Demóstenes Romano Filho
Fellow Since 1997
Central do Voluntariado de Minas Gerais
This description of Demóstenes Romano Filho's work was prepared when Demóstenes Romano Filho was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
Demóstenes Romano is creating a citizens' movement to ensure children's and adolescents' admission, attendance, and successful completion of school, and of a quality education for all, regardless of socioeconomic class.
The New Idea
When Demóstenes became aware of the extent of the Brazilian education system's failure, he could no longer stand on the sidelines and watch an ever-deteriorating school system. After witnessing firsthand the inefficacy of government and NGO solutions, Demóstenes determined that the missing link was the active participation of ordinary citizens. He insisted that citizens themselves can and must improve their children's education, rather than wait for or rely on the government or other institutions to do so for them. He turned this mandate into action by developing a way for citizens to effectively address the most urgent problems Brazil's education system faces.Demóstenes developed the "Minas Pact for Education" and enlisted the active participation of a wide array of government, community, private, religious, and independent associations. He based his work on the principle that each citizen is responsible for the full upbringing of every child in their community, and that this requires a concerted and coordinated effort among all social agents. The "Minas Pact" translates this principle into concrete objectives and a straightforward methodology that each community develops and maintains through their own efforts.Demóstenes began mobilizing parents, pupils, teachers, politicians, the business sector, public servants, workers, liberal professionals, actors, people's movements, communication media and all citizens prepared to contribute as much as possible to achieving the following goals by the year 2000:Ensure the admission, permanence and success in school of all 7 -14 year olds;·reduce the average repetition rate in the first eight grades and reduce the average drop-out rate;·encourage and develop education programs for children between 0 and 6 years of age;·guarantee specialized school attendance for the handicapped;·adapt the teaching to the pupils' social reality; ·provide basic schooling to 14-19 year-olds, as well as undertake projects and agreements with companies and industry in order to eradicate illiteracy in this age group;·ensure a 50% drop in the percentage of adult illiteracy.Demóstenes first tested the Pact's implementation in small communities in the interior of Minas Gerais, following a traditional maxim: "With hot soup, first you sip from the edges." Through open fora, he encouraged community members to take on the challenge of solving the problems presented by a failing education system and develop methodologies tailored to their specific circumstances. Some common patterns emerged: community members typically saw their primary role as complementary to the formal school system, and decided to take on full responsibility for all children once outside the classroom. They developed volunteer corps to guarantee every child's matriculation and attendance at school, run extracurricular activities, tutor students with the greatest needs, monitor and follow-up on homework, and provide psychological counseling to at-risk children. Demóstenes engages citizens who are concerned about the situation by modeling and inspiring an "I can" attitude, and enabling them to take on active roles as social changemakers. He is thus changing the prevailing Brazilian belief that students' and schools' failure is natural and inevitable.
Brazil has grappled with the grave problems in its education system for decades, yet the problems remain intact and consistent: a high dropout rate, an enormous rate of grade repetition, and widespread illiteracy. According to UNICEF, for every 1000 children who attend public schools, 584 drop out, many of them after a series of repeated years. Only 24 out of a group of 1000 children complete their primary education in the eight regular years. The problems of truancy, repetition, and dropout are exacerbated by the realities of children's unsupervised experiences on the street, where they quickly encounter drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and violence. One day out of school is not simply a lost day; the child takes several steps back and is even less prepared to be integrated into a school setting on the following day. Today's pattern leads to a downward spiral of illiteracy, low productivity, and unemployment, thereby perpetuating widespread poverty. Underlying these problems is a society-wide sense that school and education are the government's responsibility and ordinary citizens have no role to play. Demóstenes seeks to change this deeply entrenched attitude, since he is convinced that the school dropout and repetition rates have achieved these levels today only because citizens have accepted this situation as normal and themselves as powerless.
Demóstenes initiated his work by bringing together 26 individuals linked to institutions, government departments, businesses, and community associations to discuss education. He started with the premise that every citizen, organization, and institution has a role to play. This spurred further discussion, through which participants identified the most pressing problems and several possible solutions. Demóstenes distilled these discussions into the "Minas Pact for Education". The Pact formally recognizes the emerging coalition of diverse individuals and institutions, outlines a series of goals, and proposes several steps to achieve them.Demóstenes encouraged the creation of networks among various (and often competing) community institutions and businesses to coordinate and provide these and other activities. He identified likely leaders to act as "spearheads" to continue to promote the Pact and ensure its consolidation. These local and regional "spearheads" rely on each other as colleagues to share experiences and ideas as they go through similar processes, and look toward spreading the idea further. Demóstenes has instilled a culture of "re-edição": rather than simply replicating the Pact's implementation in each new community, citizens are challenged to use it as a dynamic document which they can adapt, refine, and enhance in applying it to their own circumstances. The "Minas Pact" was created in 1994 and currently covers more than 200 municipalities throughout the state of Minas Gerais, involving the volunteer work of thousands of people. Several of these municipalities proudly erect placards in their communities which declare, for example, that all children between the ages of 7 and 14 are attending school, and that they are working to diminish grade-repetition. Recently, the "Minas Pact" has been adopted in fifty municipalities in São Paulo state, three municipalities in Bahia, one in Mato Grosso do Sul and one in Rio Grande do Sul. Demóstenes is currently working to create a stable infrastructure that can integrate and support the Pact's diverse efforts around Brazil, and continue to spark innovation in its application and deepen its impact.Demóstenes is now laying the groundwork for launching his program in the third largest city in Brazil - Belo Horizonte.
Demóstenes is from a family of fifteen siblings born and raised in rural Minas Gerais. He was deeply influenced by his father and grandfather, who were rare in their progressive ideals and open-minded visions for their era and region. His father foresaw racial integration long before in was accepted by Brazil's mainstream, and he fought against a culture that encouraged children to lead their lives under their family's shadow. At an early age, his father symbolically removed Demóstenes' last name, emphasizing that he must carve out his own life and not be hindered by any ties to a family name. Demóstenes has a long history of "shaking things up" within the various institutions where he has worked - as a journalist, in a bank, and in a government ministry. Demóstenes has consistently challenged tacitly accepted beliefs and practices especially when they perpetuate inequality and consequent poverty and powerlessness. While working in the government, Demóstenes became aware of the gravity of educational problems nationwide. He began to feel an ethical responsibility to change the education system, especially as he learned that the efforts of NGOs and government reform programs were largely ineffective. In 1994, Demóstenes decided to devote himself entirely to radically transforming the nature of education in Brazil.