Giving back: Eight innovative philanthropists around the world

8. Reading, writing, and Rio

Courtesy of Tide Setubal Foundation
Maria Alice Setubal, Brazilian philanthropist, is pictured.

Maria Alice Setubal, Brazil

Maria Alice Setubal is Brazil's lioness of literacy. A member of one of the nation's most prominent business and political families, she has spent her adult life trying to nurture Brazilians' use of their native tongue.

She has started schools that use new methods to teach reading and writing, helped organize a national language Olympics that exalts words and poetry over diving and sprinting, and set up libraries in impoverished neighborhoods. To her, literacy is a pillar on which a society is built.

"Language is an issue for all other types of learning," says Ms. Setubal. "Language is an expression of our culture."

In the process, Setubal is helping change the culture of philanthropy in Brazil. Unlike the United States, which has a long tradition of giving, Brazil is still developing an ethic of charity as the country evolves economically. Setubal says Brazilians increasingly view giving not as simply a form of "assistance" but as a "social investment." While the country has received large donations from foreign foundations in the past, wealthy Brazilians now shoulder more of the responsibility themselves.

Leona Forman, founding president of the Brazil Foundation, a major nonprofit that supports social projects in the country, agrees. She says that as Brazil has become a global economic force, many foreign givers have decided that the nation "can now take care of its own." This has forced Brazilians to open their hearts and wallets.

Setubal grew up in a family of privilege long before Brazil became the "boom" story of the hemisphere. Her father, who served as mayor of São Paulo from 1975 to 1979, went on to become foreign minister as the nation transitioned from decades of military dictatorship to democracy. He also founded the bank Itaú, Latin America's largest lender, which the family still controls.

Setubal, the only daughter in a family of seven children, decided not to pursue a career in politics or finance. Early on, she focused on improving Brazilians' ability to read and write their own language.

Barely a fourth of adult Brazilians are considered "fully literate," able to read and relate information about long texts, according to the National Indicator of Functional Literacy. The index, carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics, classifies the majority of Brazilians as having "basic" or "functional" literacy, able to read short messages and understand direct, explicit inferences. "Brazil still has serious problems in basic areas, such as literacy," says Setubal.

After graduating from Brazil's top college, the University of São Paulo, with a doctorate in social sciences, she opened a small school that experimented with "constructivism," using firsthand experience, as a teaching method. "I thought it was possible for kids to learn to read and write with meaning," she says.

The method was so successful that shortly after the military dictatorship came to an end, Setubal, in 1987, brought together a small team to form the Center for Studies and Research in Education, Culture and Community Action. The center tries to shape public policy on education and culture, trains teachers, and implements social projects, such as the nationwide Portuguese Language Olympics. The annual contest, in which schools in more than 5,000 cities participate, judges top public school children on poetry, opinion articles, and essays.

Later, Setubal created a partnership with the bank's foundation, Itaú Social, encouraging it to invest in more educational activities. In 2005, she launched a philanthropic organization in the name of her late mother, Matilde "Tide" Setubal, the former first lady of São Paulo. The foundation sponsors book festivals, seminars, courses, and theater productions in the poor São Miguel Paulista neighborhood. "A lot has changed in these past 20 years," says Setubal of Brazil's philanthropy movement.

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