Leadership #2 – My best leadership experience – USP|Debate

 How eight students brought politicians to debate in a country divided by politics

When I was in my undergrad, I was a student at the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil. At that time, the  great political polarization that there is in the country now (as of 2018) was begging to get worse and that could be seen outside and inside the university. It was hard to find a group where discussion was evidence based and I realized that we, students of the best university in the country, were not prepared to discuss politics and were not aware of the extent of the consequences of the political polarization.

I remember one friend telling me she was walking on the street and she was pushed and spat on because she was wearing a pin of one of the country 35 political parties, mostly divided between left and right. I also watched some discussions of the students about different topics. The discussions lasted up to 7 hours and only the people who stayed until the end could vote. Usually, the discussions were not structured and the diversity of opinion was low. Good ideas usually were not expressed well and were lost, and bad ideas that could capture the mood of the crowd would be carried on. On the other hand, official elections for student representation had low attendance and there was not such a thing as an unison student voice. This was also because of the sheer size of the university, which has more than 94.000 students as of 2018.

And even though I was dissatisfied, I realized that I didn’t have enough information to make decisions about important things that were happening at the university and at the country.  This was extremely worrying, and I saw the others students also lacked a north. Not a political opinion, but a method to gather information from different sources, analyze them and take decisions with sureness enough to question their peers and themselves.

Then, I met a group which was trying to begin a debate group in the university.

In Europe and the USA, these groups are common, but in Brazil they were unknown.  The founder of the group at the university was Henrique Vitta, who had met debate groups from other universities that were recently created. Vitta was an undergrad from Accounting and he had been the president of FEA Junior, one of the few companies in Brazil ran by undergrads that has a yearly profit of more than R$1 mi. The idea of introducing debates in Brazilian universities was originated from the Law school of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and was coordinated by Renato Ribeiro.

In the begging, the debate group at the university was small, many people would come from one of the meetings that interested them but then would not return to the other meetings. Because we were not an official group from the university, we had to pay all of the expenses with our own money, like printing and travelling, and had to do meetings at open spaces, because we couldn’t have a room at the university. A philosophy professor,  Prof. Cícero de Araújo helped us to deal with formalities, so we became an official project of the university. This made it easier to use rooms in the campus, but our resources were still extremely limited.

Resultado de imagem para fau usp

The Faculty of Architecture of the University of São Paulo, where USP|Debate started the meetings. We could not reserve rooms of the university, so we used the open space of the building. The place was open and busy, so the meetings were often disrupted.

For more than a year, we tried to gather more and more people, going to the classrooms and inviting the new students. But they had never heard of competitive debate and this made it much harder. Competitive debate is nonexistent at the schools and it is perceived as a bad thing because of the way debate is carried on by the politics, which is shown at television. Also, we followed a model of debate in which people are stimulated to exercise defending an opinion opposite from what they believe. And this is such a discomfort that most people would be reluctant to try. When I went to the classrooms, people whispered: “God forbid someone hear me defending the policitian XXX” or “How can they decide who wins the debate. It is always subjective!”.

When this kind of thing happened, I tried to explain that we don’t defend ideas that go against ethical principles, and that we only discuss ideas that have reasonable pros and cons and that there are objective ways to judge the quality of a debate. Anyway, we had to fight against the standard the politicians had set of what debate was. This nonsensical standard had direct effects in our lives and at the decisions made at the university. When terrible decisions were made by politicians, people didn’t realize that rejecting a proposal is not enough, but it was necessary to reject a method of thinking to be able to navigate a scenario as complex as the one we were living.

Resultado de imagem para biblioteca brasiliana

After the Faculty of Architecture, the meetings of USP|Debate were hosted by a new building at the campus, the Biblioteca Brasiliana Guita e José Mindlin. Bianca Checon managed to get a room reserved for us in the underground. The building was well equipped and we found a perfect place for our meetings. But people were still not coming.

