This Former Street Kid Is Harnessing the Favelas’ Untapped Political Power
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a massive forgotten community might have found its voice at last.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, OZY is profiling opposition figures around the globe taking risks in the fight for social justice. Here is another on Cambodia’s Yang Saing Koma.
As the clock ticks toward 7 p.m. on a Friday, Celso Athayde breezes out of a business meeting in Rio de Janeiro’s central business district, where he has been negotiating since midafternoon. The 55-year-old entrepreneur, whose T-shirt stands as a contradiction to the suits swanning by on the sidewalk, doesn’t seem tired. Instead, he gesticulates excitedly as he talks about how the deal he’s just made could help insert hundreds more Afro-Brazilians into the workforce.
Athayde is an exception to the rule, one of the 4.7 percent of Brazilian executives who are Black in a country where, on the current pace, the racial salary gap will only close in the year 2089. Not that it’s enough for him. “Every day that passes, I have the possibility to change the lives of even more people,” he says.
Deals might be business as usual for Athayde, but his latest foray is his most provocative move yet: a political party. Frente Favela Brasil hopes to represent Black Brazilians and residents of low-income favela settlements in the upcoming October elections. There was one condition attached to his help: that voters sign up on Athayde’s online platform, Real Collective Mandate Movement (MMACOR). This, he believes, has the potential to connect politicians with voters once again.
We need to have Black Brazilians in politics because we need to see ourselves within the process of transforming society.
Nega Gizza, rapper, activist and political candidate
Through the platform, representatives promise to open significant matters to public consultation with their voters. “There’s a rupture today between the elected and the electorate,” Athayde says. “You vote for people who belong to parties, to financial backers, to lobbies, and everything that you want is ignored. But this means that politicians represent people again.”
With Brazil’s high-level corruption saga Operation Car Wash embroiling more than a third of the country’s politicians in its four years, Brazilians are not feeling optimistic about their national politics. Just 20 percent feel that October’s elections could bring about something good for their country, and only 3 percent approve of the current government. Athayde believes that reinvigorating the connection between voters and politicians is the way to revive a scandal-scarred country’s political culture.
Though Athayde’s life began a little less than 25 miles from Rio’s business center, the glass-and-cement office towers couldn’t be farther from the crumbling curbs where he spent his childhood. Having lived on the streets since the age of 2 with his mother after his parents’ divorce, Athayde moved into a shelter at 10 and into a house in one of Rio’s favelas at 14, where he started working as a street hawker. In 1999 he launched Central Única das Favelas (CUFA), a business with hip-hop culture at its heart, designed to foster social inclusion and career opportunities for Black Brazilians. CUFA’s success earned accolades from the likes of Beyoncé and Gisele Bündchen.
“Celso always told me: ‘Look, there’s this opportunity coming up, it could make money, and it could also not make money. But either way it’s an experience,’” says Ualace Rodrigues. Now 40 years old, Rodrigues met Athayde six years ago through one of CUFA’s sports projects. He had almost given up on his dreams, working as everything from street hawker to motorbike delivery boy to private security. But thanks to Athayde’s social holdings company, formed in 2012 and home to 20 favela-owned businesses, Rodrigues now owns air travel agency Favela Vai Voando (translation: The Favela Flies). “Whatever Celso looks at, he transforms.”
Despite 54 percent of Brazil’s population identifying as Black, wealth and power are overwhelmingly concentrated in White hands. The United Nations found that Black Brazilians make up 76 percent of the country’s poorest 10 percent, but just 17.4 percent of its richest 1 percent. Even better-off Black Brazilians are usually behind: The Institute for Applied Economics notes that the number of Black Brazilians attending university quadrupled between 1995 and 2015, but on average they still earn 28 percent less than their White counterparts.
“There’s a lot of racism here,” says Ana Claudia Correia, coordinator of distributor firm Favela Log, another of the companies under Athayde’s holding company. “CUFA opened up opportunities for Black Brazilians to enter the workforce.”
Political representation is as bad as in the business world. At present, Black Brazilians make up just 18.5 percent of the Senate and 20 percent of the lower house, even though voting is compulsory for all citizens. Nega Gizza, a rapper and activist, has always wanted to enter politics — so much so that she, Athayde and a few others tried to create a political party back in 1999 when CUFA launched. They decided that their timing wasn’t right, but never gave up the idea. Gizza, along with several others, recently twisted Athayde’s arm enough to help create Frente Favela Brasil. The new crowd-funded party cleared a massive series of bureaucratic hurdles before it was approved by the Supreme Electoral Court. Athayde has not donated to it himself, rather using his business connections to boost awareness and credibility.
“We need to have Black Brazilians in politics because we need to see ourselves within the process of transforming society,” says Gizza, now running for a Rio de Janeiro state representative seat with Frente Favela Brasil. “We need to be participants in reducing racism, violence and all the prejudice that surrounds Black Brazilians today.”
While Frente Favela Brasil is gaining momentum, its growth relies on word of mouth rather than flashy campaigns — meaning that its 72 candidates were unable to run on their own ticket or put forward a presidential candidate this year. As such, its candidates are running at state and federal levels in partnership with other parties such as the Socialism and Liberty Party and the Communist Party of Brazil.
The difference, Athayde and Gizza hope, is the MMACOR online platform’s easy-to-track promises, which can hold politicians accountable. “Any mechanism which increases citizens’ engagement with politics is hugely important, because it means their expectations are more aligned with politics,” says Thiago de Aragão, strategy director at political consultancy Arko Advice. “But it all depends on the size of expectations. I don’t think it will fundamentally change the relationship between voters and politicians, but it could be a first step.”
Athayde says he has “no interest whatsoever” in becoming one of those politicians himself. His passion is organizing and creating opportunities for Black and low-income Brazilians, constantly shuffling on to the next big deal.