Listen to this tale of two cities

In the year of 2014, two idealist journalists tried to uplift a troubled city in their home countries. Only one succeeded. It was not me.

Providência Hill stairs in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Gabriel Toueg

Rio de Janeiro, 2014

I was working as an international press officer for the mayor of Rio. It was a very exciting time to work in government: the FIFA World Cup was coming to Brazil, and Rio was going through an extreme makeover ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games. The corruption scandals were still swept under the rug, which made us the popular kid in Latin America for good reasons.

My job was to take requests from foreign journalists and help them produce their stories. I loved doing that, especially giving as much history and context possible to try to neutralize their biases they might have on whatever issues they were focusing on. Brazil is a country built on contradictions, so you can’t expect to understand it in two days — although that was usually how much time those journalists had to pull their stories together.

I would tell them how we were the only city in the Americas ever to serve as capital of a European monarchy, which happened when Portugal’s king fled Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s. I would also mention our strong African heritage, as we received more enslaved people from that continent than any other city in the world: about 2 million. Imagine 500 people disembarking in a colonial city every month for 350 years.

The year of 2014 was a turning point for us, and for the journalists to understand how important that moment was for the city and its residents, they had to know where we were coming from. I was also hoping to plant the seeds of new and more empathic coverage of our country, usually stereotyped and pessimistic.

For that reason, many of them would want to visit “projects” and “communities” — how we respectfully refer to slums (favelas, in Portuguese).

{For the sake of this article, I will often refer to slums as communities, although the definition of the word community we use in class is much broader than that. Still on this note: Rio’s unique geography comprises many hills and mountains, and these low-income settlements are usually built on them. The higher up the hill you are, the harder it is to get there.}

A big hit among international journalists was the new cable car systems in two famous communities: Complexo do Alemão (German’s Complex, in direct translation,) and Morro da Providência (Providing Hill,) launched in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

Alemão’s cable car running. (Some call it “gondola lift service.”)

Alemão has had the reputation of being one of the Rio’s most violent slum complexes. A year before the cable cars were launched, the Army occupation of Alemão was broadcast live, with criminals running up the hill and into the forest wearing not much more than flip-flops, shorts and guns.

This was the “pacification” of Alemão.

Providência, on the other hand, was the city’s very first community, its foundation dating from the late 1800s. Located right next to our own Grand Central station and to the first radio station I have ever worked on (More on this later. For now, I will just say the radio station and the drug gang that controlled Providência had a deal: as long as we didn’t report on shootings or other crimes there, it would keep their hands off reporters and staff members.)

I had a personal history with Providência myself, a reason I was even more excited to take foreign journalists on those field trips, something unthinkable a couple of years before. They were excited because the cable car ride would provide great shots. I felt exhilarated to show them how rapidly the areas previously seen as war zones were changing.

Until I started talking to locals.

As a press officer, I would tell the journalists that the new transport would make residents’ commutes more comfortable — no more walking up and down stairs. It was also connecting communities to the “asphalt” (how residents of slums refer to the lower-level city,) promoting the free flow of tourists, domestic and international visitors. It was about integrating Rio, which Brazilian urban sociologists have defined as “the divided city” — the end of the abyss between “us” and “them.”

The concept was great!

Except nobody asked either community if it wanted cable car service to begin with.

I found out about that in my third or fourth press tour to Alemão. Feeling more comfortable myself walking around an area that used to be a battlefield, I would discreetly ask locals what they thought about the cable car service. They spared no words.

“It looks nice, but we wish we had more day-care centers. Better schools, too.”

“There is no sewage system from Street X up. They should have spent money on that instead.”

“We need street signs. Where I live, the names are written with paint on a wall.”

And the hardest to hear:

“We didn’t need it. It is a waste of money.”

They left a sour taste in my mouth.

That would be my last 9-to-5 job in Rio. A year later, I would be in New York, not really knowing what to do with my career.

New Orleans, 2014

While I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that policymaking in Rio was not reflecting the communities’ needs, even though the people in charge had been democratically elected to act in their best interest, another journalist was changing New Orleans through a media community engagement project called The Listening Post.

Jesse Hardman had broad experience as an international media developer in Sri Lanka working for Internews. He created The Listening Post as this humanitarian information model in which residents — some of them still struggling with the ravaging of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina nearly a decade earlier — could speak out on their ideas and concerns about their life in the city. The material was then used on a radio program — a community- driven one.

As Hardman says in his Medium article, The Listening Post started out as “cardboard sculptures designed by a local artist that had microphones and recording equipment embedded inside.” They were first placed in public libraries. Residents were then asked a few questions about their lives and their needs.

But before any of that happened, Hardman and his team did nothing but listen. In 2013, they would hang out at local businesses, make conversation at events. According to him, this is called DBWA: Development By Walking Around. It is about feeling the environment and its interpersonal dynamics, and being seen by the community. Instead of looking for an interview to publish, the team would only observe and engage with locals in an unpretentious way.

According to Hardman, by 2014 it had 1,000 voices recorded, and around 1,200 participants by text message. The content was then used on a biweekly radio segment.

The people’s needs were shaping local news coverage, and the information gathered would occasionally be brought to local politicians’ attention.

