With One Voice: knowledge exchange and mutual learning with Brazil

Delegates visiting the Booth Centre in April 2015. Photo: Matt Priestley

By Matt Peacock, CEO, Streetwise Opera

When you work in the arts in the UK, it seems as though you are forever defending your cause. Even in the social welfare arena, the opportunity to sing, paint, act, write and dance can be seen as a luxury, despite the arts having long been able to demonstrate measurable impacts in building well-being, and increasing social inclusion, regeneration and conflict resolution.

When we embarked on our work in Brazil in 2013 we therefore did so with a certain amount of trepidation – how would the arts be received in a country with much more visible poverty and far greater numbers of homeless people? 

The homeless situation in Brazil

In Brazil, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in the ‘informal’ accommodation of favelas in many cities, and thousands of people living on the streets. (The official government street count is 11,000 in Rio and 18,000 in São Paulo but the real figures are likely to be higher). And the number of people affected is only the start of the differences – climate, economy and the lack of social housing result in people living on the streets for many years, sometimes a lifetime. For many people, the street is their home and therefore the word ‘homelessness’ is translated instead as ‘people of the street’. Rodrigo Abel, Head of Homelessness for Rio Prefeitura (City Council) says that his work is focused on improving the situation of people on the streets in terms of quality of life and healthcare, rather than trying to secure housing for them. Meanwhile Rafael da Silva and Fernanda Almeida from the São Paulo Prefeitura are supporting homeless people from the Human Rights Directorate since homelessness is identified as a human rights issue.  

The value of the arts in Brazil and the UK

There is a deep understanding in Brazil that art and creativity can be an agent for social change, and this belief is shared by people from every stratum of society (demonstrated by the senior officials in non-arts council departments engaging in this arts project). The arts have helped to regenerate the favelas although the use of the arts for street people is less developed. But despite the cultural understanding that the arts are a good thing, there is very little public funding for the arts relative to the UK, and fewer private sources from trusts and foundations.

In the UK, there is almost an exact opposite situation – funding is available from public and private sources, a fact that has seen the growth of the radical arts movement, and the UK boasts by far the greatest number of social welfare projects that use the arts (around 30 recognised organisations/projects have emerged over the last 15 years). But at the same time, the arts are not held with the same value by the public or by officials. It is as if the UK believes that the arts are an add-on rather than fundamental to society.

The With One Voice Brazil project

Over the last two years, we have been working in Brazil with the arts and homelessness sector leading up to (and beyond) the Rio 2016 Olympics. This project follows on from the With One Voice project we ran during London 2012, featuring a showcase of artistic achievement by 300 musicians, actors, filmmakers and rappers who had experience of homelessness. Collaborating with the brilliant People’s Palace Projects, we wrote a joint research paper about the need for a With One Voice project in Brazil. Wherever we went, we met officials, homeless centre staff in the statutory and not-for-profit sector, artists and countless people for whom the street is their home, who all passionately support the use of the arts. The same comment came up time and again: the arts are vital because they restore dignity.

The project we have set up together with the Brazilians focuses on building the capacity of the arts and homelessness sector in Rio and São Paulo and strengthening networks. In order to achieve this, we have been organising exchanges with groups from the UK during 2015 and 2016.

April Exchange (London and Manchester)

In April, a group of 14 people from the arts and homelessness sector in Brazil travelled to London and Manchester. The word ‘inspirational’ is overused, but this delegation had a very quick impact on everyone they met. They included Adilson Pires, Deputy Mayor of Rio; Rodrigo Abel and Allan Borges from the homelessness directorate of Rio City Council; Fernanda Almeida and Rafael da Silva of São Paulo City Councils; Ricardo Vasconcellos, a choir director from a Rio homeless hostel; Helder de Oliviera, an artist who had created sculptures of homeless people in São Paulo in a project called ‘I Exist’; Junior Perim, of social circus Crescer e Viver; Rodolfo Vazquez of Os Satyros Theatre Company, São Paulo; Juliana Cavalcanti of OAF homeless centre in São Paulo; and Sebastião Nicomedes and Maralice dos Santos, representatives of the Homeless People's Movement in the two cities. The Homeless People’s Movement is a Brazilian system where homeless people are given a legal framework to speak to officials in each state. It is led and organised by homeless people and annually all the movements meet to discuss homeless policy and their rights.

The delegation met with a number of organisations in London and Manchester and saw a great deal of artistic work including Choir with No Name, Streetwise Opera, Cardboard Citizens, Open Cinema, Crisis Skylight, Café Art and the Booth Centre. They visited homeless centres such as the Dellow Centre and the Passage, and spoke with officials from the Greater London Authority (including the Deputy Mayors of Housing and Policing/Crime) and Manchester City Council.

The energy and passion of the delegation created the seeds of many connections and possibilities that are already flowering in both countries. In Brazil, the arts sector is growing and strengthening – Ricardo the choir director has been starting other choirs in Rio and the City Council is commissioning him to found more, and São Paulo Prefeitura wants to implement the brilliant Café Art model. In the UK, the impact of the projects, the engagement of the officials, and the learning about the Homeless People's Movement has been significant.

November Exchange (São Paulo and Rio)

This all sets up the next exchange in November perfectly, where we will take a group from the UK to Rio and São Paulo for a week. The group includes Pete Churchill from Choir with No Name; Terry O’Leary of Cardboard Citizens; Paula Lonegan of Crisis Skylight; Paul Ryan of Café Art; and a group from the homeless sector in Manchester, including Amanda Croome, the director of the Booth Centre (a homeless day centre), Beth Knowles, a Labour councillor involved in homelessness, Paul Connery, North West Coordinator for Homeless Link, and a member of the Manchester homeless population. They hope to pilot the Homeless People’s Movement in Manchester which could have significant ramifications for homelessness policy in the UK. We will also discuss with our Brazilian partners what kind of a presence they would like during the Olympic celebrations in 2016.

We are grateful to British Council Brazil and Transform, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Arts Council England for creating the opportunity for this project to exist. The project is already showing that the use of the arts is important in the support of people who have experienced homelessness. As we work together across different countries, we can nurture and strengthen more projects so that ultimately more and more homeless people can benefit from the arts through building well-being, restoring dignity and promoting positive attitudes and understanding.

For more information about With One Voice, visit www.with1voice.org.uk