By ANA CAROLINA ASSUMPÇÃO
IN TIMES OF CRISIS, people come together for mutual support. This has not changed since the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. All over the world, people have worked together to mitigate the impact of the virus on society despite the fear of exposure. One example of this collective support can be seen in the work of a group of volunteers in Complexo do Alemão, a chain of favelas located in Rio de Janeiro. The Alemão Crisis Office (Gabinete de Crise do Alemão), founded in 2020, organized campaigns to raise awareness and enhance the prevention of the virus, and to distribute food, hygiene supplies, and cleaning products. From April to September 2020, the group, comprised of thirty-two volunteers, benefited more than 50,000 people in nearby communities.
To better contextualize the group’s activities, it is essential to describe the place in which the Crisis Office conducted its work. Complexo do Alemão, made up of thirteen favelas in the Zona Norte (Northern Zone) of Rio de Janeiro, occupies an area of 21,982 square kilometers and, according to the official census, encompasses about 69,000 residents, whose average income is around US$245 a month. The incredible work of the Crisis Office marked these people’s lives and served as an inspiration for other groups, which replicated the model in other communities in the city. In order for all this to happen, the leadership of certain women was fundamental, from the conception to the planning and activities of the project, as we will see below.
Camila Santos: Women in Action in Alemão
Camila Santos comes from a long-established family in Complexo do Alemão. As she likes to point out, she is “the root of the Complexo,” since her mother was born at home in the community and was always involved in social movements in the favela. The sense of community care is part of her family heritage. Camila decided to raise her voice and mobilize in the fight for human rights after the government condemned her neighborhood, Favela da Skol, in 2010. Designating Skol as a high-risk area, the government removed residents and announced its intention to demolish their homes. As compensation, some residents were registered to receive a housing allowance, or social rent, in the amount of R$400 (US$79) per month while awaiting the construction of new housing units in the same location.
Camila watched for years as the government failed to fulfill its promises and did not construct the new houses. Some of the evicted residents could not find affordable housing with the insufficient government rent support. As a result, they were spread out in the community or moved to the poorest areas. Camila also noticed that most heads of households were Black women struggling to support their families. As of June 2022, the two hundred families removed from Favela da Skol still await their new homes and still receive the same compensation they were offered almost twelve years earlier.
In the process of demanding restitution from the state for what was taken from them, Camila and other women strengthened their ties of mutual support. Since not all families received housing assistance, and it was not always paid on time, as time went on, Camila saw “the cry turn into a scream.” She founded Mulheres em Ação no Alemão (MEAA, Women in Action in Alemão) in 2016 to address this issue and other demands. According to the organization’s website, “Mulheres em Ação no Alemão has the mission of ending violence against women and contributing to the empowerment of women and their families, thus collaborating to strengthen their autonomy and guarantee their basic rights.” Camila insists that people living in favelas must know their rights so that they can enjoy them and demand that the state do its part. Through her housing advocacy, she became known as Camila Moradia (moradia = dwelling).
With the worsening of the pandemic and the restrictive measures put in place by the state, the number of families served by MEAA jumped from 270 to more than 400 during the first months of 2020. Aggravated by the high unemployment rate, more people faced difficulties beyond the financial. Camila reports that requests for help had increased in tandem with the mass dismissal of workers linked to the service sector (predominantly Black and poor) and the closure of schools. Along with hunger, cases of domestic violence also increased. Once again, according to Camila, “the cry became a scream.” She recalls hearing talk on television about the government of Rio de Janeiro state creating a crisis office to act in the fight against the virus. Yet, Camila said, there was no concrete action to address the needs of the city’s poorest. Aware that these families’ situation would worsen, Camila Moradia decided to convene the collectives that already worked in Complexo do Alemão and, in a call to action on Twitter, named the new group “The Alemão Crisis Office.”
In addition to being the one who noticed the movement in the community and sought partnerships to act, Camila also mapped the community, identified the most vulnerable areas, and distributed basic-needs groceries. These deliveries were the most challenging part, she said, as she saw living conditions firsthand: houses made of cardboard built next to pigsties, without any appliances. Nevertheless, some people were grateful for the help and said that because of the pandemic, they were eating better. Unfortunately, all this work came at a cost to the activist, who, more than a year later, cannot talk about everything she has lived through. She is still traumatized, and only in 2022 could she seek psychological help. Before that, Camila said that her therapy was her three children, who accompanied her in the struggle and were with her during Crisis Office activities. When I ask what has changed after the pandemic, Camila replies: “Before, I had a bachelor’s degree in Favela, and now I have a doctorate.”
Camila’s efforts were not in vain. In November 2021, she received a Front Line Defenders Award from the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders, a human rights organization. She had been nominated and encouraged to apply for the award by another Black woman, Crisis Office member Renata Trajano, a human rights activist, mediator, and member of the Coletivo Papo Reto, a group that challenges the mainstream media’s portrayal of police violence in Brazil. A friend of Camila’s, Renata also worked on community mapping, family triage, and food distribution. She nominated Camila “because of all the things she represents as a Black woman, a single mother, and as a leader.” As a result, Camila Moradia was the first person from Brazil, as well as the first person from the Americas, to receive the Front Line Defenders Award.
