KU News Release

Aug. 31, 2010
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855

Community work in Brazilian 'favela' earns KU researcher notice in United States

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas researcher recently was spotlighted in a documentary featured on CNN.com for his community and cultural work in Rocinha, the largest squatter town, or “favela,” in Rio de Janeiro.

Paul Sneed, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, helped establish the Two Brothers Foundation in 1998 to create educational opportunities in Rocinha. He visits Brazil often, combining outreach to Rochina’s residents with his own investigation into the culture of the favela.

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His commitment to the community stems from a year spent in Rio de Janeiro as an undergraduate student, where he found himself captivated by life within the city’s notorious slum.

“Whenever I’d wait for my bus, I’d see Rocinha, the enormous squatter town, extending across the forested hillside just across from the beach,” Sneed said. “It was pretty intimidating because of the stories I’d read in the newspaper at the time and the reputation of the neighborhood.”

Sneed said that Rocinha, with hundreds of thousands of residents, was known as a no man’s land run by warring drug traffickers who regularly battled with police. However, Sneed’s encounters with Rocinha’s inhabitants around the city didn’t jibe with the gangster reputation of the infamous favela.

“I realized that there was a whole world up there in Rocinha that was a fascinating and very human place,” Sneed said.

Invited to the favela by its residents, Sneed experienced a powerful bonding with the people and their way of life.

“I fell in love with it pretty quickly,” said Sneed. “With the faith and friendliness of the people, the strong sense of community, I had a strong emotional connection with people and sensed it was a place where it was easy to be yourself.”

Taking a name from mountains overlooking the favela, later Sneed set up the Two Brothers Foundation to create educational opportunities for favela residents, such as language instruction. He says that today Two Brothers has evolved into an “organic university” open to all kinds of people.

“We’ve created a three-story community center there,” Sneed said. “It has a library, it has a computer lab, it has classrooms and it’s been running for some time. There are researchers, interns and volunteers from maybe 50 different countries, as well as people from Rocinha that have experience with everyday life there.”

The Two Brothers Foundation continues to evolve. In 2008, students at KU formed a group called Two Brothers Foundation-Club Brazil to support the organization. More recently, the Two Brothers Foundation turned over full responsibility for running its community center to the Instituto Dois Irmãos, a Brazilian nonprofit Sneed helped found in Rocinha in 2000. He says the Two Brothers Foundation is already working on new plans to offer opportunities in education, community service and international exchange to the residents of Rocinha.

While serving with his nonprofit, Sneed also pursues his own research into the culture of the favela, supported in part by a grant from KU’s New Faculty General Research Fund Program.

“Since I came to KU, I really got interested in performance studies,” Sneed said. “I started thinking about the outdoor street dances sponsored by gangsters in Rocinha. By looking at these performance spaces as live spaces of power, it enabled me to look at other areas of activity in the in the community that are less associated with entertainment.”

Sneed is now writing a new book about such social spaces in Rocinha, focused on what he calls “social justice from the bottom up.” In addition to the illegal funk dance parties thrown by gangsters, his subjects in the favela include a Pentecostal church, an Alcoholics Anonymous group, a Capoeira martial arts academy and the Two Brothers Foundation itself.

In reaction to the success of “City of God,” an award-winning film depicting life in a fictional favela, Sneed also has produced a short documentary entitled “Rocinha: At Home on the Big Hill.”

“Media depictions tend to overemphasize the presence of organized crime, like gangsters from the Red Command, the Third Command or the Friends of the Friends,” Sneed said. “But we wanted to complement those visions with a more realistic portrait of everyday people without sensationalism or romanticism.”

For more, visit www.2bros.org.

The documentary on Sneed’s work that was featured on CNN.com was produced
Doug Jones and facilitated by Drew Detweiler.

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