Tempos Modernos (Modern Times)
An Interview with Erica Woods
Creator/Director of Projeto de Habitação dos Desabrigados da Bahia (Bahia Homeless Housing Project)By: Ana Paula Oliveira
Portuguese translation by: Ana Paula Paim de Oliveira-Stansell
Photos by: Bethany Nagy
Published in Soul Brazil Magazine, October 2007Tell me about the title you’ve chosen for this interview.
Tempos Modernos is one of my favorite songs. It opens with the line “Eu vejo a vida melhor no futuro” (I see a better life in the future) and ends, “Vamos viver tudo que há pra viver, vamos nos permitir.” (Let’s live all there is to live, let’s permit ourselves.) It felt appropriate.Please tell me a bit about yourself.
I’m the mother of two incredible young men – they are 21 and 18 …almost 19. They are my greatest gifts to the world.I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. My mother courageously brought me to Los Angeles, California …Hollywood …when I was 2 years old. I was reared there in an incredible community comprised of people from all parts of the world and walks of life. I grew up speaking Spanish. I also grew up loving music and dance. I lived in Europe, traveled extensively (although, I feel I’m just getting started and intend to see every corner of the world before I take my last breath). I’ve written two books – one fiction and one non-fiction – I’d love to see published soon.I’m not very adept at talking about myself …I’m much better at talking about PHDB …isn’t that why we’re here?Indeed. How did this project come about for you?
I first traveled to Brazil in 1995. I found Sao Paulo an interesting city, and found Rio fascinating, but intense. I felt myself at home before the plane touched down in Salvador. I felt myself committed, from that first moment, to helping Bahia and her people …my people.
My first attempt at helping involved taking money from my wealthy employer and giving it to friends in Brazil. It was a very well intended bad idea that landed me into loads of trouble …that’s another story, though – and it’s covered fully in my book, A Day Without Me. However, instead of ending my deep desire to help, it only fueled my passion. Further, I understood that I was doing no more than putting a band-aid on a much larger problem.
I spent several years garnering an education in homelessness by working for different homeless organizations in Los Angeles. What I found, amongst other things, is that there are myriad opportunities in the United States for homeless people to change their circumstances. As I traveled to Brazil every year, I came to understand that the same is not true for Brazil’s homeless. For several years, I spent whole days wandering the streets of Salvador speaking to homeless people, buying homeless children lunch or a pair of shoes, and providing English classes to young “disadvantaged” adults. I asked them what they felt they needed to change their circumstances. The overwhelming response I received was a single word – “Opportunity.” I knew then that my work would be in somehow helping to provide opportunities.
The actual idea for PHDB (which stands for Projeto de Habitação dos Desabrigados da Bahia, or the Bahia Homeless Housing Project) came as a daydream one afternoon while I was driving home from yoga. It felt terrifying and overwhelming – get funding from Brazilians, create housing and schools, build communities of people who learn to sustain themselves, and foster the creation of opportunities for people to effect change in their lives. I pulled my car over and wrote it all down. The more terrifying it seemed, the more excited I was to get started.
I knew it wouldn’t happen until my sons could take care of themselves. They have been priority number 1. That said, they’ve known for 12 years that mom would be moving to Brazil when they grew up. I’m honored to say that they are now very capable grown men.
So, I’m off to Bahia.
For me, Bahia was the first place that ever felt like home to me. I’ve always felt myself a bit of a misfit in the US – even in laid back L.A. In Bahia, I felt I’d found my tribe – whether in the city of Salvador or in the small towns along the Paraguasu River, or on the other side of the Bay, I always feel at home in Bahia. I don’t view Bahia, or Salvador, as a passing fancy or as a tourist attraction, nor do I view it with “stars in my eyes.” I see it as home …and I want my home to flourish, grow stronger, smarter, and more financially stable. I want my home to relish in the great wealth in itself that I see as I walk its streets and breathe its air. That worth, that wealth, begins with uplifting the people and giving them the opportunity to change their circumstances. I have a passion for Brazil …and a singular passion for Bahia.