Just as a Black woman had nominated her, Camila, in return, decided to reward other women who also work to benefit their communities. She presented trophies to Renata Trajano and nineteen other women to recognize their work in the human rights struggle. Calling the Front Line Defenders Award “an immense honor,” Camila remarked that it strengthens and motivates her to move forward: “It reinforces in me that I am on the right path and the right side of history.”
The Papo Reto Collective
Like Mulheres em Ação, Colectivo Papo Reto (Papo Reto Collective) began as a response to government neglect of the population and because of a Black woman’s decision to take action. In 2013, heavy rains fell on the city of Rio de Janeiro; Complexo do Alemão was especially hard hit. In the ensuing flooding and landslides, a boulder rolled onto the top of Renata Trajano’s brother’s house, and he was unable to reach the Civil Defense office for aid. In response, Renata asked a friend to post the case on Twitter to seek help and avoid greater tragedy in Alemão. The tweet went viral. Officially founded in 2014 by Trajano and others, Papo Reto uses social media to draw attention to social issues; the collective’s work has attracted the attention of the United Nations and other international organizations.
Unfortunately, the group must sometimes work to mitigate chaos in the aftermath of tragedy. The death of ten-year-old Eduardo de Jesus in 2015 was a turning point for the collective. Eduardo was playing in front of his house when the police allegedly confused his cell phone with a weapon and killed him. Although Renata Trajano wanted to cry and mourn the murder of an innocent child, she worked hard to mediate during the ensuing encounter between outraged community members and the police. Papo Reto also disputes mainstream media narratives about what happens in the favelas. Since its founding, the group has denounced human rights violations and continues to mobilize the population for action aimed at protecting and strengthening the community.
Lana de Souza: The Importance of Behind-the-Scenes Work
Lana de Souza was also born in Complexo do Alemão. Since 2020, she has divided her days between that community and Maricá, a city in the countryside of Rio de Janeiro. A university graduate with a bachelor of arts in journalism, she joined Coletivo Papo Reto as communications coordinator upon its foundation. In this role, she was responsible for developing direct action and generating media content. With the group’s growth, Lana became responsible for administrative tasks as chief executive officer. Her responsibilities include accounts, organization, distribution of tasks, and payroll. Unlike Mulheres em Ação, Coletivo Papo Reto members are hired and paid to dedicate themselves to human rights work.
During the pandemic, when Papo Reto participated in the activities of the Crisis Office, Lana was responsible for renting the shed to receive donations, controlling and monitoring distribution, and other logistics. Lana didn’t attend the direct-action events on the street because she was “always focused on ensuring quality logistics for the team and the families served,” she said. Camila Santos affectionately calls her “Big Boss” and says that the great work the Crisis Office carried out is due to Lana’s behind-the-scenes efforts. Similarly, because she is “switched off” while at work, as she puts it, Lana does not appear in photographs released by the group, which can give the false impression that she is not working. Quite to the contrary, she managed the Crisis Office’s distribution of more than 110,000 items during the pandemic.
Currently, Lana has a YouTube channel where she shares her experiences and gives financial and personal organization tips. This is a space where she can express herself and deal with subjects outside her daily human rights work, she explains. She is also one of the recipients of Camila Moradia’s trophies. When asked about her work and what has changed since the Crisis Office wrapped up its operations in September 2020, Lana says: “I want people to know that what I do is essential so that my peers can have the tranquility to carry out their missions and responsibilities. I feel thrilled and fulfilled when I see a campaign finish and the team and volunteers are happy and fulfilled.”
Who Takes Care of the Caretakers?
Camila, Renata, Lana, and so many other women across the Black diaspora work tirelessly for the well-being and support of their communities. Their work is transformative and literally saves lives. However, this vital work also comes with a burden. Women activists suffer from mental and physical health issues such as anxiety and fatigue; some face constant death threats. Camila Santos won the Front Line Defenders Award, but the single mother of three still struggles to find paid work. During the Crisis Office activities, Renata Trajano was hospitalized several times due to back problems. She and Camila took to social media to discuss how exhausted they were and to urge the community to demand help from the government. Lana also complained of exhaustion, the burden of too much responsibility, and a lack of care. It is not that they want to be praised or put on a pedestal. On the contrary, they want better conditions for their community without having to compromise their health to achieve this.
Black women must be recognized as essential political subjects since an entire population benefits from their actions. This recognition can be in the form of health care, social assistance, or sponsorship, but it must also take the form of public policies that allow them to take care of themselves. As Angela Davis wrote, “When the black woman moves, the whole structure of society moves with her.” Axé. ✹
Ana Carolina Assumpção (LLILAS MA, 2021) is a journalist and doctoral student at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), The University of Texas at Austin. Her work focuses on race and feminist geopolitical studies, specifically community collectives and Black women’s organizations in Rio’s favelas.