Adam Newman is the head of Favela Experience, the social enterprise company which manages the FAVEX Hostel and develops a range of community partnerships and exchanges involving favela communities throughout Rio de Janeiro. Adam originally hails from Colorado, USA, but has been based in Brazil for 4 years. We caught up with him to ask for an introduction to the organisation.
Let's begin at the beginning, what were the origins of Favela Experience?
“It was originally founded in 2013 by a good friend of mine named Elliot Rosenburg who through a school project at the University of Virginia, was looking at how to connect with people in Rio's favelas to then bring people from around the world to live a cultural experience and to simultaneously generate sustainable incomes for people in areas of poverty.
He started by reaching out virtually to try to connect with people in the favelas and was able to connect with someone in Vidigal, and together they created an Airbnb property in the community to prove the hypothesis that this could exist. He got positive feedback from both sides, and then came to Brazil to participate in a developmental program here and eventually decided to move into the favela of Rocinha to develop this accomodation network that was focused on homestays and accomodations inside the homes of families and residents of Rocinha and Vidigal.
That was the goal; to see how we could get people to come to know and love these communities that Elliot had come to love, and to show them that there's a different side to Rio: to break these stereotypes about violence and drugs and social suffering. Through the commercial exchange, through rental exchange, it also creates visibility and additional revenue for these families which they can then invest in improving their quality of life and their property.”
We're talking on the roof terrace of the Favex hostel, which must have one of the best views in Rio, how did you manage to get the hostel set-up here?
“In 2014 Elliot launched a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo which raised US$30,000 that brought 150 people from around the world to stay in a variety of properties in favelas in Rio. This was confirmation for him that a real level of interest existed, and helped us because of course we received a lot of useful positive and negative criticism.
During the crowdfunding campaign we used the current space of the hostel, which is owned by the NGO Alzira de Aleluia, to receive guests, so although it didn't have the infrastructure and the detail and the customer service that it has now, we generated some income. I took over the company shortly after the world cup, when Elliott decided that he wanted to move on to Asia, and I saw that there was a unique possibility to be developed based on the question: 'How can the infrastructure of the NGO help them to deal with their issues of financial sustainability and accessing the resources that they need to continue offering social programming to the community?' So we set to work bringing the property up to the standards of the best hostels we all like to stay in, with all the fun things like communal bars, free computers, bodyboards, Fusbol tables etc.”
On our left is the famous Ipanema Beach, below us is the sea, and behind us are the popular Dos Irmaos mountains: Vidigal must have one of the best locations in Rio. But it's true that some people are still wary about visiting and staying in favelas. What are the most common misconceptions you have experienced in your time at Favela Experience?
“The most common misconception is that it's dangerous, that crime and violence are dominating factors in the life of the community. I can't say that's not true of every single favela but that is where the problem is: the media communicates the idea of favelas as a singular place, that has one common existence, suffering difficulty, violence, scarcity – all these things which are traditionaly associated with slums.
But a favela has its own characteristics, and just as not every noble commmunity has the same characteristics, nor do favela communities mirror each other. The favelas that we operate in do not share the characteristics of the popular misconceptions, but the biggest barrier we face is communicating that here we find a sense of community, and a sense of security that actually you won't find in other parts of the city that the traditional media communicates are actually safer.”
What has been the biggest lesson you've learned with Favela Experience?
“To not judge any place until you've actually stayed in it. Everything's complicated, everything has a story behind it, and everything has an explanation for why it is the way it is, and so it's not fair for us to rely on judgements and ideas based on our prior existence because, especially as a foreigner, reality is that our origins are very different from those of the people living here today and of those who built the favela. So only through empathy and understanding can we even begin to understand the root causes of the way things are the way they are today.”
If you were a tourist visiting Rio for three days, what would you do with your time?
Firstly, I would be upset that I only had three days! But the first thing I'd consider is the genre of activities that most interested me in Rio: is it art, is it adventure, is it culture or music? Now you have the traditional touristic attractions of the Christ statue, the Sugarloaf, and those are good experiences and I think everyone should do those, but I think the important thing with a trip of three days is to optimise your visit: Rio is such a diverse city that you should try to focus your activities around a specific zone each day, so that you don't spend all your time travelling. So if you go to the Christ the Redeemer statue, look to complement that with exploring Santa Teresa, if you go to the Sugarloaf, complement that with a trip to Botafogo or a walk to Copacabana beach. Try to keep things within particular regions where you can enjoy the activities that are of most interest to you.”
How easy is it to travel from Vidigal to the main attractions of Rio?
Well firstly the term “attractions of Rio” is all depending on how you chose to see things right? If your definition of attraction is adventure and musical and cultural uniqueness, it's access to beaches, it's cheap and quality food, then you don't even need to leave Vidigal, you can accomplish all of that. You have some of the best views in the city, you have Dos Irmaos and its medium difficulty hike, you're surrounded by great food and art and community, and ten minutes walk to Vidigal Beach, an awesome community beach.
But regardless of that you have bus access from the entrance of the favela to more or less anywhere you want in the city, and getting taxis isn't an issue either, so wherever you want to go you can access it, and Vidigal gives you a great central base from which to explore Rio.”
What are the guiding values that drive Favela Experience?
“The guiding values are empathy, cultivation, collaboration, and interconnectivity. We are based on looking for commonalities between people that expand mutually beneficial favela experiences. We work in partnership with people from the favela; we don't tell them what to do, we ask them what do you want to do? We can provide suggestions and we can help them adapt their ideas to the marketplace, but ultimately we look for people who are passionate and who are doing something they believe in, and help them get it out to the world and help them cultivate that idea, and help travelers to cultivate their experiences by having a wealth of suggestions to help them decide how to participate in the favela.”
What has given you the most satisfaction during your time with Favela Experience?
“That's a tough question as there have been so many great projects and experiences that we've been a part of, but one thing that has given me satisfaction is that we've been able to bring over a thousand people from all over the world to the favelas without one security issue, without one guest ever being robbed in the favela, or having any health issues whatsoever, and showing the people that the favelas have a lot to offer them. The favelas have traditionally been seen as places that need to be helped, which they do, but the favela also has a lot to teach people, with a community mentality being one lesson. The greatest satisfaction for me has been being a participant in that, being able to get to know the people and the history and the triumphs and the tribulations of favela residents, and to develop a company that can add value to that.”
If you are coming to Rio de Janeiro and want to discover the road less traveled, don't hesitate to stay in the vibrant and beautiful Vidigal. For more information about the accommodation at FAVEX Hostel, you can check it here.