Educate for Change

Flavio Bassi works for social entrepreneurship, inspired by popular education and indigenous peoples
Flavio Bassi story

This article was originally published by ECOA/UOL.

“The rate of change is accelerating and our ability to respond when there is a setback or when the world needs a fundamental change has not only increased but also democratized.

This ability to quickly engage people in a collective movement was unthinkable. We are experiencing this intensive moment, a concentration of time and space and a very high density of desire for change. Our challenge is to be able to guide this intensification, this democratization of the capacity to change, this acceleration of the rate of change and channel it towards the common good.

We are having an opportunity for a historic turning point, in which a society that was always defined by repetition is now increasingly being defined by change. That is why Ashoka is committed to creating conditions for everyone to be changemakers, so that we do not miss this huge opportunity.

If we do not take advantage of this historic turn, there are two possibilities: the first is for this capacity to change to return to the elites, to those who have economic and political power, and there will continue to be an increasingly unequal world. The second is that we prepare for this world that is coming, take advantage of this turning point, and then, the fact of being or not being a changemaker will no longer be a source of inequality amongst people.

For that to happen, we need to work with the entire system. We need to talk to everyone, we need to be in the media, we need to show people that this shift is happening. We need to support those parents who want to put their children in a more changemaker school to be courageous in making this change.

We need to take advantage of this turning point and look precisely to the capacity that people have to create a new world based on their own changemaker abilities. It is a unique moment; these changes do not happen frequently in the world. I think that this historical urgency is not clear enough to people.”

The invention of social entrepreneurship

Finding and recognizing social entrepreneurs in Brazil was the work that biologist and anthropologist Flavio Bassi started doing at Ashoka in 2007. Initially based in India, the international organization, founded in 1980 by the American Bill Drayton, arrived in Brazil in the same decade, just a few years after the re-democratization. Its objective was to promote social transformations by supporting individuals who had created innovative initiatives, aimed at solving structural social problems in their community or country.

Bassi, who is Ashoka's vice president for Latin America and a member of the NGO's global leadership team, had as one of his personal goals to recognize more indigenous social entrepreneurs, a goal he achieved by bringing figures such as Tashka Yawanawá to the organization. The chief had been playing a decisive role in revitalizing the culture and traditions of his people since the 2000s.

Today, Brazil has about 400 social entrepreneurs recognized by Ashoka in all regions of the country and areas of activity - which includes, for example, human rights, civic participation, economic development, health and education. Worldwide, there are more than 4,000 in 91 countries.

“Ashoka helped create this concept of social entrepreneurship to show that civil society can be as strong, organized, productive, structured and professional as any other sector. When Ashoka emerged, there was an idea that working to solve a social problem was only a matter of charity. It was a job seen in a very amateur way,” explains Bassi.

In addition to aiming at the professionalization of civil society, the recognition of social entrepreneurs sought to give more visibility to their work and to foster collaboration between changemakers from different areas, making their journeys less lonely.

“In Brazil, as well as in other countries, there is this idea of associating [social] work with something religious - and in the case of very Christian, Catholic Brazil - of donation, of giving. But it doesn't have to be a sacrifice, a priesthood,” defends Bassi. “In my entire life, I have never worked in any area other than the citizen sector. It is perfectly possible to have a career and a profession only in this field, in organizations of public, collective, and non-private interest”.

After five years in the role, Bassi moved to Johannesburg to head the organization's South Africa office, being responsible for coordinating Ashoka across the southern cone of Africa. There, in addition to selecting social entrepreneurs, he also started to work with universities so that they would help students develop their changemaking capacity.

The idea expanded to schools, and Bassi also started to act in the recognition of the so-called Changemaker Schools, still in South Africa. The proposal of the effort, which is present in several countries today, is to recognize and form a network of basic education institutions with pedagogical projects and methodologies that stimulate the development of changemaker skills in students, such as empathy, teamwork and changemaking.

Bassi joined Ecoa’s curatorship in the last months of the year, a group formed by professionals with an impact on the social field who participate in a daily exchange with our reporting team.

“Flavio has a coherence between what he thinks and does that is key”

In Brazil, Changemaker Schools was launched in 2015, in partnership with Instituto Alana. Bassi then returned to the country to coordinate the process across Latin America.

At that time, he worked alongside educator Raquel Franzim, current coordinator of the education division at Instituto Alana.

“I usually say that my professional trajectory is divided into before and after having been a co-coordinator of the Changemaker Schools program and having worked directly with Flavio,” says Franzim to Ecoa.

“The impact of our professional relationship on my life was to have a vision of society capable of engaging positive and necessary changes. Flavio has a coherence between what he thinks and does, which is key in the work environment. And I think that it is this coherence that brings so many people to this vision of social transformation, because you believe not only because of what you hear, but because of what you see happening,” she added.

“The number of students and parents who wanted to know what we were doing has increased”

In the case of Escola Vila Verde, located in Alto Paraíso de Goiás, in Chapada dos Veadeiros, being recognized by the program placed it on the national radar of good education practices. This increased the visibility of the school, opened doors for it to be included in other projects and recognitions and, mainly, guaranteed its survival by increasing the confidence of the local community in relation to the adopted methodologies.

“With this, the number of students and parents who approached and wanted to know what we were doing increased, improved a lot,” said the school's pedagogical director, Fernando Leão, to Ecoa. Leão met Bassi in early 2016, on a visit made by the program's coordinator to the school, and says that Bassi's enthusiasm for education and its transformational power are the best advertisements for the initiative.