Why you? What is your motivation?
Love has no other desire but to exist and flow. I love Bahia, and Brazil as a whole, and feel that PHDB is the best way that I can show that love and be of service. PHDB is my way of loving Brazil. It is also my sweet, humble ‘thank you’ to all my ancestors dating back to the first two humans. In living my best life and stepping up to the challenges and joy that PHDB will present, I’m showing my gratitude to my ancestors, my familiars and the Divine for the blessings and bounty of my life.
Why not rely on 100% foreign investors for PHDB?
If one wants proof of this rapid decline, one only needs to look to the United States. As the middle class disappears, crimes of opportunity are rising. As America invests more in foreign business opportunities and gives jobs, by the 10’s of thousands, to people in India, China and Mexico – taking these jobs from capable Americans and creating virtual ghost towns in many of America’s small towns, the nation is falling deeper into debt, deeper into poverty, and deeper into its own destruction. As the US government shows its disinterest in taking care of Americans – such as is currently occurring in New Orleans – the American public is facing a stark reality, realizing that New Orleans could happen anywhere and that none of us would be treated any differently. As basic systems like education and healthcare are lacking and are becoming, like home ownership, an elitist opportunity, Americans are looking for a way to get back to simpler realities that, in many ways, simply no longer exist.
Fortunately, Brazil is NOT the US. Brazil does not live by this model, nor does it need to die by the same sword.
But, as an American, aren’t you merely part of the problem? An opportunist?
And, as for being an opportunist – no. This project isn’t about me. It’s about helping people help themselves. I’m crystal clear on that.
So is this missionary work?
Missionary workers come in with a plan to “fix” something they see (or have been taught by their religion) as “broken”. Bahia …all of Brazil … is not broken. In many ways, it is healthy and flourishing – a virtual paradise with a quality of life that’s been missing on a large scale in the US (and many other places I’ve traveled to) for many years. PHDB is simply a tool, a service provided so that people have more choices about how they want to conduct their lives. PHDB will not make changes, or “fix” anyone. If change occurs, it will be 100% their choice …and what specific changes occur will also be fully up to each individual.
How will it work?
How much naïveté do you feel you’re bringing to this project?
Where do you see yourself in 10 or 15 years?
What does PHDB need?
PHDB also needs employees. When I arrive in Salvador in September, I will be looking for accountants, assistants, architects and the like.
What if it doesn’t work?
What about corruption and this concept of “non-accountability” in Brazil?
I agree with Jeffrey Sachs, I am impatient with the excuse of corruption. Corruption gets used to promote and promulgate inertia. I’m bored with that excuse.
For better or worse, the same is true of this “non-accountability” you speak of. Politicians and government officials all over the world are famous for not being “accountable” for all sorts of acts and actions dating back to the beginning of politics.
Accountability is not in the governments of a country, it’s in its people. It’s in the great-grandmother who, at 80-something years old, still walks 5 miles to catch a bus into town to do the laundry of a middle- or upper-middle-class family (for minimum wage) so she can feed, house and clothe her children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. It’s in the way that same great-grandmother gets up early to make sure her entire family is fed before she leaves the house and in the way that she, after working all day and walking 10 miles, gets home and continues to take care of her family. That’s the level of accountability I’m interested in. Those are the people I’m interested in working with. Those are the people I’m interested in serving.
What will you do to keep corruption out of PHDB?
Sounds impressive …and expensive.
It certainly sounds like you have all the answers.
To contact Ms. Woods regarding PHDB, please leave a comment.
About the interviewer: Ana Paula was born and reared in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Letters at the Catholic University of Salvador. Ana Paula is a professor, writer, editor and translator, as well as an incredible personal chef and the mother of a beautiful baby boy. Currently she resides with her family in Quartz Hill, California.