went out together before [the CEM], and I joked with her, ‘leave the money to the rich, let’s go do social work… Let’s go work for ourselves.’”
The idea for the project came from meetings of a diverse group of artists, educators, and professionals beginning in 2010 at the house of graffiti artist and Penha resident Mario Bands, who also did socio-agricultural work. Santos and Correa explain that the group was motivated by the common desire to protect and promote the Serra da Misericórdia, one of the last areas of Atlantic Forest in the North Zone. The area was designated an urban park and protected area in 2010, but the city government never used the money allocated for the space and it is still threatened by urban development. To fight for the space, the group of collaborators formed the Alliance for Misericórdia.
To create a headquarters for this movement and the various social programs it wanted to advance, the group founded the CEM in 2012. There, they hosted six initial projects, including graffiti and arts classes in partnership with residents. However, after six months problems began to arise. Maintaining the space was difficult as they had little revenue, and it became clear that the City would not invest in the Misericórdia Municipal Park as it had promised. “When we got to mid-2012, the dream ended,” says Santos.
At that moment, they decided to change paths and focus on uniting fragmented social programs in Penha, dialoguing with residents, and expanding their agricultural production. Santos explains: “We went through this process and started to dialogue across networks and form new networks and bring in the Carioca Urban Agriculture Network… We had to show that it is possible to live off of agriculture.”
As neither Santos nor Correa was originally from Penha, building relations and understanding the needs of the community was difficult. They had to get to know the neighborhood slowly, doing research and going door to door with questionnaires. Correa explains “it was a struggle for us to be understood by them, to understand them.” They asked residents directly what they felt they needed. This combination of persistence and commitment to creating relationships paid off. Engagement with youth in a diverse range of activities, from planting and growing food to theater and dance, proved key to establishing CEM as a community safe space and bringing together different social classes within Penha that did not often mix. Santos explains that residents would request that CEM field trips with local children be done separately for different social groups. CEM’s refusal to yield to this type of segregation helped them bridge divides among people of varying income levels and from different areas within Penha. Currently, the CEM building houses a small community library and a space with computers and Internet access for Penha youth.
Today, CEM can count on income from homegrown herbs, vegetables, fruits, and eggs. Additionally, a Penha resident brews craft beer bimonthly in the building’s kitchen. There is a plan in the works to allow local women to generate income through the production of tapioca from cassava root grown in the community. Additionally, CEM is partnering with the Institute for Alternative Policies for the Southern Cone (PACS) to develop a project around goat’s milk and cheese production as a source of income for women. The space is maintained by the constant presence of Santos and Correa and periodic mutirão (collective action) workdays that bring community members together, allowing them to furnish the community with organic food at cheaper than usual prices.
Through a partnership with the UERJ Higher School of Industrial Design and the National Institute of Technology, CEM is also engaging local youth in a project to design portable plant nurseries that would facilitate urban agriculture in residents’ homes. Correa explains that “everyone [in Penha] comes from the northeast [of Brazil]” and “they have a tradition of planting.” Given this demographic profile and CEM’s philosophy of avoiding assistencialismo, or the practice of giving people things rather than emboldening their agency to help themselves, the project is a perfect fit. It also allows residents to grow food in a community where space is at a premium and concrete dominates open areas.
CEM also receives volunteers from around the world. Santos explains “CEM is a patchwork quilt… We say that it is a space of Latin American integration… first because of exchange. Even if [the foreigner] did not come to do anything, just sitting in a circle with the kids. This exchange for us is very rich… [It] starts to create openings here… A bread maker came from Austria, teaching how to make bread here… It’s multicultural exchange… Our space is open to receiving experiences that anyone wants to share with us. And we can share our knowledge through our agroecology apprenticeships. This is currency—having people who believe and who share. Who are here. It’s our biggest benefit.”
CEM sustains itself on these exchanges and the strong interpersonal relationships that result. Correa comments: “[There is] a sadness among the Brazilian people. Each day they dream less. They take a bus for hours to work eight hours, twelve hours. And they don’t have a dream.” In light of this, Santos replies that CEM’s work sustains itself on dreams. “Our work only happens because we dream all the time. We continue to live from dreams, even as the world is falling, everything collapsing. Dreams move us,” she says.
*Centro de Educação Multicultural is one of over 100 community projects mapped by Catalytic Communities (CatComm), the organization that publishes RioOnWatch, as part of our parallel ‘Sustainable Favela Network‘ program launched in 2017 to recognize, support, strengthen and expand on the sustainable qualities and community movements inherent to Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities.