Age: 38
Profession: Executive Director of Catalytic Communities
Location: Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

What is Catalytic Communities? The organization works to bring visibility to the positive qualities of traditionally marginalized communities in Rio de Janeiro and to support local projects there. These communities, favelas, are seen as slums; they are associated with a level of precariousness and violence. But these perceptions aren’t grounded in reality, and actually the favelas have enormous value.

There’s been a lot of attention on Rio lately because of the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Yes, and because of it, the city government went from a policy of ignoring these communities to dramatically intervening in them. Rio is going to be getting huge influxes of people for these mega-events, and the government sees them as a deadline for cleaning up Rio’s negative image. And the way they aim to do that is by making the city attractive to investors and tourists. Favelas are seen as an eyesore, so in many areas they’re pushing gentrification, removing the communities entirely, or moving their people to the extreme west and north zones of the city, which are two hours away from the city center by public transit.

In response, CatComm started Rio Olympics Neighborhood Watch (RioOnWatch) to shift international perceptions about the favelas. We have a website and a blog where we publish community perspectives. We’re able to take voices in neighborhoods in Rio that nobody would have heard and amplify them by translating them into English and publishing them online. International media, researchers, urban planners, and activists use the site as a resource to develop understanding, to find people to interview in the favelas, and to craft stories, so in the last couple of years we’ve been able to help drive the way the international media covers the issue.

When did you begin considering yourself to be a Buddhist? My parents were economists, so I had a very rational upbringing without a lot of religion. But then I came into contact with Buddhism in college, and it was the first time a religion really jibed with what I’ve felt intuitively since I was a child. But I remember thinking that I wasn’t ready for it—I had a lot of mistakes to make first!

I really started considering myself a Buddhist in 2007, when my now ex-husband, my daughter, and I spent a year in Oxford. There was a Tibetan Buddhist center around the corner called Thrangu House. I went to a 10-day lojong [Tibetan mind-training using a set of aphorisms or “slogans”] training there, led by Thrangu Rinpoche himself, on a whim. At the time I was experiencing burnout with work and was going through some major personal issues. So I was very open emotionally, and I was captivated from the first moment by the wisdom of what was being taught. After the first morning I rearranged my entire schedule that week so I could be there as much as possible. And at the end of the training, I took refuge.

What happened after is that the lojong trainings became a guiding part of the way I lived my life: the way I looked at things, dealt with people, pursued work, parented, rode my bicycle—everything. The slogans were a filter through which I put all of my actions.

How does that filter work in regard to your work with CatComm? For one, we’re not attached to outcomes in the same way that a lot of organizations are. We look at our projects as experiments, and we gauge things as we go along. We also fundraise accordingly. We almost never fundraise from foundations, because they expect long-term deliverables, and those don’t allow us to have the flexibility we need to respond to and be supportive of communities in Rio’s fast-changing environment. And when we start projects, we look to see if anyone else is doing it already. If they are, we think: Are they doing a good job? How can we support them? We don’t need to be the ones doing it—it just needs to get done.

The idea that permeates all of this is that this is about helping people. This is about commitment to improving things. This is about reducing suffering.

In the documentaries CatComm has produced, the community-oriented nature of the favelas is apparent—their inhabitants rely so much upon collective action. People use the term favela to refer to all of these communities, but each neighborhood here is different: the energy, the people, the livelihoods, the culture. Yet thereare some things they have in common. If you go into one, you’ll see people in the streets; people talk to their neighbors, and they know each other and help each other out.

There’s a word for it in Portuguese, mutirão, which means collective action: people getting together in large numbers to get something done. I’ve participated in a mutirão where people were building a house. It all has to be done by a certain time of day so that the concrete will dry overnight. So you have some people cooking, other people putting down the cement, others carting stuff up a ladder; and then they all celebrate together at the end. Best of all, they didn’t have to pay anyone to do it. That’s the sort of thing that allows people to break out of poverty, because they don’t have to pay for construction or day care because your neighbors are there to help you out. That’s one quality of these communities that is very much consistent with a Buddhist approach and worldview.

You have a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in city planning. Often when people meet a Buddhist in the humanities they tend to ask, “Are you a Buddhist artist? Are you a Buddhist writer?” Let’s widen the scope—are you a Buddhist city planner? [Laughs.] I don’t know, but city planning is a very solution-oriented, optimistic field. It’s about thinking creatively and holistically, bridging gaps across diverse stakeholders in ways that make the places where most of humanity now lives—cities—into vibrant, inclusive, energizing, and empowering places to be. The very basis of city planning is that citizens can, and should be encouraged to, make a difference. So actually, I would argue that it’s a great profession for Buddhists.

As a leader of a nonprofit organization, what lessons have you learned about doing good in the world? I’ve seen people who work for big nonprofits mistreat people on the street. Or they don’t take care of their families and home lives, but then they go out and try to “save” people on an international scale. I’ve always felt that this was a huge inconsistency. Ultimately, if you just stay in your neighborhood and are great to your neighbors, the world will be a better place. If we want to make an impact internationally, we need to focus on an individual and local level first. When you have this grand pretense of “We’re going to change the world, and I’m going to start this big organization,” the ego is involved. Even if it’s positively intended, it doesn’t quite end up doing what the people behind it meant it to do.

You mentioned you have a daughter. Are you raising her as a Buddhist? I think that the philosophy and wisdom of religious practice is great for kids to have exposure to, but ultimately I think kids should be free to decide for themselves what religion they want to practice, if any. So that’s what I’ve tried to impart to her. But she does say things like, “When I grow up, I’m going to be Buddhist.” She likes the idea of meditation, even if she can’t sit still for more than half a second.

–Emma Varvaloucas, Managing Editor

For more information about the work of Catalytic Communities, watch “Favela as a Sustainable Model”: