PHOTO: Assembled group of program participants. (photo courtesy of Carson Poplin)
I had been feeling the 20-something angst for a while — to be honest, I’m still feeling it — but I jumped at the chance to do it in Brazil and not at my parent’s house.
I came across the opportunity to spend six weeks in Rio de Janeiro participating in a program about social entrepreneurship, and was sold pretty much immediately.
I applied to the program because it was a chance to travel while doing something really productive. It was an opportunity to learn about social enterprises — a relatively new concept squarely opposed to corporate greed and wastefulness with resources. Social businesses want to do the opposite. They want to not only turn a profit but also have a positive impact on the world around them.
I liked the idea immediately. I mean, I’m a millennial and we’re nothing if not an idealistic bunch.
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So myself and six other idealistic people went to Rio, lived in an apartment together and did our best to tackle the world of social enterprise head-on.
We spent the first week participating in training sessions, learning more about social entrepreneurship and start-up techniques, among other things. It felt like an MBA program in miniature, with an emphasis on good business practices.
The rest of the program was spent paired with a local social entrepreneur we worked with and did our best to help, utilizing our own skills and background. One of my housemates and I were paired with Maria Chantal, a one-woman business whose ambitious goal is to promote cultural identity and self-expression among Afro-Brazilian women in one of the most racially diverse — and segregated — societies in the world.
It was a tall order, but a rewarding one. Maria Chantal calls out racism in Brazilian society through her sloganed T-shirts. A common conversation for her is about natural hair — a conversation I am ashamed to say I had never thought anything about beforehand.
She encourages women in her country to take pride in their natural hair, rather than chemically straightening it or doing other harmful damage. Her more popular shirts proclaim, “My hair didn’t ask for your opinion” and “Kinky hair doesn’t need to have perfect curls.”
Now this hair movement is becoming omnipresent. The New York Times did an article about Dominican women embracing their natural hair. There are dozens of blogs dedicated to the subject. The award-winning 2013 novel “Americanah,” by critically acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a black woman embracing her own hair as a major theme.
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Had I never met Maria Chantal and had the opportunity to work with her, I would still be ignorant to this and other issues facing Brazilian society, specifically Afro-Brazilians. Meeting Maria and the other entrepreneurs through the program was inspirational. These are people who care about improving the lives in their country.
I could have gone to Rio on my own to see “Christ the Redeemer” and pristine beaches. But I managed to travel and have a purpose while I was there — and now I want to do that every place I go from now on. Talk about a tall order!
For more information, visit socialstarters.org or apply online here.