Isabela Carvalho

Flying the Flag of Inspiration: University of São Paulo combines education, community development

“We seek to combine the university academic education to provide services to communities with fewer resources or that are isolated from large cities. Some of the main objectives are to take technology to these communities and motivate the creation and development of similar local projects.”

That’s how Luiz Fernando Ferraz da Silva, general coordinator, summarizes “Projeto Bandeira Científica” – the Scientific Flag Project – of the University of São Paulo (USP), the largest public university in Brazil and one of the most prestigious in Latin America.

“The Flag” is an extension of a project created in 1957. It organizes educational, scientific and charitable activities every year in different communities around the country. After a dormant period, the project was reborn in 1998 when 20 students from USP decided to revisit social impact initiatives that had been developed by the institution. Students went to communities in São Paulo and conducted a series of educational activities in the areas of ??health and citizenship.

This was only the first step. In 15 years, the project grew and consolidated from a minibus with 20 students to two planes (that belong to the Brazilian Air Force), 150 students and 50 staff members today.

Students with varying academic degrees make “expeditions” to economically disadvantaged communities, working to meet needs in a variety of segments – from health care delivery to infrastructure improvement – and including a holistic and integrated community development approach.

The selection of communities is strict and planned out, taking into account the Human Development Index, coverage through the Family Health Program (Brazil’s primary health care provider) and the population, which must be between 20,000 and 60,000. Nearly 50,000 people have been assisted in 17 different communities in Brazil.

Invited by Ashoka Changemakers to tell the project’s story (see the YouTube video below), Luiz Fernando and his team saw the “Storytelling” platform as an excellent opportunity to showcase the work they’ve done, to inspire others and to also act in the development of their regions.

Here, Luiz Fernando talks further about the project’s current activities and growth opportunities.

Changemakers: How did the idea of engaging students in a social impact project come about?

Luiz Fernando: First, with the fact that we are training professionals from the largest university in Latin America, at the largest economic center of the country, it is expected that the reality in São Paulo is different from the rest of the country. However, our calling is to train professionals not only in São Paulo but in all of Brazil. In this context, it is essential that students know and experience these different realities, and one of the most efficient ways to do this is to engage in social projects like “The Flag.”

The second important conceptual aspect is that this is one way the university itself can dialogue with the community, raise awareness for their problems and seek scientific/technical and social solutions to improve the local population’s living conditions.

So, I think it ends up becoming something natural in the context of university courses at our institution, especially those focused on health, where the relationships with others is the basis of day-to-day professional activities.

CM: How was the idea to make the video and send it to Changemakers received internally?

LF: It was very well received by the coordinating and governing board of the project. The creation of the video was perceived as a great opportunity, not only for publicizing the project’s important activities in a highly skilled environment, but also as an opportunity to record this process. Posed with this situation, it was possible to recap highlights of the project, envisioning its development and its future prospects.

CM: So you believe that the promotion of the project’s creation story and its impact can inspire other institutions or groups to also join the professional training for a socially responsible purpose?

LF: I’m sure! We have previous experience with other universities who participated with us, or who knew the project’s history and replicated the design (while respecting local particularities and interests). I believe that this promotion has the power to show that it is not only possible to develop this type of action, but that by walking step by step it is also possible to achieve grandiose goals.

CM: What are the prospects for project expansion?

LF: As every university project, “The Flag” must be dynamic to adapt itself to different realities. Annually, we discuss the prospects for the inclusion of new knowledge areas and specific activities depending on local demands of the towns served. In addition, the project recently expanded its operations through a surgical expedition that was conducted on an experimental basis. It proved to be successful and has already been incorporated. The 2014 surgical expedition will be expanded in terms of staff, procedures and objectives.

Thus we have a vision that there is room to expand, but we are always conscious about the availability of resources, technical capabilities and managerial capacities. The project’s growth over the last 15 years has shown that with the accumulation of these adaptations and new propositions, we can achieve even more ambitious goals in the long term.

Isabela Carvalho is a journalist with a graduate degree in communications, who works as a community mobilizer at Ashoka Changemakers. This blog originally appeared on NextBillion Brazil, and is translated from Portuguese to English.

Education, Health Care
skill development