It Was Worth Fighting For

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Source: Ashoka

1991. I leave Rio de Janeiro and come adventuring inland to Minas Gerais, like a dreamer searching for the realisation of her ideas. With a degree in Special Education from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), I decide to invest my knowledge in São Vicente de Minas, my father’s homeland.

It’s not easy to leave the “Marvelous City” to live in a town of hardly five thousand inhabitants, living together with people with provincial attitudes, being both a single mother and from Rio. But I had to fulfil my dream. From the local mayor, I obtain a loan for a Daycare Centre. We are in need of a name. Bebeto, who is one of our first students and has intellectual difficulties, decides that it should be called Blue Globe (Globo Azul) – “because the Earth is blue and in it there is a place for everyone”.

When I lived in Rio, I worked with Marlene Morgado, an Ashoka Fellow, on the Solazer project, the Exceptionals Club (o Clube dos Excepcionais). Marlene taught me a lot more than just pedagogical practice.  She taught me the enthusiasm, the never-give-up attitude that existed at Ashoka.  She nominated me as a Fellow and I chased after it.

At the end of 1991 I received a visit from Marta Gil, an Ashoka Fellow in São Paulo, who came to see our project, which was no longer an embryo and starting to crawl. I thought she was the greatest. A cultured, sophisticated woman, but above all else human. We identified with one another and I passed through to the second stage.

In 1992, we received some help from an Italian family through the businessman Vittorio Medioli, who believed and invested in the project. Fifty thousand dollars!! With one proviso: that we change our name to Flor Amarela (Yellow Flower), in homage to his young Italian niece, Madalena Medioli, who whilst on holiday in Brazil died from drowning and was found in a bed of yellow flowers. According to him, Madalena had been touched by the social injustice in Brazil, principally by the street children. To overcome the pain of losing the child, he decided to invest the money in someone with a social project, who was just starting out, but in whom he sensed the desire to grow.  I joked about later changing the name to “green light”, seeing that we’d received an amount which would make the building refurbishment possible as well as investments for our existence. 

In 1992 I am pregnant with my second child and forced to rest because of a serious spinal problem when I am suddenly called for an interview with Bill Drayton. Eight months into my pregnancy, in a small room of a building in Glória on a hot Rio day, with me not speaking any English and Bill not speaking any Portuguese, the interview lasts for eight hours. Despite only a sandwich for lunch while Bill constantly eats just popcorn, I succeed in getting through another stage. 

Later on, after another long interview with an Ashoka Fellow, I learned that I would not be an Ashoka Fellow, since I hadn’t done well in the final interview. Indignant, I sent a letter to the Ashoka office in Rio, pouring my heart out and saying I was wronged. Letter writing sounds so old-fashioned, but in those days the internet didn’t exist. (I only discovered email years later during an Ashoka capacity-building course.)

A few months after my letter, I was invited onto the 1993 shortlist and, finally, they accepted me. A grant of around 700 dollars per month for two years would be my salvation. Or at least if would have been, if local politics hadn’t changed and the mayor who took over hadn’t been interested in ending our project. All of my resources ended up being used to buy food and necessary materials for the school. I did manage to extend the grant for one more year, but in 1996 I could no longer count on that resource, nor on any other. 

I decided to close the doors of the school and thought about returning to Rio, but abandoning the project and my students pained me as much as caring for a sick child. One day I arrived at the school to talk to the employees, some with salaries six months overdue, to decide how we would close the doors. When I returned from the meeting I found a note with the following line: “Do not think that the victory is lost, know that it is from battles that life is lived”. My mother and two other just wonderfully crazy people had agreed to stay on without a salary. At that moment I gathered all my forces together and I joined Don Quixote to tilt at windmills.

In 1999 our debts totalled around 40 thousand Brazilian Reals. We were tired of fighting and could now do nothing more to carry on. It was then that a friend intervened on our behalf and succeeded in raising the awareness of the journalist, Pedro Bial, who made some great material for the TV program Fantástico. Eight minutes on a programme watched by 40 million viewers and a further two slots the following Sundays turned me into a celebrity. Suddenly, all the problems in the world disappeared. We had sufficient resources not only to pay off all of our debts, but also to fund our development.

Then followed years of media exposure, support from nationally recognised artists, and of investment in our project. But also years of incomprehension and injustice which increased my stress level so much that I contracted a illness caused by E.Coli bacteria which almost killed me. I didn’t die and as Nietzsche said, “what does not kill me, makes me stronger”. Strengthened, I can celebrate 20 years of having realized my dream. Today, Flor Amarela is a well-structured institution with strong partnerships. As an ex-pupil said, “Before Flor Amarela relied upon the public authorities, now it is the public authorities who rely on Flor Amarela”.

Looking back on the past 20 years, I can say that if it weren’t for the support of Ashoka, the capacity building courses, the exchanges with Fellows, I would not have gotten this far. It was worth fighting to be a part of Ashoka.

This story was submitted to the Ashoka 30th Birthday Card by Renata Arantes Vilella, who founded Flor Amarela and became an Ashoka Fellow from Brazil in 1996.