Neighborhood and City Learning : Spinning Catraca Livre

mise-en-abîme During the summer I lived in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2010, I became a regular visitor of the website CatracaLivre (Free Turnstile). The site helped me a lot to organize my cultural life and to experience the city in a diverse and rich way. In a South American megalopolis of the size of Sampa, with almost 20 million people in its metropolitan area, there are a myriad things to do everyday and it is easy to get overwhelmed by by chaotic transportation and the fear of the unknown. CatracaLivre was the best resource for finding out not only free concerts, conferences, films, exhibitions, and all kinds of events, but also for learning about the cultura paulistana. The site published reviews of the cultural activities everyday and allowed the users to access a comprehensive catalog of community resources. Thanks to this website, and of course, thanks to the good friends I made there, I had a fantastic time in Sampa and I was able to learn a lot about the language, culture, and rhythms of this enormous city.

Last Friday I had the opportunity to meet Gilberto Dimenstein, the creator of Catraca Livre (Free Turnstile), and to listen to the presentation he gave at International Symposium on Online Journalism 2012. I was fascinated by the story that he told. As a researcher of literacies and education, it was was enlightening to find out that CatracaLivre had its origins in an innovative educational project that Dimenstein started back in the 1990s in Vila Madalena, a neighborhood of São Paulo. The neighborhood-school project mapped all the community’s resources that surrounded a school and transformed them into learning assets for the students. Hence, the school became the hub of a network of theaters, cultural centers, companies, parks, museums, and other public resources that were ready to be integrated in education. As the school became connected to the neighborhood, the learning started to happen not only inside the walls of the classroom but also outside of the school. The learning-neighborhood model was so successful that similar educational projects (Bairro-Escola) were replicated across Brazil demonstrating that cultural and social capitals could be increased by connecting the community resources to the schools. Inspired by this model of learning, Dimenstein and his team, decided to create CatracaLivre, and offer to the citizens of São Paulo, information about all the free and low-cost cultural activities and community resources that existed in the metropolitan area. In this way, the whole city became a learning space and people could take advantage of all the assets that were available.

I totally agree with this model of neighborhood/city-learning and I can testify from my personal experience in Sampa, that CatracaLivre works great. The project has been so successful that it has become a platform for launching several start-ups. When talking about them, Dimenstein emphasized the collaborative, sustainable, open, and social entrepreneurial aspect of all these new initiatives. For instance, the Caronetas and Campus Aberto, are two websites that allow citizens to find ways of sharing their means of transportation. Descola Ai is a website where users can exchange and barter the commodities that they don’t need anymore. Veduca is as a repository of free and open online courses from top universities that have been translated into Portuguese. Sautil is a search engine that helps people to find information about the public health network.

Even internationally CatracaLivre has been recognized as exemplary model of civic empowerment, community building, and education. Open City Labs, a collaborative project developed by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, is creating a global network of individuals and organizations interested in implementing systems that allow citizens to have access to “information on low-cost events, services and opportunities in education, health, social welfare, culture, sports and employment that are locally available.”

I support this kind of civic and educational projects and I am looking forward to collaborating in their development. I think the future of learning and education needs to embrace the city and the neighborhood as physical spaces for exploration and experimentation, as communities with open connections and resources. When I was living in Sampa, I thought about Bogota, the city where I grew up, constantly. For me, Sao Paulo, appeared like a futuristic Bogota. Like a Bogota multiplied by 5 and fast-forward in time 100 years. I felt very comfortable in Sampa, like being at home but in a different scale. Embracing a more interconnected culture, distributing and opening the information, and giving more cultural and educational opportunities for the citizens makes our learning and living experiences better.

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