Beating the odds: Williams speaks on grass-roots work against poverty

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of “The Graduate”, was not the first or the last college student who wanted their future to be “different”. Theresa Williamson ’97 found herself in doing research in Madagascar her junior year when she discovered life as a biologist was not for her. She described her experiences to last night in the Scheuer Room.

She realized she desired to make changes in the lives of those less fortunate, and went on to pursue a degree in Bioanthropology as well as a PHD in Urban Planning from Penn. She knew her possibilities would be limited unless she gained an understanding and respect for those living in these areas.

Describing herself as a “product of globalization”, with one parent from Brazil and the other from the UK, her frequent travels to Brazil enabled her to start a non-profit organization called Catalytic Communities in Rio. Catalytic Communities connects various grass roots communities resulting in their development and empowerment.

Williamson began her presentation with commercialized pictures of Rio, Brazil including panoramic views of the Christ the Redeemer Statue as well as the very beaches that made Brazilian bikini waxes popular. She was quick to point out, however, the close proximity between wealth and poverty. Favelas, as they as referred to, plaster the hillsides adjacent to Rio’s elite, contain a drug and gang-ruled world, and are considered a disgrace within Brazil.

Williamson also highlighted the spirit and liveliness that is exuded by these people. Investigation uncovered projects such as daycares ran by single mothers, entire sewage systems constructed by townspeople, mural paintings by local youth, and other inspiring community actions were improving the lives of inhabitants of these slums.

As a spectator she realized how isolated the communities were, and how important their existence was. Ipso facto, Catalytic Communities was born, with the vision of shuttling word across borders, inspiring other communities through information, and strengthening the programs that already existed.

At the age of 25, Theresa applied for many grants, eventually being granted $10,000 by a philanthropist who predicted her “odds of success to be 1 in 10.” Roadblocks such as fund-raising, finding sustainable fund streams, managing staff, and planning for the long term without experience did occur; but Theresa’s dauntlessness paid off.

Over 100 projects have been successfully completed dealing with topics from education to health and in countries such as Brazil, Sudan, Israel, Canada, the United States, India, Togo and Nigeria. A HUB center was built in Rio two and a half years ago due to the favelados inaccessibility to the internet. Central to Rio’s transportation routes, the HUB contains workshop rooms, computers with high speed internet, and an informal meeting space overlooking sacred sites of the Brazilians.

Catalytic Communities has helped obtain funding, materials, volunteers, self esteem, and visibility for community project, greatly impacting and improving the lives of the fevalados. To be noted is the importance of Catalytic Communities’ internet community, which allows people from around the world to access news of these projects, hopefully providing answers to social dilemmas in other areas.

In terms of growth and the future, Williamson forsees many possibilities. One proposal is to buy space for a new HUB that would be closer to foot traffic and be larger in size. There is also a plan to increase interactivity on the website through more effective forums, blogs, and comment options.

Manuals are also in the works so that branches of Catalytic Communities can be replicated and spread globally. It seems, however, the primary goal at the moment is to spread the word of the odds these fevalados are beating, made possible by the assistance of Theresa and Catalytic Communities.

Interests in originating projects, fundraising, translating on the website, and intership opportunities can be addressed at the organization’s website:

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