Isabel Aparecida Dos Santos Mayer

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2004
IBEAC - Insituto Brasileiro de Estudos e Apoio Comunitário


This profile was prepared when Isabel Aparecida dos Santos was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.
The New Idea
Piecemeal reforms, romantic pleas for peace, and external relief programs have all failed to significantly reduce violence and poverty in Brazil’s urban periphery. In contrast to such efforts, Bel’s approach is pragmatic and comprehensive, driven by members of peripheral communities and aimed at helping disenfranchised individuals build solutions to their own problems. By enabling core groups of youth to become autonomous advocates of their own rights, she spearheads a process of transformation with powerful results for largely disenfranchised black youth.
Against the cycles of poverty and violence that too often trap these young people, her work sets in motion cycles of physical and social transformation. Bel organizes youth to build or renew public spaces such as parks, warehouses, or community centers in urban slums. The new or renewed centers become “free spaces,” providing both the stability and dynamism for democratic organizing. They develop into epicenters of dialogue, civic engagement, and a host of efforts to transform impoverished communities. The youth involved in creating and maintaining these spaces become powerful social actors, able to change their communities by curbing violence, improving education, and contributing to prosperity.
Bel also transforms the way that service institutions such as schools, public health facilities, and the police force interact with black youth. She pushes these institutions to question the absence of youth as active participants in their programs, which are often specifically meant to foster youth involvement and improve their quality of life. As the leaders of these institutions come to an awareness of this absence, Bel helps them create outlets for youth participation and leadership that can transform their relationship to the communities they serve.
With the reclaimed public spaces as a base, and supported by new links between disenfranchised youth and public institutions, Bel begins to forge powerful alliances among disparate groups. She brings disenfranchised black youth together with teachers, health professionals, police, parents, community leaders, and middle- and upper-class youth to discuss their differences and craft collective solutions to worsening problems in Brazilian slums. This work challenges Brazil’s polarized social structure by bringing together groups who have been conditioned to treat each other as opponents to directly tackle the fear and inequality that perpetuate social problems.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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