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From poverty to the halls of power

On the day Benedita da Silva was born in Rio de Janeiro 57 years ago, she already had three strikes against her: she was female, she was black, and she was poor. Variations on this same formula have sealed the fate of many thousands of other children in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, consigning them to lives of poverty, bad food and water, little education, few jobs, little hope and no future. So how did Silva end up as vice governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro?

The story begins in the favela Morro do Chapéu Mangueira, a settlement of shacks, open sewers and dirt “streets” where Silva grew up. “Very early I felt right in my skin what it is to be a woman, black and poor,” she says. But fortunately, she had a family that provided her with both hope and love. “This gave me the chance to fight,” she says, “to make sure that what was happening to my friends would not happen to me.”

It would not be an easy struggle. “I ran into the obstacles of good looks, which means being white, and intelligence, which means not being poor. Even if you studied and got the best grades, you weren’t considered smart. I met with prejudice and discrimination early on.”

Such adversities would cause most people to give up in despair, but for Silva, being surrounded by such problems meant practically unlimited opportunities to help others. She learned to read and write, and then signed up with a community school to teach children and adults. A champion of women’s rights, she founded a women’s association in her favela, and then a women’s department in the state federation of favela associations. Meanwhile, she served as a nurse’s auxiliary and study social issues at the university.

A self-described “intense militant,” Silva set her sights on public office. In 1982 she was elected to the Rio city council by the Workers Party, where she served as the party’s leader. Then, in 1986, she was elected to the Brazilian congress. There she championed the rights of blacks, indigenous peoples and minorities and worked to insert provisions in the national constitution on racially motivated crimes, pregnancy leave, equal salaries for equal work and the rights of incarcerated women to nurse their babies.

Reelected to congress in 1992, she then ran for mayor of Rio de Janeiro, but lost in the second round of voting. But in 1994 she was elected to serve in Brazil’s senate, the first black woman to do so. During this period, she continued to live in her home in Chapéu Mangueira, where she received guests such as Jesse Jackson, Desmond Tutu and Stanley Jordan.

Help for youths. As vice governor for the state of Rio de Janeiro, Silva is responsible for programs designed to make a difference for those to whom she has dedicated her life—the poor, the black, the people of the favelas. Among these programs are more than 21 projects that are helping nearly 150,000 youths. Silva is particularly proud of a project known as Vida Nova. Here, some 1,500 youths in 50 communities are receiving job training while earning a minimum salary. A model of intergovernmental cooperation, Vida Nova draws on the resources and expertise of 13 different government agencies, which provide a wide range of services, including medical and legal help.

She is also proud of the state’s gains in education. The problem has not been getting children to go to school, but ensuring that they will have teachers when they do. So with her support, the state has hired an additional 3,000 instructors. Medical and dental care and free meals give deprived children even more reasons to go to school.

The goal of all of these programs, Silva says, is to stamp out injustice and give people a chance to live worthwhile lives. “There are people who work, who produce wealth, who help others to make a profit,” she says. “But if these people don’t have a decent home, if they don’t have water and sanitary services, if they see children die of malnutrition, they will turn against society. They will turn to robbing, carrying out assaults, dealing in drugs. A social program that does not recognize this is deceiving itself.”

But Silva does not advocate giveaway programs. “Governmental agencies and private firms must pay very close attention to what the communities are saying. There is no investment, money or project that can produce good results unless community members are able to make their own choices and choose their own destiny.

“Communities should not be given things, as if they fell from heaven,” she says. “People must receive the means to solve their own problems through their own hard work.”

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