Computers Offer New Path Out of Brazil's Slums

Group hopes inexpensive training, new skills will lure youths away from drugs and gangs

Zizelia da Silva Borges gazes at the classroom wall riddled with gunfire and then at the blackboard with the plastered-over bullet hole.

"It's a terrible way to live," she says, referring to the neighborhood violence. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of idle young men who have nothing to do but join drug gangs."

Ms. Borges lives in Vila do Pinheiro, one of Rio's roughest slums. In July, the former secretary will teach computer science to youths who she says might otherwise turn to crime. "If we were offering a sewing class, they obviously wouldn't come. But computers are very alluring," she says.

The class is sponsored by a year-old nonprofit organization called the Committee for Computer Science Democratization. It is part of a unique experiment to lure young slum residents away from gangs by giving them access to computers - and perhaps lead to a decent job and a boost of ego.

"The idea is that once the poor become computer literate, they will have more self-esteem and see themselves as a person who can participate in society," says committee spokeswoman Julia Michaels.

The committee is the idea of Rodrigo Baggio, a high school computer teacher and consultant who dreams of hooking up most of Rio's slums by 2006. Currently, some 1.8 million people, or nearly one-third of the population, live in the city's estimated 600 slums, known locally as favelas.

"If we want a more just society, somebody must help the poor learn the technological changes that society is undergoing," Mr. Baggio explains. "Young people want an alternative to drug gangs and a more ethical lifestyle."

Using donated computers, software, and technical manuals, instructors teach a three-month course that includes word processing, spreadsheets, accounting programs, and graphics. Each school has only five computers and a printer, and classes - held in community centers, schools ,and churches - are divided into seven groups of 10 students each. Teachers are recruited from the favela, trained, and paid $200 a month from the nominal $10 monthly fee charged to each student. A team of 80 volunteers act as advisers and technicians.

In the past year, the committee has opened schools in 15 slums, serving more than 3,000 students. Five more favela classes, including Vila do Pinheiro, are set to open within several months.

At the Lidia dos Santos Community Center in the Rio favela of Vila Isabel, 107 students are taking the computer classes in morning, afternoon, and night shifts. "These classes are motivating young people to stay in school," says Anna Marcondes Faria, president of the center. "They are a way to end the vicious circle of a lack of education, low salaries, and underemployment."

Baggio estimates that 50 percent of class graduates have already found work that require scomputer knowledge or have improved positions at their current jobs.

Marcio Rosa Ferreira, for example, took a three-month committee class at the Vila Isabel community center that ended in February. A week later, he got a job at Kodak, designing advertisements on computers with graphics programs that he had learned in class. "I told the manager that I had taken this computer course. I think it influenced him to give me the job," he says.

Baggio also believes that the classes have "rescued [graduates'] citizenship."

As examples, he points to a new electronic computer bulletin board that announces favela cultural events and software programs that have been introduced to teach students about health and protecting the environment. In the favela of Vila Isabel, students are printing out flyers and posters to educate residents about AIDS.

Baggio says the committee is simply filling a vacuum for public education and an ever-widening gap between the literate rich and the uneducated poor. "If a rich kid can study computers, why can't a poor kid?" he asks.

In the past two decades, rampant inflation, an economic recession, and government indifference have resulted in major spending cuts in public education. Classrooms are in shambles, students learn from out-of-date textbooks, and the average salary for a public school teacher is $78 a month. In Rio, many teachers don't show up for class, while another 2,621 have quit in the past year.

Consequently, computer classes are offered mainly by private schools, which charge a monthly tuition of $300, well beyond the reach of most Brazilians. Brazil's average per capita income is $3,000 a year.

Not surprisingly, officials at the Professor Ernesto Faria public school in Rio didn't hesitate when the committee offered five computers in exchange for a classroom that residents of Mangueira, a nearby favela of 70,000 inhabitants, could use.

"I didn't think twice," says school principal Paulo Ferrari. "These are the first computers that we have ever had."

On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Mr. Ferrari watched as Mangueira teenager Vitor Almaro Domingues learned how to create files and directories. The soft-spoken Mr. Domingues said that several of his friends had joined gangs, but he planned to "get a good job after learning how to work these machines."

For Baggio, that response confirms his strongly held belief that computers are enticing youths in the favela away from organized crime. Yet he is well aware that in almost every Rio slum, he can't operate without drug lords' permission.

Baggio - like many favela residents - calls traffickers "the boys" and uses euphemisms to describe their activities. His caution is justified.

After he was quoted in a Rio daily saying "computers are a revolutionary vehicle for living a more ethical life," gang members invaded three committee schools the following day.

"They came in, folded their arms, and just watched," says Serenito Moretti, the committee's director. "When they saw that it was nothing revolutionary or dangerous to their operation, they left."

Recently, both Baggio and Mr. Moretti spent several hours hugging the floor of a computer classroom in the favela of Parada da Lucas, after being caught in a shootout between traffickers and police.

In Vila do Pinheiro, violence between rival drug gangs is so fierce that few residents venture out of their homes after 9 p.m. As a result, the committee's school will schedule classes during daylight hours, and the computers have been strategically arranged out of the line of stray bullets.

In the meantime, Baggio says he plans to link the schools by modem, introduce the Internet, and create home pages for each class. Moreover, he will soon inaugurate the committee's first So Paulo school and is discussing his model program with officials of five other states.

"My goal is to include all of Brazil's excluded into society," he says.

* Comit Para Democratizao Da Informtica (Committee for Computer Science Democratization) home page: http://www.ibase.org.br/

E-mail: cdi@ax.ibase.org.br OR fasecear@ax.ibase.org.br

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