Breaking the cycle of poverty

In a world that seems to be getting smaller in size, but growing exponentially in complex world issues such as poverty, discrimination and illegal trafficking, one small University District-based nonprofit, Bahia Street, is attempting to dramatically alter the future for a small minority group of young women living in Brazil.

Teaching more than skills

Plagued by inequality, violence and extreme poverty, the majority of African-Brazilians live among the endless shantytowns that skirt Brazil's largest cities. Here, open sewers and crumbling rooftops are two signature features that line the roadside where young children spend their time playing and begging, according to Bahia Street leaders.

The mission of Bahia Street is to "break the cycles of poverty and violence by providing quality education opportunities for economically impoverished young women and girls in Brazil," according to project director Nancy Bacon.

Bahia Street does this by supplementing the girls' mandatory public-school education (which only consists of four hours a day of rudimentary skills five days a week) with an additional four hours of tutoring in all basic skills, as well as courses in foreign languages, fine arts, leadership and health or reproduction each day.

The basic education in Brazil is not enough to give girls the knowledge necessary to pass exams admitting them into the best public high schools or universities in the country, said Margaret Willson, co-founder of Bahia Street. Without either an education from a private school or one from Bahia Street, many are forced out of public education to beg on the streets and often live out their lives in the same cycle of poverty they were born into.

Besides an education, the Bahia Street program provides most of the girls with their only opportunity to shower and eat a hot meal during the course of a day, helping them to fight off malnutrition and disease.

"Without education," said Willson, who holds her own doctorate degree in anthropology, "there is no way out for these girls."

Willson helped found Bahia Street after meeting Rita Conceição on what turned into an anthropological research trip in Brazil. The trip took them into the shantytowns outside of Salvador and inspired the pair to start an organization that would allow girls to seriously engage in their studies and provide a nurturing atmosphere that promotes self-identity, leadership and the importance of sexual and mental health.

Much of what Bahia Street does may be educational but it has also provided "a beautiful sisterhood," as Bacon describes it. "The girls are all there for the same purpose, but it is a purpose, which is far different from the others around them, so they form together and create strong bonds of support for one another."

To ensure their continued success Bahia Street has formed a unique nonprofit organizational structure, with branches registered in the United Kingdom and Seattle to raise international awareness and funds.

The organization also has a branch in Salvador, Brazil, headed up by Conceição, who works with the girls on a day-to-day basis. She serves as a mentor who comes from the same background as themselves.

"Local people having control with international fiscal accountability is rare in a nonprofit," Willson said, "but this is what gives our program its success."

Continuing the work

The need for a program like Bahia Street is rooted in the discrimination and violence that occurred during the colonial and slavery period, according to Willson. While slave trafficking was officially banned in 1850, the effects of the system are still felt by many of the country's minority African-Brazilian population, and are often intensified under the crushing poverty experienced by much of Brazil.

However, as Bahia Street continues its mission to help end poverty, it has already made a difference for one young African-Brazilian woman. Juliana was the program's first student enrolled at its founding in 1997. Having passed the entrance exam that earned her a full scholarship to attend, Juliana has successfully finished her first year at a university, Wilson said.

Bahia Street hopes to continue its momentum in 2006 by raising funds to complete a third story to the school, providing a technology lab, as well as installing a better kitchen to help serve the girls proper meals. This year, they also hope to implement a second hot meal or snack for the girls so they have something to eat before they go home in the afternoon.

To help raise additional funds to finish the third story of the Bahia Street School in Salvador, Bahia Street in Seattle will host a review party of its recent trip to Brazil, on Sunday, Jan. 22, from 4 to 7 p.m. For more information about the organization or other upcoming events, contact the Bahia Street office in Seattle at 633-1724 or Or visit the website at

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