When I learned about The Listening Post, not only my last job’s memory came back to me, but also the ones from my very first radio internship, in the station that was neighbors with Providência’s community.

I have been to New Orleans, by the way. It feels, looks, smells and sounds like Rio.

Brass band playing in the middle of a square? Rio and New Orleans. African voodoo shops around the corner? That, too. It was the place in the U.S. where the food was most familiar to me. Gumbo, jambalaya, we have all that, but with different names. And I didn’t even mention the Carnaval/Mardi Gras, sister festivities.

There is a reason for that similarity: we have in common a turbulent colonial background, with a major European cultural influences — French in both of them, Portuguese (in Rio’s case) and Spanish (in New Orleans’s) — plus a history of intense slavery. We are a lot alike in our uniqueness.

Both cities had their royalty moments, only to start harvesting what the colonizers sowed. Just like Rio, New Orleans is marked by social inequality and high crime rates that victimize, mostly, the population of African descent.

When explaining to Americans what our cities are like, many Brazilians say that São Paulo is our New York and Rio de Janeiro our California mix: a little bit of San Francisco, a little bit of San Diego. That is wrong. Rio is our New Orleans.

They have something in common with every impoverished city on the planet: behind every high rate of social injustice and poverty, there are decision-makers who did not listen to the people’s needs. There are no Listening Posts. Or ears, for that matter.

That said, it is in those places that engaged journalism is more desperately needed. Pure listening without the pressure of a deadline. Time to establish connections. Genuine interest to build trust. What Jesse Hardman was doing.

For this reason, learning about design thinking and the importance of listening to communities in journalism reminded me of my reporting days. I received very good training in my internships. But I also ended up learning how to close my ears occasionally, which left me with this constant feeling that there was something off about my career choices.

Back to Rio de Janeiro, but in 2008

Remember when I said I worked at a radio station neighboring Providência Hill, and how we were all forbidden to report on crime there?

I can still remember hearing gunshots, looking around to the closest adult in the newsroom and being reminded that we couldn’t do anything.

“There is always someone listening,” Lorimar, the night shift editor once said, referring to the drug gang in charge of Providência and how it was keeping track of everything we broadcast. In case we forgot, there were also bullet holes on the wall near the window.

This is 10 years ago, when we still used tape recorders in radio (and it was all right!) Lorimar, the night shift editor, is the one with the light blue shirt. My fellow interns, Leo and Luana (bottom right), went on to work for the biggest TV station in Brazil, Globo. They are big now! We learned from the best.

Because we were being watched, we had to make ourselves deaf to that entire community. What an irony: we worked at a radio station, yet we covered our ears to our audience when it was in distress, only a flight of stairs away. In Rio, it takes blood for most communities to make it to the newscast. So Providência was completely mute to us.

I loved doing radio, but I grew increasingly dissatisfied. It was intense journalism training that also gave me ability to question things. I was no longer comfortable with replicating the police account of the stories. Fact-checking was always a non-negotiable must in our newsroom, but when it came to the cop shop, the cop’s words were pretty much all we had to work with.

I changed my focus. I went to work for a government I believed in, one that was elected on a platform of fighting poverty. But by 2014, working in government also stopped making sense.

New York, 2018

For our next assignment for the Community Engagement class, we have to use design thinking to tackle an issue in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. One of the problems reported by community leaders there is the lack of literature in Spanish in schools, where a large proportion of the students is Hispanic. Right away I thought, “Let’s collect books and take them to them!”

But then I stopped, backed up and realized that I had just had a “cable car idea” moment.

So I retracted the statement:

“Actually, books are great. Growing up with exercise-induced asthma, I relied a lot on them to entertain myself… But it might not be the best thing for them at this stage. I mean, adults will always think they know what is best for children, and they certainly need books. But before getting the kids anything, we should just go there, talk to them and see what’s up.”

Now this makes sense, I thought.

Now I understand that, both times I felt lost as a journalist, the problem was not listening. Realizing that the government and the media were not really listening to our most vulnerable communities threw me off.

When I picture New Orleans residents listening to themselves on the news and starring in something other than climate or social disaster, my heart fills with hope again. I get more serious about doing a podcast as my capstone project. Putting all the vulnerable voices together so they can hear one another and not feel alone — but this is a whole other post.

I do wish I could go back in time 10 years and give our neighbors the treatment they deserved. We could have featured it in a different story than one of shootings, drugs and casualties.

We could have broken the story about how they didn’t want a cable car service in their community, but rather a day-care center. And psychologists specializing in PTSD to help children cope with growing up in a war zone. And better street signs.

I’m sorry, Providência.

But I hear you now.

Postscript: Neither cable car service is currently operating; both were interrupted at the end of 2016 because state funding was withdrawn. The total investment amounted to R$300 million (almost $100 million). Public infrastructure works are known to be the most common ways for politicians in Brazil to commit fraud and divert public money.

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Engagement producer at Retro Report | Creator of W.A.V.E. | CUNY-J graduate | Rio-NYC | twitter @brazooklyn

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Isadora Varejão

Engagement producer at Retro Report | Creator of W.A.V.E. | CUNY-J graduate | Rio-NYC | twitter @brazooklyn