This profile was prepared when Maria Xavier was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
The New Idea
Through a highly participatory process, Graca helps groups of marginalized people come together to build housing units that are specifically designed to meet their needs, providing both skills-development and a renewed sense of dignity and belonging to groups long overlooked by government services. After the housing projects are completed, Graca holds regular meetings and seminars with members of each community; they learn about and discuss their rights and collectively decide how to act. Finally, she provides residents with a united platform to voice their concerns and political positions to the Brazilian government and related international housing initiatives. To date, self-construction housing has largely overlooked the needs of Brazil’s excluded groups; failing to fully engage those whose needs are greatest. Graca has become the first to explicitly link such housing schemes to issues of discrimination, using self-construction housing not as an end in itself, but rather as a tool to address the plights and injustices faced by women, blacks, homosexuals, and the elderly. By integrating participatory housing with education programs and legal advocacy, she aims to empower groups that have not been heard, even by Brazil’s more traditional social movements. To maximize her sphere of influence, Graca operates at multiple levels: Local, regional, and international. As the Coordinator of the Association of Housing Movements of the Southeast Region of São Paulo, she has been responsible for the construction of several housing units, benefiting more than 7,500 families. She works in close conjunction with the Union of Housing Movements of São Paulo, and has helped to create numerous policy changes in Brazilian law. Finally, as a recognized expert in the field and a respected councilmember of the Habitat International Coalition—a citizen organization (CO) comprised of more than 400 individuals and organizations involved in human settlement issues—she has begun to work with similar efforts in other countries in Latin America and around the world, challenging long-held distinctions between housing rights and the rights of women and minority groups.