Volunteerism Redefined in Brazil

A New Perspective on Volunteerism in Brazil


The meaning of volunteerism and citizen activism is being redefined in Brazil. Following broad protests in response to rising public transportation costs and immense spending in preparation for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, a movement has gained momentum that crosses all social lines. Organized by social media and driven by the youth, some sense that it will be organized into a new political party. To fully appreciate this emerging cultural shift, I spoke with a group of young leaders who are part of an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) entitled Inspiring Youth Leadership, Volunteerism and Citizen Activism.

Whether working in the neighborhoods of Brasilia and Belo Horizonte or in the northern cities of Fortaleza and Recife, each of these young leaders is empowering youth through innovative programs in the arts, foreign languages, and sports. For example, Ms. Isabel Aparecida Dos Santos Mayer supported a youth initiative to convert an abandoned house in a cemetery into a library for the local neighborhood children in Sao Paulo. The local elementary school has noticed an improvement in the students and credits the library. Plug Minas in Minas Gerais has connected public and private partners to support regional centers for the arts, entrepreneurship, language learning, scientific research, and technology acquisition. One of its regional centers in Recife, the Oi Kabum! School of Arts and Technology teaches audiovisual editing, graphic design, and photography to disadvantaged youth. Another initiative, the Nucleus of Public Language Centers is striving to prepare 2014 highly skilled youth tour guides for the 2014 World Cup in Brasilia.

To understand Brazil’s youth movement, you have to first understand the “youth”. From my time with these visionary young leaders, I learnt that “youth” can be defined in a number of ways based on different “profiles.” Rural youth can be defined as anyone aged 24 and younger; while Urban youth can include individuals aged 29 or even 35. There are also divisions based on race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic level. All of these categories must be taken into consideration by any youth development organization.

It’s also interesting that youth are able to vote in Brazil at age 16, and it becomes compulsory at age 18. This was a hard earned right pushed through by a previous youth movement to be included in the new constitution of 1988. But until recently, Brazilian elections have suffered from youth apathy. With general elections scheduled for 2014, and the rising youth social consciousness, perhaps Brazil will feel the impact of another youth movement.

While in Washington D.C., the group attended a meeting with David Premo of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which overseas AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, the Social Innovation Fund and the Volunteer Generation Fund. They were surprised to learn how volunteerism in the United States differed from Brazil. In Brazil volunteering is “heroic.” You can receive no financial aid when you volunteer – and that includes transportation. In addition, an individual cannot volunteer in their field. A math teacher can help as an art instructor, but not as a math tutor. As a result, few people volunteer. But this is changing, as many universities now require volunteer hours, and corporations see job applicants with volunteer experience as having a greater competitive edge. Some are even debating whether college graduates should spend a year volunteering to repay government support at free public universities.

Leaving the meeting at the Corporation for National and Community Service, the group came to the conclusion that Brazilians have a lot of solidarity, but they may need to improve their capacity to organize. They also reflected on how the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program had already helped them immensely by connecting them with like-minded Brazilians who they might not have met otherwise. All seemed determined to make Brazil a better place, on their return home.