Inside a quiet air conditioned room on the bottom floor of a repurposed building on the Northern end of Rio de Janiero, a small group of kids are playing video games. It’s a scene that would be completely ordinary if it were happening anywhere but here. This is Vigário Geral, one of the largest favelas in Rio and a notoriously tough place to grow up.
Everywhere you look inside this place, you can see signs of the delicate balance that is required to keep everything moving. Young men patrol the streets, machine guns in hand. Young kids chase each other. Men sit on small stools playing Truco (a Brazilian card game) while a local soccer match happens on a tiny field protected by a metal cage around it. Apart from a few select locations, photographs and videos aren’t allowed here.
The neighborhood became well known after being profiled in the popular documentary Favela Rising, and attracted attention for it’s pioneering social program founded back in the 90s called AfroReggae which aimed to use music to lift kids out of poverty and offer them a path away from a life of crime or drugs. It’s one of the few NGOs operating continuously inside a favela for decades and now has a digital arm through the AfroGames initiative.
Most favelas aren’t open for tourists, and they definitely aren’t the sorts of places you’d go without permission. I’m only allowed this access because I’m accompanied by AfroGames Director Ricardo Chantilly after some good Brazilian friends arranged a time for him to meet with me. Our visit begins in this gaming room, where half a dozen kids are competing in Fortnite or League of Legends competitions as professional gamers. Some are already making enough money as e-sports athletes to retire from less legal activities they might have done in their pasts.
It is quickly apparent that this building houses an unexpectedly ambitious vision that extends far beyond this already pioneering and successful gaming program. The second floor will open next week with the first and only Dolby Atmos certified music recording studio inside a favela in the world. The third floor contains a full service TV studio and production suite for video editing work, and the open air rooftop expands into large ballet and dance studio.
The entire operation runs off donations for corporate sponsors who support the mission for social reasons and also to demonstrate a commitment to the places where the programs run … a necessity if they want to safely sell their products to the communities living inside the favelas. The day after my visit to Vigário Geral, I spent a few hours at the nearby Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow). through digital screens and indigenous art, visitors learn about some of the environmental and societal forces shaping the future of Brazil and our home planet as well.
There’s a lab there on the top floor of the Museu that is built for people of all ages to come in, experiment with future technologies and build new things. Littered around the room are examples of 3D printed food, Afrofuturist science fiction story concepts and laser created art. This space, like the gaming room at AfroGames, is for imagining a better future. Both do it through helping people make things, learn new skills and have opportunities to do things better than they could if they were anywhere else.
One of the greatest joys of the work that I do is that I am lucky enough to be invited to places like this. These are the kinds of stories that I believe will shape our Future Normal, and they are happening all around us.
The thing they need most is for the rest of us to discover and celebrate them.