In our latest alumni interview, we catch up with Paola Vasconcelos, a Mundus Urbano alumni who completed our master in 2018 and recently worked with Orkidstudio, a social enterprise based in Nairobi, Kenya that was cofounded by another former student Julissa Kiyenje. Here Paola tells us about her experience shifting towards social design and the challenges of developing a community center  in a remote area of rural Zambia, a project in which local women played a central role.

Name: Paola Vasconcelos
Age: 30
Nationality: Brazilian
Occupation: Project Manager
Location: Zambia
Area of interest/specialty: Gender equality, Project management in development contexts
Professional goal: To work in development projects that foster local community participation and gender equality

How did you come to work with Orkidstudio?

Having worked as a project manager in the private sector, the masters became turning point in my career. After graduating, Orkidstudio seemed the right place to start work in the social sector, being a reference in social change through building and construction. I was hired for a specific project in Zambia, after applying to the process and being interviewed by one of the directors.

What project did you work on and what was your role?

I worked as a consultant on a project in a remote area in Zambia, performing the role of construction project manager. The aim of the project is to build a series of community centers using local resources that will serve as hubs to provide solar power, internet connection and a gathering space where residents can participate in workshops that foster entrepreneurship and economic development. I was responsible for construction execution, human resources management, procurement process and stakeholders management. In a nutshell, the construction manager is responsible for making the project happen: requesting funds, sourcing and buying materials, preparing logistic plans. Another important task is liaising with the local community: besides hiring the local labor force, the construction manager deals with community leaders and very often act as an instructor on site, teaching workers the right techniques and methods of construction. In this case, prototypes were built with sandbags, a technique that the local community did not have knowledge about.

Had you ever worked a similar job in this field? How did you adapt to the context and culture?

I had the construction skills but not the experience of working with a nonprofit and engaging a local community. The rural area of Zambia can be a very isolated, with difficult access to internet connection and electricity, so the project had to be executed without the need for power tools. Roads to the sites were in a very bad condition which also required a good logistical plan and locally-sourced materials that wouldn’t have to be brought from miles away.

Culturally my background is very different; although I come from a provincial village, I have always had access to basic services. One thing that shocked me was the cruelty of the patriarchal system, in how girls are married off as teenagers, how men still pay dowries to marry a women (the younger, the more expensive), how many men harass women. It was difficult to come from a place where we have made advances towards women’s equality and experience a situation in which women are still completely submissive. We tried to do our part by empowering women on the construction site, training them and having them work on all sorts of tasks, some normally performed by men, sometime even instructing other men. It was great to see their development throughout the construction, how they were shy and quiet in the beginning and by the end they were always smiling and doing difficult work.

What were the most challenging aspects of the job?

Before going, I had no idea of what I would find, the village was not on even on Google Maps! It took me about two months to adapt to the context and disconnect from urban life. I was born in the Global South and know the struggles of Brazilian favelas and the structural problems that affect our society, but living in Zambia and seeing their reality, in the middle of the savannah and in an agricultural context, was something that gave me another perspective: poverty is not only a matter of overpopulated neighborhoods with no access to good infrastructure as I had been seen before. Poverty also happens in the middle of vast green fields connected by dirt roads and with no access to water or sanitation, in very small communities hours away from a hospital and highly exposed to problems like HIV. They are happy people, but their struggles are real. Building community centers in areas like these may seem like a very small step,  but economic empowerment and access to information is a good way to start.

In what ways has the master program influenced your career so far?

Having colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds exposed me to the world in the confined space of a classroom. The exchange of experiences and discussions in class was really valuable, as was the knowledge shared by lecturers that had been working in the field and who showed us the realities of international cooperation.

What advice would you give to our students or anyone interested in a similar career path? 

My advice, as cliché as it sounds, is to find something you are passionate about. In my case, I was happy with all the experience and opportunities I had while working in the private sector, but I was not fulfilled. When I realized this, I knew I couldn’t just quit my job and leave it all behind without any plan. So first I quit my job to move abroad and do Mundus Urbano program, which I chose as my preparation to enter the field of social and urban change. I wanted my career to be a tool for self-development, both professionally and personally, and to be able to help other people and different communities in a more human way. Some people might prefer jobs that are more stable, which I may want again at some point in the future, but at this stage of my life, what motivates me most is having hands on experiences through which I can grow and help others to grow as well.

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