Boren Fellow Katie Casstevens reflects upon her time in one of Brazil’s most infamous favelas
May 13, 2015 - Katie Casstevens, a graduate student in the RGK Center’s Portfolio in Nonprofit Studies, recently finished a year of fieldwork and study in Brazil funded by a David L. Boren Fellowship award. “It was a culturally-rich and fulfilling adventure, as well as an invaluable capstone experience that enabled me to grow both personally and professionally during my final year at The University of Texas,” said Katie. The Boren Fellowship is a highly prestigious foreign language study award offered by the federal government’s National Security Education Program in collaboration with the Institute of International Education. Katie spent the summer of 2014 in Salvador studying Portuguese at the language institute Associação Cultural Brasil-Estados Unidos. During the fall semester, she studied international economics and social movements at Fundacão Getúlio Vargas’s Center for Public Administration and Government Studies (FGV) in São Paulo. Each of these courses prepared Katie for her spring 2015 research internship with the center’s founding director Dr. Peter Spink on his project entitled, “Urban Vulnerabilities and Challenges for Public Action”.
The 3-year participatory research initiative works principally in Jardim Ângela, an area inside São Paulo’s southern periphery. The area is known for poverty, failing infrastructure, favela (slum) communities, and a traditionally high crime rate; the United Nations named Jardim Ângela the homicide capital of the world in 1996. Crime conditions have improved since then, but the region still receives little government and political support to improve sociopolitical conditions. The goal of Dr. Spink’s research project is to examine relationships between public and private sector entities in the area to determine their efficacy in addressing these systemic issues. One of Katie’s roles in the project is to engage more deeply with an Area Development Program (PDA) in Jardim Ângela to better understand its connection to the municipality of São Paulo and the public policies that govern non-governmental service providers in that community. “Katie exemplifies the best of graduate education," said RGK Center Director Dr. David W. Springer, who served as Katie's University of Texas faculty liaison. “Understanding and fostering enhanced cross-sector collaboration is exactly the type of work that will advance solutions to poverty and other global, pervasive issues. I was able to observe first-hand the impact that Katie has made through her work in São Paulo, and she has served as an amazing ambassador for UT.”
Funded by World Vision Australia, the PDA provides social support services to children, families and the community. The PDA’s largest initiative serves school-aged children enrolled in its child sponsorship program; agency representatives monitor the health and development of these children via quarterly in-home checkups. Additionally, the PDA functions as a community center by offering programming that provides at-risk youth with alternative social outlets in an area teeming with delinquent activity. Observing the role of music in shaping the identity of area youth, PDA Program Coordinator Jane Lira seeks to implement guitar lessons as part of this programming. “Playing an instrument takes high levels of concentration and patience, two valuable skills for youth who live in chaotic and impoverished environments,” Jane says. “Learning to play the guitar could help improve their discipline, which can overlap into other areas of their lives such as work, school, and family.” However, finding the budget for guitars and a music instructor is a challenge; the agency is operating on minimal funding that barely covers staff salaries. Through her participatory research project, Katie identified methods that the PDA can implement to increase funding and staff capacity so that advanced projects such as this one can come to fruition.
In addition to securing funding for guitar lessons, Katie leveraged her English and Portuguese language skills to connect the PDA with local and international grants in order to establish a broad-based and sustainable funding structure for the entire agency. World Vision has implemented a graduated schedule for the PDA to become financially self-sustaining by 2023. Therefore, the program’s primary goal at this time is to create public and private partnerships that will strengthen the PDA’s capacity to continue development activities after World Vision’s period of support terminates.
Katie and children at the PDA
celebrate Easter with candy from
the Chocolate Hope campaign
Katie spent nearly four months as an integral part of the PDA’s team. Alongside nine dedicated staff members, Katie advanced community development efforts through neighborhood engagement events, art workshops, youth advocacy groups, promotional videos, and community forums. In order to respond to the recent influx of immigrants in the area, Katie taught weekly English lessons to healthcare workers who need to be able to communicate with the linguistically diverse population. Katie also facilitated efforts that bolstered FGV involvement in the PDA. She organized the Chocolate Hope campaign at FGV to raise funds to distribute chocolate Easter eggs to more than 100 community children supported by the PDA. She also mobilized FGV undergraduate public administration students to develop informational pamphlets on how to access community services in the area.
Both the FGV and the PDA provided Katie with an ideal environment from which to launch a career in international development. Upon her return home to Texas, Katie will graduate from The University of Texas with a dual master’s degree in Public Affairs and Social Work. As part of her Boren Fellowship requirements, she will begin looking for federal employment opportunities, and is primarily interested in positions within the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State. She aims to build upon her professional experience in Brazil by finding a project that allows her to utilize her Portuguese language skills and knowledge of the country. She plans to monitor the progress of Dr. Spink’s research study and maintain contact with the staff members at the PDA who inspire her to remain dedicated to improving quality of life for children and families around the world.