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Bridging divides: collaborating for sustainable development in São Paulo

Reos Partners
July, 2022

Explore how Reos Partners supported a multi-stakeholder group seed progress for sustainable development to create a better future in São Paulo’s North Zone.

The center of the North Zone territory of São Paulo is a busy metropolis ripe for sustainable development. It’s home to the city’s largest bus terminal and one of Latin America's most important business hubs, Cidade Center Norte. Established in 1984, Cidade Center Norte is a symbol of progress and upward mobility in the region. However, in the surrounding area a significant number of the city’s most vulnerable people are living on the street in extremely poor conditions. 

Beginning in 2019, the leadership of Cidade Center Norte and its philanthropic arm, Instituto Center Norte, set out to organize an initiative to foster greater economic, social, and environmental stability throughout the North Zone region. The effort was paused because of the covid pandemic, then resumed in mid-2021.

"We feel a social responsibility to the people who are struggling in the territory. We wanted to find a way to better understand the issues they’re facing and envision how we can help."

Karin Srougi, Board Member of Cidade Center Norte

A photo of the North Zone territory of São Paulo. As a result of Ativa ZN, an initiative has been launched to restore the river featured in this image.

Guided by Reos Partners, Cidade Center Norte, Instituto Centro Norte, Magazine Luiza (one of Brazil’s largest retailers), Sebrae (a Brazilian micro and small business support service), and the VM-VG Subprefeitura (the local public administration) came together to form a convening alliance. The alliance mapped out the social actors and organizations in the North Zone and invited people from across the ecosystem, representing a range of voices, to jointly formulate collaborative actions to improve the region.

For the initiative to move forward, it was critical to decentralize it from the corporate entities, and include social actors from across sectors — police, priests, healthcare workers, city workers, and NGO leaders.

Called Ativa ZN (Activate North Zone), Reos Partners began the project by designing and facilitating a two-day workshop in September 2021, bringing together participants from diverse backgrounds. The exercises conducted during the workshop focused on fostering dialogue among participants and breaking down barriers.

"This is the magic — when people get to a place where they can trust and see one another differently. That’s the kind of soil from which anything good can grow. Without it, you can't grow anything."

Lucas Matarazzo of Reos Partners

Building trust and breaking down barriers

Understanding the wide range of the participants’ backgrounds and points of view, Reos wanted to ensure that each person came into the situation with the sense that their voices would be valued and heard. 

“Before the workshop, we held hour-long one-on-one interviews with the participants. Everyone had an opportunity to talk about their own perspective of the issues at hand and express what they think is working and not working,” said Fernando Rossetti of Reos Partners.

"Entering the room with lots of people you don't know but already feeling heard, and feeling that the people facilitating the conversation know who you are — that was a key strategy for trust-building.”


Ativa ZN participants taking part in trust-building exercises

For one of the group’s first exercises, the Reos team asked each participant to bring an object representing their relationship with the area. Each person showed their object, shared a meaningful story about it and their connection to the land, then put the object in the center of the circle.

"Through these stories of connection to the territory, people saw that they had something in common. This opened them up to new ways of relating to each other," added Lucas.

With trust established, the group could begin to make some real progress.

Mapping to create a shared understanding

In another foundational exercise, participants worked on a map to identify challenges and opportunities for sustainable development. A map of the area was put on the wall then participants used stickers to mark on the map where they felt scared, safe, happy, or sad within the space. The exercise offered an overview of how people experience the territory and directed attention to the most pressing issues in the area.


Participants used maps to identify challenges and opportunities for sustainable development in the North Zone

“Our approach isn't to try and identify a shared goal at the outset. Rather, we aim to build a shared concept of the challenges, then construct prototypes for different ways to deal with these challenges,” said Fernando.

“Everybody agrees that there’s an enormous population living in the streets — this is a problem. Everybody agrees that you need jobs for people living in the territory and that more green space is needed. By looking at these points everybody agrees on, we can start talking together about specific solutions.”

"The mapping exercise took into account the points of view of all participants. We started thinking about how we can create projects, opportunities, connections, and solutions.

When building something together, you're not assigning blame or focusing on who may be responsible for what problems. It was a reminder that we all belong to the same place."

Karin Srougi, Board Member of Cidade Center Norte

A learning journey to bridge divides

Another unifying exercise of the project included a learning journey to a particularly at-risk section of the region occupied by nearly 700 families living in dire conditions. Reos proposed this guided tour (learning journey) to allow participants to immerse themselves in the real-life challenges of the situation, as opposed to experiencing differing perspectives only in the abstract.

“There’s a street that divides Cidade Center Norte from the rest of the territory. It’s like a wall — a wall that shouldn’t exist,” said Karin. “It was a very powerful experience to visit this place and talk with the people there. During this visit, we started the destruction of this wall. That's the beginning of something.”

“Through the learning journey, we observed what’s possible when you go outside your bubble and lift the divides,” commented Fernando. “The experience brought people together to ask, what can we do to improve this?”

Ativa ZN — collaborating for a sustainable future

The convening alliance acknowledges that improving the North Zone is a long-term project.

The work we did with Reos was the first critical step of many. Although there’s still more to be done, the project prototypes developed in the workshop have resulted in previously ignored issues being addressed by local leadership, allowing for some immediate basic improvements that have been impactful for the region and people.

Daniela Pavan, Head of Instituto Centro Norte

A municipal worker cleaning the street.

Improvements such as keeping the streets clean have started to take place in the region.

In the weeks following the workshop, water and electric workers went into some of the territory’s neglected living areas. They cleaned the sewers and changed the lights. The project prototypes also led to the establishment of a local forum for senior citizens, a multi-sectoral proposal to develop a local park, and a river restoration initiative to revive the river ecologically and revitalize the riverfront area for improved human use.

Municipal workers cleaning sewers.

Municipal workers cleaning the sewers

While these initial improvements are crucial, the long-lasting impact of creating more trust amongst key stakeholders of the territory is where the hope lies for sustainable development. Building trust and developing social cohesion encourages people to be more willing and able to collaborate and lead lasting change together.

"The most important outcome is the engagement and trust we created with the group. Previously, we were all just coexisting in the territory. Now, we’re friends. We’re connected on WhatsApp, we can exchange messages. If someone needs something, they can contact us directly."

Karin Srougi, Board Member of Cidade Center Norte

“With this foundation of trust formed, there’s hope for a sustainable future in São Paulo’s North Zone,” concluded Karin.

A photo of Ativa ZN participants.

To learn more about how to establish trust and foster collaboration, sign up for our resource: Moving Forward Through Conflict: How to Collaborate Across Deep Divides.

If you’d like to read about our work in Portuguese, visit this blog.

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