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Rio de Janeiro’s famed ‘favelas’ have been immortalised in such as films ‘City of God’ and ‘Elite Squad’, which painted a bleak picture of poverty, violence and drug trafficking. But look beyond the gritty surface and alarming headlines, and one will find vibrant communities of regular people simply trying to get on with their daily lives, albeit while dodging stray bullets. In fact, ‘comunidades’ is exactly how local residents prefer to call the favelas these days. 

Beyond the headlines
On any given day, a variety of small businesses cater to their neighbours serving up homemade meals. Enterprising ‘mototáxi’ drivers transport people up and down the hills and a tangle of wires overhead provides makeshift connections to electricity, filling a void in public services where decades of government neglect have failed the local population. Children kick around a football on empty lots any chance they get. Every form of cultural expression from music and dance to street art and theatre flourishes among the narrow alleyways. In fact, some of Brazil’s most famous exports – from samba music and the dazzling costumes seen at ‘carnaval’ parades to many of its ‘futebol’  stars – have originated in the ‘morros’,  or hillsides, where many of Rio’s favelas are concentrated.

Love at first sight
It is this rich mix of creativity and spontaneity combined with Brazilians’ welcoming nature, national pride, and optimism in the face of challenging circumstances that has captivated many a foreign visitor to Brazil. UK-native Luke Dowdney, founder of Fight for Peace / Luta Pela Paz  would agree. He first travelled to Brazil as a social anthropology student. “I guess you could say I fell in love with Brazil,” he says. A few years later, he returned to complete his Master’s dissertation on urban violence and never left. “There are lots of problems. We all know that, but it’s a fantastic country and I just became very involved in the human rights movement there.”

I guess you could say I fell in love with Brazil.

Luke Dowdney

Boxing for peace
Founded in 2000, Fight for Peace combines boxing and martial arts with education, support services and vocational and youth leadership training to support young people living in communities affected by violence to realise their full potential. Why boxing and martial arts? As an amateur boxer during his late teens and early twenties, Luke quickly realised that boxing was a great way to connect with local kids. “My Portuguese was not so great at the time and they would try to mimic my movements,” he laughs. Most importantly, he also knew that boxing offered a great tool to establish a sense of belonging, self-confidence, and structure for young people. “Anyone who knows boxing or any of the martial-arts knows that it erroneously gets referred to as violent,” Luke explains. “What it actually does is create a platform of discipline, self-esteem, and respect for other people and rules, and this spirit that you never, ever quit. You just keep trying a different way.” 

Sidelined by injury, Luke also wished to remain involved with the sport, so in 2000 he opened his first boxing academy for about 15 kids in the Complexo da Maré favela. “It just felt right to open a boxing club in a community where there were so many young people who were not in school, who were not involved in any social programmes, and didn’t have access to the type of support structures that we often take for granted in other parts of the city and the world.” Since then, over 14 000 teenagers and young adults in Rio have participated in one of Fight for Peace’s programmes.

Five pillars
Boxing and martial arts are merely the hook that get young people in the door. It’s the four other pillars of Fight for Peace – education, employability, support and mentoring services, and youth leadership – that keep them coming back. “Kids come in and get excited about learning jiu-jitsu or getting fit. But everything that happens off the tatami or outside the boxing ring is important. Upstairs there are classrooms where people are studying. There are debates. Mentors and social workers provide one-on-one mentoring. The participants organise parties that take place 3-4 times per year. So it’s this mix of all these five things happening in there that creates a real buzz.” 

Job training is one of the most important elements of the programme. “Employability is key,” explains Luke, “because at the end of all of this, where are these young people going? Same as young people from anywhere – they need jobs.” For this reason, the Julius Baer Foundation supports Fight for Peace, enabling approximately 120 youths to participate in its vocational training and mentoring programmes each year. “We don’t change anyone’s life: we’re giving young people the skills to be able to change their lives themselves. We put them on an even playing field with lots of other young people that were born in different situations by pure luck.”

Employability is key.

Luke Dowdney

Building ‘Safer Communities’
Still, the violence, or the threat of violence, is ever present. In 2017, Brazil’s murder rate peaked at over 63 000 homicides, having dropped to just over 51 000 in 2018. “That’s more than in the Syrian Civil War, or any other warzone at the moment,” Luke explains. “But this violence is concentrated in certain hotspots. The favelas we work in have incredibly high levels of gun violence. So if you’re a young person growing up in a favela, just by walking out the door, you’re more at risk than anyone else.” 

In the face of such startling statistics, it’s easy to get discouraged. This prompted some soul searching on Luke’s part: “About four years ago I started to think: we’ve helped a lot of young people access jobs. We’ve helped a lot of young people get back into school, we’ve helped a lot of young people to be successful in sport. But have we lowered the homicide rate in Maré? Have we stopped violence in Maré? No, we haven’t. If we’re really a violence prevention organisation, why is it still here?” The most obvious conclusion? There’s only so much a local NGO working in isolation can do when the root causes are a combination of systemic macroeconomic challenges, a lack of public investment, and persistent public safety issues. 

Walking into an Academy and just seeing all these young people focused and enjoying what they’re doing always fills me with energy.

Luke Dowdney

Luke eventually developed the concept of ‘Safer Communities’ whereby the various players on the ground including local organisations, the government, security forces and the private sector work together to identify types of public policies that could most effectively combat crime in specific neighbourhoods. “It’s about bringing all the partners together and attacking the problem at source,” Luke says. 

Going global
Almost 20 years on, Fight for Peace now runs its own Academies in London and Rio, has Safer Communities Programmes in Jamaica and South Africa, and has further trained over 150 local organisations in 25 countries through the ‘Fight for Peace Alliance’. During a trip back to the UK in 2007, Luke realised that many adolescents there were facing the same risk factors as young people in Rio’s favelas. “The culture is different, the language is different, but young kids in London also felt excluded, the school system wasn’t working for them, and they weren’t seeing a job down the line. So if the causes of violence are similar, then the answers can also be similar.” Luke believed that Fight for Peace could also make a positive contribution in other countries. So his team began training partner organisations around the world on the methodology behind its Five Pillars, reaching over 250 000 youths through local versions of its programmes and activities. 

Remaining optimistic
So what keeps Luke motivated after all these years? “Walking into an Academy and just seeing all these young people focused and enjoying what they’re doing always fills me with energy,” Luke explains. “It almost wipes the slate clean of all the difficult things you see,” he continues, “and then you remember exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

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