Claudio Miranda never let having little stop him from dreaming big.
He was raised by immigrant parents in the favela (squatter settlement) Jardim Ângela in São Paulo, Brazil, which – along with two neighboring communities – was chillingly referred to as the "triangle of death" by locals for its high homicide rates. In 1990 the United Nations named Jardim Ângela the world's most dangerous neighborhood.
It was a community wearied not only by violence but by its own self-image, Mr. Miranda says. "Something that worries me in the favela is that people do not dream much," he says. "People dream of a car, a house. Of course you need these. But these things do not bring happiness."
Miranda dreamed that his neighbors, especially young ones who fell into drug abuse, would have a place to reimagine themselves creatively through music, video production, art, performances, and education.
Today, his home swarms with kids playing musical chairs, teens filming and editing music videos, and older neighbors sitting in on English classes. He calls his project Favela da Paz – Favela of Peace.
"In a place that used to be so dark and inhumane, and so devoid of light – I say light in a spiritual sense – what they brought was a respite, a bit of hope," says Ruth Andrade, a former environmental development manager at Lush cosmetics who is now self-employed. She has both donated to Favela da Paz personally and arranged for institutions to give it funds.
Miranda traveled a long, difficult road to become a benefactor to his community. He started working at age 9, chasing tennis balls at the country club where his father was a lifeguard. He never finished high school, instead taking on a series of jobs to support his family. He substituted as a tennis partner for club members who practiced alone. He worked as a courier between offices in São Paulo. He set pins in a bowling alley.
"I was really little, but I was already asking, 'Why don't we have a pool, a tennis court?' So I would take the leftover balls and bring them home to host a tennis championship," Miranda says.
Even as he worked menial jobs, Miranda experienced a creative urge when he saw anything – even old tin cans and buckets – that could be used to make music. With friends he formed a band called Poesia Samba Soul. It creates upbeat, groovy tunes that tell nuanced stories about life in the favela, including one about a teen with a large Afro who has trouble finding work after employers interview him, and another about a boy who enters drug trafficking thinking it is the "easy" route, but later learns it is the hardest, in Miranda's words.
"Music educated us," he says.
Miranda began giving music lessons to kids in his family home. (Miranda plays a number of instruments, including the clarinet, saxophone, drums, and guitar, in addition to being a vocalist.)
"I had 40 drumming students and only one drum," says Miranda of his early classes.
One of his students was Raphael Barbosa da Silva. He came to Miranda already burdened by traumatic experiences: From his home in Jardim Ângela Mr. Barbosa had witnessed a massacre at a bar, in which nearly a dozen people were killed. A family friend was left a paraplegic from the incident. While he was still a child, drug traffickers imposed a curfew that kept residents trapped indoors after dark.
Barbosa happened into a course Miranda offered on video editing. There was one computer and one camera for 25 students. Nonetheless he learned how to use the computer, and eventually Miranda asked him if he would film and edit a clip for Poesia Samba Soul.
"It was my first job. For me it was special. I saw that ... I could make videos," Barbosa says. "Favela da Paz is a group of people who want to make a difference, who want to do something to help not just our community but also São Paulo and Brazil using art and video, using culture. That is the most precious thing we have to offer. We are trying to make dreams come true."
Miranda's dream took root when he and his partners fashioned a top-quality sound studio on a floor of the family home his father donated to them. They used discarded items like concrete posts and foam to fashion acoustic insulation. Trash was repurposed to decorate it: A globe-shaped chandelier is made of white plastic cups; a broken microphone, which dangles from the ceiling, holds a single light bulb.
Dozens of bands now record in the studio each month. "Music is very attractive," says Miranda, who sees his project offering youths alternatives to drugs and violence. "A lot of people came to the project that were in crime. They wanted to record music, try out their dream."
The studio costs about $10 an hour to use; the price would be as much as four times higher elsewhere. The funds, in turn, support free Favela da Paz courses. "My idea was always a project that generates income to sustain itself. The music generates that," Miranda says. "We need to be self-sustaining."
In 2010, Miranda officially established Favela da Paz, an umbrella term for the studio and the music, video editing, and graffiti artwork courses that he and his partners teach. They also hold events in the community, such as music festivals and holiday parties.
"He is one of the few people who puts on activities in this area," says Quinho Herculan, who brought his two children to a Sunday party thrown by Miranda, providing a cheery atmosphere right next to an alley used by drug traffickers, a scene that would have been hard to imagine during Jardim Ângela's tougher days.
Some 50 children and their parents played Simon Says and painted on a long tarp set up on Miranda's garage door. A German graphic design student who volunteers at Favela da Paz cleaned up after the kids and poured drinks for them while Miranda distributed goodie bags.
"They are contributing to the community with what they have gained over time," Mr. Herculan says of Miranda and the other volunteers at Favela da Paz.
Community leaders like Miranda are helping residents learn how to assert their rights, Ms. Andrade says. "It's what we call in Portuguese jogo de cintura, which is having your way with things, which is knowing where you stand and using that to achieve your aim.
"They have the same access to drug dealers as they do to the police. They have what I like to call 'earned social power,' " she adds. "They have such a great understanding of the social network that they can use it in their favor ... to keep the kids out of the hands of the drug dealers and almost to build a state of truce."
Jardim Ângela has become significantly safer since it received its troubling UN designation 23 years ago. Community policing efforts have brought better relations and reduced crime, though violent flare-ups between drug traffickers and police are still commonplace.
Miranda walks a delicate line between the two sides. He needs to speak with both traf-fickers and police before hosting public events, asking the former to not sell drugs and the latter to not carry out armed raids against traffickers while the event takes place.
"Those who make art are respected by all sides in the community," Miranda says. "With time, other residents, not just us, learned that they can negotiate space here."
The courses and events at Favela da Paz offer a better alternative for youths in a community where drugs and crime are still rampant. Miranda's ultimate goal is to get young people to think imaginatively about their futures.
"We want people to pass through here," Miranda says, "and then go their own ways."
He cites the case of Barbosa, who now is applying to college to pursue his dream of making documentary films.
"A 15-year-old does not have their mind formed yet. My mind took shape here," Barbosa says. What Favela da Paz teaches, he says, is to have "the intuition of doing something for your neighbor and not for yourself."
• To learn more, go to http://bit.ly/FavelaDaPaz (in Portuguese).
Help kids through music
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.
Here are three groups selected by UniversalGiving that aid youths. Two are music education programs. The third provides an opportunity to volunteer:
• SAEP-USA provides after-school music lessons to township children in South Africa. Project: Give $30 to provide music lessons to township children.
• Asia America Initiative helps provide arts education in impoverished communities. Project: Help buy musical instruments for students living in war zones.
• Amizade empowers youths through educational courses, vocational training, academic support, and recreational activities. Project: Volunteer to help at-risk kids in Brazil’s Amazon region.