A group of social change foodies are hoping to raise a little dough to purchase an oven at the new Wychwood Barns Park and for that we can thank a Brazilian activist who died almost a decade ago.
On December 1 at Caju restaurant, there will be a funder for the brick cookery, timed to honour the birth of Herbert de Souza, whose brief stint in Toronto helped to alter the very pattern of social movements here and in his own country.
The event is hosted by the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson, the Stop Community Food Centre, FoodShare and the Toronto Food Policy Council, all of which include long-time activists who either knew de Souza or were influenced by the people he cast his spell on.
In an era when politicos were very state- and government-centred, de Souza taught that social transformation wasn't just about pushing governments to act, but also about folks together doing things for themselves.
The intriguing thing about the Wychwood oven project is that it offers a moment to contemplate this insight and to ponder the mysteries of time and place and how it was that a lone refugee from a country so far to our south could have helped change so much of our thinking.
De Souza lived in a tiny body and is still known as Betinho, "the little buddy" who gave a lift to tens of millions of little guys in Brazil, where he inspired the world's most dynamic experiment to end physical and spiritual hunger and revere life.
De Souza came to Toronto in 1975 after fleeing Chile, where he served as a leading planner in the government of Salvadore Allende before it was overthrown in a U.S.-backed military coup. This was his second escape. His first was in the late 1960s, when the military dictatorship of his native Brazil put a mark on the life of the celebrated student radical and labour leader. A popular Brazilian samba sang that the military dictatorship wouldn't be over until Betinho came back.
Toronto got to know him, his friend Judy Hellman noted in a speech when York University granted him an honorary doctorate in 1997, at a strange time after he was famous for his heroic life, but just before he became the "collective metaphor" of an aroused Brazilian democracy.
De Souza was penniless in a strange country. He was also thin, weak and in pain because of his hemophilia, and knew just a few words of English. With charisma as his only resource, he created Brazilian studies at York University and what became the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean, and became a central figure in the Development Education Centre (DEC) and GATT-Fly, an economic justice group.
De Souza was introduced to DEC by priests from the Scarboro Foreign Mission who were heavily influenced by the liberation theology that was sweeping Latin America's Catholic churches. There he met Darcy Martin, now a leading adult educator. "This witty, creative, courageous, luminous presence entered our lives and changed mine forever," Martin recalls.
According to Debbie Field, FoodShare's current executive director and then a staffer at DEC, Betinho pioneered the notion within the left that "social movements should be about ethics, solidarity, transparency and citizenship.'
Field credits Betinho and Brazil with many of FoodShare's signature programs, including the Good Food Box (which sells at-cost produce from small local farms), and the organization's commitment to empowerment.
"I never used the word "empowerment' before 1997," Field says, referring to the year she went to Brazil and met women who'd just built their homes with bricks made from a brick-making machine Betinho had purchased with donations from a nearby synagogue.
"Betinho believed in us, so we believed in ourselves, and look what we did for ourselves," they told Field. That's civil society, Betinho-style.
De Souza flew back to Brazil in 1979, shortly after the military dictators stepped down. There was a mass demonstration at the airport to welcome him home.
In 1981, he formed IBASE (the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis), one of the first independent civil society organizations in the new Brazil. In 1985, Betinho contracted AIDS through an unscreened blood transfusion his two brothers, also hemophiliacs, died from AIDS shortly thereafter.
In 1993, he founded Citizen's Action Against Hunger and Poverty and for Life as Brazilians were feeling their democratic oats. It was a time "when the traditional self-perception of the Brazilian people as apathetic, powerless and conformist was shaken," according to a 1998 study of Citizen's Action by Fernanda Lopes de Carvalho.
With its slogan "Hunger can't wait," the organization soon enjoyed backing from 1,000 civil society organizations and 5,000 committees that started moving while pushing governments to join in. To speed this up, Betinho launched the Committee of Public Enterprises to Fight Hunger in 1993, enlisting 33 large public firms and universities to donate surplus resources to create hundreds of brick-making machines, fish farms and urban gardens, and to serve as customers of newly formed worker co-ops.
De Souza built one of the world's most coalition-based and action-packed anti-hunger movements on the strength of ordinary Brazilians' famous zest for life. "Betinho definitely had that," says Judith Marshall, who led several tours to meet, learn from and assist de Souza on behalf of the Canadian Steelworkers union's Humanity Fund. "In this body that was skin and bones lived this spirit for fun and dancing and food," Marshall says.
Hence the sturdy new oven slated to bear his name at the soon-to-be-redesigned Wychwood Barns.