Post author Patricia Molina Costa is a Research Fellow at MIT Community Innovators Lab.
Last week I had the pleasure to coordinate and facilitate a participatory planning workshop with catadores (wastepickers) from Sao Paulo, Brazil. The catadores were visiting Boston as part of the GreenGrease Learning Hub. The goal of the workshop was to facilitate the collaboration between catadores and the folks at MIT, who will be working together this summer in Sao Paulo to enhance the waste vegetable oil collection programs from three wastepicker cooperatives (CRUMA, CORA and Coop Reciclavel).
The project tackles several issues, including the business model for the cooperatives and the technical details for the filtration of waste vegetable oil. The goal of the workshop was to enable collaboration among different actors, bringing together different kinds of expertise. Specifically, it was important to incorporate the deep knowledge that catadores have of their work and the challenges they face.
I divided the workshop into two parts. After sharing some key ideas about participatory planning, we did a short exercise called Share Your World to warm-up and get to know each other a bit better. Using a mountain of varied small objects (following James Rojas´ methodology The City as Play) I asked each participant to build his or her favorite childhood space. Once finished, each participant explained his or her model to the rest of the group, helping to establish stronger connections among us all while having fun together.
The next exercise was aimed at understanding the RedeCataSampa ecosystem. RedeCataSampa is a network that brings together different waste picker cooperatives in the Sao Paulo metropolitan area. We wanted to understand and map the human side of the work the cooperatives are doing, so that we could think of ways for them to better collaborate. Thus, we paired each catador with an MIT student and a researcher, and asked them to map their cooperatives’ constellation of relationships and connections. We defined a set of stakeholder categories and used different colored cards for each category, including other cooperatives, middle men, government agencies, nonprofit/ NGOs, et cetera. In addition, they drew lines and arrows between stakeholders that represented the kind of connections that linked them. When finished, each catador explained his diagram to the other groups, which also helped catadores from different cooperatives to better understand each other’s work.
As they described the different stakeholders, the catadores unveiled the details of their relation to each, both present and past, providing very important information for the project. For example, one cooperative used to have a strong relationship with the schools from the municipality where it operates – since schools were donating their waste vegetable oil – but recently the schools decided to start charging for it. Another catador explained the particularities of his cooperative’s agreement with the municipality, which provided many insights for developing a better business model. Thus, as they worked together, students and researchers had the opportunity to conduct an informal in-depth interview with the catador who was in their group.
From a sustainability perspective, it is critical to create these kinds of spaces, where people who don’t often have a chance to participate in the decisions that affect their lives can express their ideas and share their knowledge. Technical/rational expertise is not enough to solve the complex problems we face globally nor to find the creative solutions needed to overcome them. It is through the participation of the people affected by those challenges that better places and living conditions can be reached. Moreover, universities and researchers should be more open to collaborate with struggling communities and to provide resources to leverage the incredible knowledge that resides within those communities. The experience of the GreenGrease Learning Hub shows how positive this process is for the catadores, the students, and the researchers who participated.
Participants in the workshop standing in front of the stakeholders maps at MIT CoLab. From the left, standing: Ted Dreyfus, Pablo Rey (MIT Center for Civic Media), Marcos Antonio de Lima (CRUMA), Carlos Henrique Nicolau (CORA), Patricia Molina Costa (MIT CoLab), Leiliane de Santana Rocha (CoopReciclavel), Laura Fostinone, Oscar Fergutz (Avina Foundation), Joao Ruschel (RedeCataSampa), Tim Hall (Roxbury Green Power). Front row: Alexa Mills (MIT CoLab), Marta Marello (BU, GreenGrease), Angela Hojnacki (MIT, GreenGrease), Libby McDonald (MIT CoLab, GreenGrease).