In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, volunteers seek for new politicians among young people from the periphery

By João Tavares

When Agatha wakes up at 06 a.m. on Saturdays,  it’s possible to hear, in the distance, the beats from “pancadão”, a street party that flocks brings young people together to dance Brazilian funk through till the dawn. Many of her friends are there, but Agatha’s destiny is another: she is going to face the two-hour trip between her house, in Jardim Campo Limpo suburb, to the Escola Comum, in São Paulo’s historic center.

The Escola Comum (meaning Common School) was created in 2017, as a result of the work of many university-aged volunteers that were disillusioned with the way politics have been conducted in Brazil – a country that faces political turmoil since 2013, culminating in the election of the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. “The slums have an enormous potential and never were invited to take part in Brazilian politics effectively. That’s the reason why we exist. We are a school for political formation, designed for young people from São Paulo’s periphery”, says Wil Schmaltz, one of the project’s founders.

Situated in a mansion in the historic center of the biggest city in Latin America, the Escola Comum receives dozens of young people every Saturday for a one-year based course on history, politics, economics and applied law to  Brazil’s reality. It is where the young Ágatha and her colleagues, all of them aged between 16 and 19, start their class routine with university professors, activists, entrepreneurs and many others public figures that for one year contribute to the personal and intellectual development of the 30-young people in the course.

Altogether, the course already graduated two classes and is preparing to conclude the third, having successfully transferred the activities  to a virtual environment due to the pandemic. Counting on individualized supervision and psychological support for those who need it, the project prioritizes quality over quantity of graduated students. “We know that not all of them are going to join a political career, and that’s alright. What we really want is to contribute by forming critical and conscient citizens, whether they are engineers or teachers, they have to be engaged with the promotion of social justice”, says Francielle dos Santos, pedagogical coordinator of Escola.

The exposure to the political atmosphere, however, is frequent. Personalities, such as the former minister of the Environment, Mrs. Marina Silva, and the former state-governor of São Paulo, Mr. Geraldo Alckmin, are some of the prominent figures that have already joined Escola’s activities. The results are already appearing: many young students that were impacted by the project nurturing the desire of joining a university and, in 2019, two students won a UN award for the creation of an initiative that seeks  to fight male chauvinism through theater, applied in União Vila Nova’s neighborhood, where they live. 

“I realized that there were colleagues in my class who had never learned the theories about what Brazil, but they had the life experience”, notes Mel Oyá, an student of 2018’s class that currently studies Public Policy at the University of São Paulo, which is ranked number one in Latin America. She continues, highlighting the emphasis that the pedagogical curriculum places on issues as race relations and post-abolitionism in society: “So, they started to understand that they were being stopped by the police because they are black, from the periphery and economically marginalized. That’s the powerful bond between theory and practice that Escola Comum tries to enhance”. In Brazil, the black population makes up for 76% of the more than 600.000 people that are assassinated in the past 10 years, which is considered alarming by the analysts.

In contrast to the rise of the far-right in the country, which undermines issues such as the combatting the pandemic and the preservation of the environment while asking for the re-establishment of the military dictatorship, the Escola Comum makes a bet on dialogue and democracy to solve Brazilian’s true problems. Because of that, despite having only three years of existence, the initiative already has an ambitious goal: to cover all the 28 capital cities in the country by the end of the decade, developing political leaders through other regions. “We know that our work is a long-term mission. We are doing something crucial to maintain Brazilian democracy for the next generations”, concludes Mrs. Schmaltz.

João Tavares has a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration, is currently studying Law, and is the Executive-Director of Escola Comum.