Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 1999   |   Brazil

Eliana Sousa Silva

Centro de Estudo e Ação da Maré - CEASM
Eliana has implemented a mechanism that provides high quality educational and job opportunities to largely uneducated and working class shantytown dwellers in urban Brazil by setting resident-run…
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This description of Eliana Sousa Silva's work was prepared when Eliana Sousa Silva was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.


Eliana has implemented a mechanism that provides high quality educational and job opportunities to largely uneducated and working class shantytown dwellers in urban Brazil by setting resident-run institutions designed to create active citizen groups.

The New Idea

Eliana's research and action center, CEASM (Center for Study and Action in Maré), transforms Brazilian shantytowns or favela dweller's perspective on their social, economic, and political challenges by transforming residents' conception of the favela from a temporary community into a citizen group with rights to core public services and infrastructure. Eliana's model has three components. First, a rigorous college-entrance exam preparatory course brings students up to university competence within months, and simultaneously teaches them citizenship and social responsibility. The teachers are themselves favela residents who have graduated from college. They act as role models for the students and educated people receive a unique chance for gainful, rewarding employment that gives back to their.The second part of her model is a program to coach third graders, encouraging them early to think about a university future by introducing them to tutors who talk about college during after-school programs such as art, theater, dance, and sports. CEASM's third component directly serves the entire population through its library and research activities that focus on local socio-economic problems and draw in experts from Rio de Janeiro's universities.

The Problem

Eliana's work addresses several interrelated problems facing Brazil. Each year the number of immigrants to Rio de Janeiro rises due to unemployment and poverty in Northeast Brazil. Most poor migrants take up what they hope will be temporary residences in one of Rio's six hundred favelas. But given the lack of education, many find only menial employment that does not allow a living standard that affords an ability to escape favela life. Of the six hundred favelas in Rio de Janeiro, only roughly one hundred have a skeletal infrastructure of electricity and school buildings. Over half of favela residents are first or second-generation migrants from Northeast Brazil. While education provides an avenue out of favela life, in Maré, where CEASM is based, there are only fourteen public grade schools and two public high schools serving the whole population. The illiteracy rate in Maré is 18.6 percent, compared to 6.10 percent for the city of Rio de Janeiro. The percentage of "heads of households with more than fifteen years in school" is less than 1 percent, compared to 16 percent for Rio. Another serious educational problem is systemic: public school teachers are assigned to work sites by lottery; thus, teachers have little investment in the community.State universities are free, but entrance is highly competitive. The entrance exam for undergraduate programs in Brazil so hard that even private high school students have difficulty passing, and usually take a year off in order to study. The test covers all subjects, including advanced math and physics. There is also a vast cultural gap between typical college students and students from the favelas, which threatens the success of their careers even when they can pass the test. The fortunate few favela residents who manage to get an education don't see employment opportunities in their communities. Without a motivation to put down roots, a rapid "brain drain" leads people with a college degree out of the neighborhood.

The Strategy

Eliana's strategy is based on her developing a local resource base. She identified twenty people from the favela who had graduated from college and were willing to be trained as teachers. She located the CEASM headquarters in the heart of the favela and set up courses. CEASM's college-prep curriculum covers four years of high school work in fewer than twelve months. The classes run four hours a night and half a day on Saturday. In 1998, ninety students finished the course, and forty-one passed the test. Thirty-nine students attended public universities, and two enrolled with scholarships at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, the best private college in the city. Of the forty-nine who did not pass the first time, all came back to try again.The training is about teaching advanced thinking skills. CEASM teachers push students to examine data, make hypotheses, and support their arguments not only so that they will be able to pass the initial exams but, more importantly, succeed in college. Used to receiving second-best, students recognize and respect that CEASM demands the highest quality from its teachers and students. The courses also focus on local issues. Whether discussing politics, language, or science, coursework utilizes local data to reflect on the reality of the students' experiences. Doing so makes the material relevant, restores a sense of the neighborhood's history, and encourages the students to invest in their community during school and afterward as professionals. The alumni of the CEASM entrance-exam prep classes have formed a club and are meeting regularly, not only to support each other but also to develop activities to benefit the neighborhood. In addition to college-prep classes, CEASM offers basic and advanced computer courses, enrolling one hundred and sixty students. Eliana's ability to build the sense of citizenship is related to the fact that CEASM employs more than seventy people, of whom 90 percent are residents. The organization seeks out further sources of employment for its students as well as for community members in general. One job opportunity comes through the Census, in which people are trained to conduct house-by-house socio-educational surveys. The students and staff of CEASM produce a monthly newspaper called "The Citizen." Local businesses support the paper with advertisements. The Citizen, with a printing run of five thousand copies, promotes the educational and cultural activities of CEASM and keeps the neighborhood informed.The sustainability of Eliana's ideas is ensured through community contributions and partnerships. She has formed a partnership with the Foreign Language Department at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro to provide curriculum in English, Spanish, and French for three hundred students. Partnerships with the public utility company, Petrobras, the City Hall of Rio de Janeiro, the Osvaldo Cruz Foundation, the Bento Rubião Foundation, the federal government, local universities, and the British Consulate also support CEASM's programs. The Canadian Consulate helped CEASM buy their headquarters building. To increase community ownership, CEASM will be asking for a donation of five dollars per resident, with the goal of securing contributions from 2 percent of the Maré population. Each donor can specify which programs he wishes his donation to cover. Eliana's spread strategy is taking into consideration the skeletal infrastructure available in other favelas and will implement programs where they will be most likely to take root in other parts of Brazil. The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro wants to replicate her program and wants to increase their enrollment from low-income students.

The Person

Eliana's family moved from Paraíba in the Northeast of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro when she was seven years old. Settling in the favela of Nova Holanda, her father was very strict and insisted that all five children study hard. At fifteen, she was chosen to be part of a group sponsored by the community health center that analyzed the neighborhood's social problems by conducting block-by-block surveys of residents. The group met and discussed the common socio-economic challenges; Eliana was more interested in finding solutions. After noticing that some children who had been in school for seven or eight years were still illiterate, she negotiated with the public school teachers and organized tutoring sessions. She attended university and studied liberal arts, teaching adult literacy classes on the side. Just before graduating, she read in the newspaper about the first-ever Residents' Association elections occurring in Rocinha, a favela on the south side of Rio. Eliana researched the statutes surrounding the electoral process and determined that Nova Holanda would benefit similarly from having open elections. Gathering together parish members and people who had worked with her on the social research project, Eliana launched her own campaign for president of the Nova Holanda Residents' Association and won with more than one thousand votes out of seventeen hundred cast. Only twenty-two years old at the time of her election, Eliana served as president from 1984 to 1987. Her primary goal was education reform, but she discovered that the first item on her agenda had to be the rescue of the favela's decrepit physical infrastructure, in order to ensure that residents would stay and invest in their own future and the future of the community as a whole. Her first major accomplishment as president, then, was convincing the electric company to install high-quality poles in Nova Holanda. Her second feat was to improve sanitation; she collaborated with CEDAE, the water and waste department, to lay in sewers where none had existed before and even to set up a waste treatment center. Throughout her presidency, Eliana learned how to negotiate with the public and private sectors, how to write and present proposals, and how to manage personnel.After a successful term as president, Eliana became the Director of Education in the Residents' Association. Later, she received her master's degree in education at the Pontifical Catholic University, after which she became a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Looking around the university, she saw few students from her background because most of them could not pass the college entrance exams. She researched exam-preparation programs throughout the city of Rio de Janeiro. In 1995, she brought together a group of locally based colleagues and decided to launch CEASM.

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