The slums of Rio de Janeiro have a global reputation for extreme poverty and unchecked violence, thanks to high-profile news reports as well as their starring role in the acclaimed 2002 movie City of God. The crammed-together shanties, stacked one atop another along the hillsides of Brazil’s second-largest city, house a large and rapidly growing population due to continued flight from rural to urban areas and higher birth rates among the poor.
Asheville resident Steven Slack first visited an urban slum during a trip to Rio in 2002, after graduating from Warren Wilson College. He was struck by the conditions he witnessed, and when Marcos Burgos, a friend he’d met along the way, launched the aid organization Mundo Real a few years later, Slack quickly came on board.
He and Burgos “always talked about doing something,” says Slack. “There’s only so many times you can go through a place like that without thinking, ‘I have something to offer, something to share.’”
The secular group began its work in Rocinha, a slum that’s home to an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people, in 2007, partnering with two local residents to form Projeto Primeiros Passos (Project First Steps). Although there are government and nonprofit services available for the physically and mentally disabled in Rio, Slack says many eligible slum dwellers can’t get to where they need to go or don’t even know how to find help. Additionally, there’s no network in place to identify people who need assistance. To meet those needs, the group began providing information as well as physical transportation.
In the course of that work, however, Mundo Real conducted intensive research that has led to various attempts to reduce disparities in slum-dwellers’ access to health care, housing, employment and education. The group has also initiated classes on tuberculosis prevention and has begun compiling a database of people who need medical attention or other services.
While in Brazil, the group’s volunteers live shoulder to shoulder with Rocinha’s permanent residents. “To understand and make a connection to the community, you have to stay there and live there,” says Slack.
Burgos runs the headquarters in New York City, but Slack, who’s based in Asheville, handles public relations and makes periodic trips to Brazil for hands-on work.
A relatively new group, Mundo Real is in the process of filing for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status (“We’re really close,” notes Slack). In the meantime, the organization’s hand-to-mouth existence is supported primarily by community fundraisers. One such event, at the Orange Peel last year, not only brought much-needed money but also forged more connections.
“I’ve never seen so many Brazilians in Asheville,” Slack recalls.
Info: Mundo Real Inc., P.O. Box 1089, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10185-1089 (www.1mundoreal.org).