“In our ideal world, we would like universities, schools and parents to embrace the changemaking power of children. That this power of agency, of creating, of transforming is not blocked or limited throughout life”
 - Flavio Bassi, Vice President of Ashoka in Latin America

From Mooca to Algeria

Born in a typical family of Italian descent from the Mooca neighborhood, in São Paulo, the biologist and anthropologist had a very different childhood than what could be expected for that context. Before turning one year old, his father, who had studied technology at college and was an intern at the telephone company Ericsson, received - and accepted - a proposal to work as an electronics technician for the company in Algeria.

The family moved to the North African country in the early 1980s, and Bassi grew up having contact with a reality totally different from the one he would have had in the place where he was born: in international schools, he shared his life with colleagues from various countries, who spoke a myriad of languages.

This experience with diversity had a decisive impact in his life and worldview. When he returned to Brazil with his family, already in his teens, he felt the shock from the lack of freedom and diversity of a conventional private school in a middle-class neighborhood in São Paulo.

“There was a small room that they called parlatorium, basically it was the room of a pedagogical coordinator where the student was sent when he or she did something that was perceived as wrong. I would go every week. And I wasn't exactly talkative, I was very shy even. But when I saw something that I thought was unfair or when I thought I was being repressed, because I had a different education before, I would speak up,” he says.

At that time, in his adolescence, seeking to reconnect with the cultural and human diversity that he had lost sight of when he returned to São Paulo, Bassi became interested in the indigenous peoples of Brazil and studied them on his own. Connected to nature since childhood and stimulated by knowledge about indigenous people, he also became interested in the environment, deciding to study Biology at the university.

“Recognizing this diversity and that difference [of traditional peoples] became my mission. The idea of that Zapatista motto ‘for a world where many worlds fit’, to broaden horizons, for me was the big deal. For much of my youth, in my university years, this was my big thing: I wanted everyone to know what a traditional geraizeiro community, what a grassland community was and to know that we are much more diverse than we seem.” To help Flavio, Ecoa tells you who a geraizeiro is: traditional farming populations living in the north of Minas Gerais, in the Cerrados known as Gerais.

During his graduation at USP, his universe expanded again. Bassi attributes to this period and the freedom experienced at the university the development of his capacity to create and make change. It was in the first years of his studies that he founded Ocareté, an organization that works with traditional peoples, supporting them in their struggles for rights, in which he would work for almost a decade.

It was also in the organization that he began his work with education, more specifically as a popular educator among indigenous peoples in the Amazon and quilombolas in the Vale do Ribeira, a role he held until he joined Ashoka in 2007. Shortly after, he took a second degree in Social Sciences, with a bachelor’s in Anthropology at USP followed by a master’s in Social Anthropology by the same institution.

Learning from traditional peoples

Sharing life with traditional populations left a permanent mark on the way Bassi sees society, education and the transformations that need to act on both.

“There is no idea I have that is not connected to what I learned from them, nothing I do that is not inspired by it,” he says. “I see myself much more as an anthropologist than as anything else. What helps me most in my action is to think from this otherness with traditional peoples.”

He has many stories related to how to acquire and share knowledge in the villages, which he considers diametrically opposed to that found in the conventional school system.

One is from the time of his master's research with the Paiter Indians. After asking the people of the village a lot who had taught them how to make a ring or an ornamental design on an arrow - and repeatedly hearing as an answer “no one” - he realized that the Paiter's learning ethics involved being the subject of the process, observing in silence when someone performs an activity to try to perform it alone afterwards. According to Bassi, one of the words used by the Paiter to talk about knowledge can be translated as “slow heart,” in reference to the tranquility and disposition necessary to be able to learn.

“Completely different from our conventional school model, based on acceleration, with all the fractioned time, restriction of freedom, speech and listening. They realized a long time ago that we cannot separate culture from nature, space from time. We have to deconstruct and reconstruct things that for them are already deconstructed,” he says.

Bassi points out that even Paulo Freire's pedagogy is related to this worldview of traditional peoples.

“The whole logic of popular education comes from the idea that the essence of the educational process is the action that humans take on nature to creates culture. When you take the clay and make a vase, the work done upon nature is education. Culture is education. In this sense, the entire Paiter culture is a great education. There is no separation. But we separated, created a schooled, domesticated space to teach our culture. It’s not culture that is teaching us, it’s the school that is trying to teach culture. It’s an inversion. Paulo Freire also learned from places where there is no such separation, where every place is a place to learn and everyone teaches.”

A “semipermeable membrane” between popular and school education

Paulo Freire's philosophy and experience with popular education provided the anthropologist and biologist with the basis for recognizing transformative experiences in education.

Visiting schools in different countries as a result of his work with Changemaker Schools, Bassi realized that much of what was applied to achieve an innovative education was similar to the principles and practices of popular education.

The inverted classroom methodology, for example, present in high-end private schools which are considered to be innovative, is nothing more than Paulo Freire's proposal that education is done under a mango tree, with educator and learner sharing roles.

“I believe in an education in which the membrane between formal and non-formal is semi-permeable, with more and more passage between the two. There are things from the school [model] that are also important, it is a two-way route. Popular education consists of learning and sharing knowledge through the lived experience. It’s life going on that will give you the hints of what to learn, how to make the hook for that subject, how to apply that knowledge. It’s not the inert material that’s in the book, or an exercise that the teacher came up with out of nowhere. It is a living school, whose subject is the very life of that place,” he says.