Promoting Active Citizenship in Brazil – Reflection from Diana Engel Gerbase

Hi, all! My experience this summer is one that I will definitely never forget and I am so thankful for having AC4 as one my supporters.

After about a year and a half of maturation of my ideas and a lifetime desire to work in the improvement of civic engagement in Brazil, I finally started turning ideas into reality. During 2 months, I put in practice a pilot program and research project for Praxis, a democratic civic education initiative that I want to start in Brazil.

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Civic engagement is one of the essential building blocks of a healthy democracy that promotes its people’s peace and well-being. It is citizens’ active participation that keeps institutions and governments in check and properly working towards society’s goals. Besides that, as demonstrated by initiatives in many developed countries and by a robust research literature, in order to build that engagement, civic education is key.

Unfortunately, this is not the case of Brazil. In my country, democratic civic education has been absent from school curricula for at least 50 years. Nowadays, the youth grows up without understanding the basic institutions of our democracy, without the skills to lead and participate and, finally, without the recognition of their own importance and capacity in the process of social change. Praxis’ proposal is to equip the youth with the knowledge, the skills and the positive attitude they need to transform their own realities and fruitfully engage with politics, the state, the government, and the Brazilian democracy in general.

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My summer work took place in Colégio Estadual Florinda Tubino Sampaio, a public state school in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. The school enrolls about 950 students (in total) that come mainly from middle to low-income families. The entire morning high school freshmen, consisting of 104 students divided into five classes, were enrolled in the project. The program took place within three scheduled 50-minute sessions per week and also extra-class activities.

The program consisted of a mix of lectures-style classes focused on knowledge on civic issues, a guided class project where students had to put in practice the concepts learned in order to help solve a problem in their own community and a series of talks that hosted social entrepreneurs guest speakers who shared heir perspectives on real-life issues. The students were also offered a documentary workshop in order to learn how register their work, and the films will be shown to the school community in October 2015.

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At the end of the program, the students presented their class-selected challenge and plan of action to an external evaluation panel, composed of the aforementioned guest speakers. The students’ projects focused on animal protection (class 101), school revitalization (class 102), waste management (class 103), anti-discrimination campaign in the school (class 104) and school infrastructure fixing (class 105). This activity allowed the students to get first hand feedback and suggestions from experienced social entrepreneurs and to practice their presentation skills to external audiences.

Finally, at the closing event, both the program and the students’ projects were presented to the school community, involving parents, teachers, school staff, and friends. Prizes to the students evaluated as the most cooperative in each class by their own peers were awarded as well as a class prize to the group with the best plan of action according to the external panel evaluation.

In parallel to the students program itself, I conducted a series of assessment and research activities to help me better understand the program’s impact and plan for future expansion. I applied a pre and a post-test questionnaire to both the intervention and the control group; conducted 3 types of satisfaction surveys with the students; and continuously interviewed the 3 directly involved teachers.

In addition to the direct impact on the students, the project had a great impact on the development of Praxis: it allowed me to grasp much better the reality of public schools in Brazil; the teachers perspectives, frustrations and aspirations; to understand students’ pace of learning and to identify the on the ground challenges to the development of the social enterprise.

Fortunately, the future outlook for Praxis seems extremely positive. First and foremost, there is a recognized need in the Brazilian society for increased civic educational activities in schools. We had an extremely positive reception in the school community, and constantly received feedback from individuals who supported the idea and emphasize its benefits and the difference it made.

Second, we were able to guarantee well-planted seeds for Praxis. We solidified a strong network of funders, supporters, volunteers, and experts who are willing to contribute to Praxis’ future and want to see it grow. This network also already includes three potential staff members who declared their interest to be involved in future developments.

Third, by the request of the school teachers, the program was extended this year, and my intervention became only the first phase of a program that will be worked on with the students until December. Furthermore, the teachers and school staff wish to continue it next year and other schools have already showed interest. We were also contacted by school alumni, students from other grades, and parents who showed appreciation for the initiative and wanted to be involved.

As I said in the beginning, this will definitely be a professional and research experience not to be forgotten and I am sure that AC4 helped me plant a very special seed that will hopefully have a positive impact in Brazil’s future.


Author:  Diana Engel Gerbase is at Columbia’s School of International & Public Affairs in the masters program in Public Administration, with a Urban and Social Policy Concentration.

Photos provided by author.

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