This year, Shine a Light stopped two wars.
The favelas of Recife have long been violent places, but over the last couple of years, the gangs in the neighborhoods where our FavelaNews project works have held an uneasy truce. This January, however, armed boys crossed the sewage canal that divides their community from another; they were high and mad at an old insult, but they couldn’t find their enemy, so they simply killed a boy they found sitting on the sidewalk.
In past years, a murder like that would have unchained endless vengeance: in 2011, war killed 35 young men after a similar incident. Since then, however, we had introduced peaceful leaders from each of of the favelas, and friendships had developed over “enemy lines”; these leaders intervened with the gangs. FavelaNews organized a wake in the victimized community, where neighbors could celebrate the life of the murdered boy and young men could express their rage in words, not bullets. Anger rumbled for a while on both sides of the border, but war had been averted.
At the beginning of September, two other favelas went to the edge of war. A past gang leader got out of prison and wanted to take control of his old territory; he sent his boys to an enemy favela to kill an old rival. One murder, then incursions from both sides, with bullets filling the air for almost a week. The police made things much worse, invading the alleys in full combat gear and beating up any young man they could find. Unable to avenge themselves on the police, these boys took up arms against the other favela. For ten days, no one left home.
Over two years of reporting on life in slums, FavelaNews has developed many allies in the government. We called City Hall, then the Secretaries for Security and Human Rights; they pressured local police chiefs to stop the brutality. As the police calmed down, so did the anger. For three months now, these communities are at peace.
For the last decade, Shine a Light has worked to use culture as a tool for peacemaking in the favelas of Recife, often supported by Peacetones. Our earlier music, dance, and video projects developed a group of young leaders committed to make a difference, but it was only with the development of a news channel that real structural change began to happen. Why?
- In a 2011 research project we published as the Cartography of the Favela, we found two major reasons cited by young men and women for joining gangs: the desire to be respected and rage at an unjust world. Crime provided a way to be recognized as powerful and important, while guns offered one of the few ways to express rage into action. With a local news channel that recognized young people for the good things that they do, and offers a productive way to express their rage when the police or another gang kills their family or friends, FavelaNews has diffused two important motivations for violence.
- In addition to other channels to recognize young men and to express rage, FavelaNews has also created new role models. Passing through the streets of the favelas with the reporters, one hears little kids say, “Isn’t that such-and-such, the reporter?” Previously, one had heard such hushed, reverent tones only in reference to gang leaders. Community leaders and small business people also feel themselves admired, and feel that their work is worthwhile.
- Knowing that not everyone in the favela has access to a computer and the internet, FavelaNews also takes the news directly to the community. Once each month, we create a Festa dos Becos (AlleyFest) where local musicians perform, graffiti artists paint the walls with art to inspire and transform, people from the communities take up an open mike to sing or voice their hopes and complaints, children – trained by FavelaNews in intense workshops – present a choreographed breakdance, and the young journalists show their films from the month. More than 500 people attend the average Festa, developing an intense outreach and, again, new ways to change the economy of respect and recognition.The regular street arts festivals have brought people from previously warring communities together, giving them a chance to meet, talk, and fund solutions to problems before they fester into war.
PeaceTones has long worked to show that culture and law can make important contributions to peacemaking. FavelaNews shows that this model truly works, especially when we expand the idea of “law” to include the many formal procedures that people in marginalized communities use to express, think through, and resolve their problems.
Guest blog post for PeaceTones, December 2014
Kurt Shaw, director, www.shinealight.org