After the Faculty of Architecture, the meetings of USP|Debate were hosted by a new building at the campus, the Biblioteca Brasiliana Guita e José Mindlin. Bianca Checon managed to get a room reserved for us in the underground. The building was well equipped and we found a perfect place for our meetings. But people were still not coming.

With the years passing, our group was becoming smaller and smaller. We had good people coming, like Bianca Checon, a PhD student that in the future would be the new president of the USP|Debate. Bianca would always bring so much information to the meetings and later she helped Henrique to get a perfect place for our meetings, a room in the new library in the campus, one of the most beautiful and most coveted places to be.

However, before that, there was a feud between the 3 founders of the group.

The main cause of the failure was the stark disappointment: yet so much work was done to promote the group, so few people were coming and staying. After all, the university had 94.000 students and the country obviously needed what we were doing, so where did we fail in bringing people? Accusations began and the founders of USP|Debate split into two.

Henrique Vitta continued to lead one of the groups, but for a long time the project seemed faded to failure. We not only had two groups, but we had two groups that were competing to be called USP|Debate.  As time passed, one of the groups faded and USP|Debate restarted with new people, but we had lost almost all progress we had made up to this point, since many people left because of the conflict rid environment at that time. I remember sometimes we had meetings with 2 or 3 people, but I always considered that as a study session, so I remained, despite being dissapointed of what could have been.  With more divulgation work, we gathered a core of 8 people that always came to the meetings: Henrique Vitta, Bianca Checon, Felipe Bragança, Lucas Silva, Bruno Fochesato, Renato Bispo,  Gabriel Vieira and I (Marcos Masukawa).

One day, out of the blue, Henrique Vitta proposed that we make a debate with the candidates to mayor of São Paulo, the largest city of Latin America.

The idea seemed absurd, we couldn’t even bring students to come to our group! How could we bring candidates that were some of the most important politicians in the country in a time when they are the busiest doing their campaign? Besides, Henrique Vitta, who was leading USP|Debate until this point had to leave for work to the other side of the country. It would be only 7 of us. Still, we believed in the idea, or like a member would say later, “we pretended we believed”. Henrique convinced us by saying: If it failed, it failed, but if it worked it would be a way to get the eyes of the university Dean, so we could get a good space for our meetings, maybe a some money for travelling to compete. And, most importantly, show that the politicians could also have a productive debate if we had set an environment for the conversation.

Bianca Checon and I were the only “original” members of the group. Before Vitta left, the three of us decided that Bianca should be the president of the group and this was the right decision. With the new members, we decided we would call our debate with the candidates “Jornada eleitoral (Electoral journey)”. But the event still seemed completely unfeasible. Then, we had the idea to try a partnership with the university radio, Radio USP.  That way, we could use the fact that Radio USP was an official Institution of the University and could make reservation of spaces, besides, the audio of the debate with the candidates could be professionally recorded and broadcasted, making it more attractive for the candidates to come.

Prof. Cícero helped us to get the meeting with Radio USP. After the meeting, it was decided they would ask the university lawyers if we were doing something legal. We didn’t think about that, but in Brazil the laws about election campaign are extremely rigid and it is illegal to do campaign too early before the elections.

The lawyers told us that what we wanted was possible with a condition.

Our original plan was to bring 4 or 5 candidates for a debate similar to the television, but this was not allowed because it would mean we were using the public resources to favor some of the candidates. But the lawyers also said that if we invited all the candidates it would not be a problem. However, this meant we had to invent a completely new debate format. A debate with such a large number of candidates had never been done in television or radio. And we had to do it in a fair way according to the law… or risk being sued. Then, we decided we would do it. And rushed to a marathon to call all the 11 candidates.

This marathon would last for 2 months. We started calling the candidates and we were mostly ignored at first. Bruno Fochesato , Lucas Silva and Bianca Checon were responsible for calling the Personal Relation (PR) groups of the candidates. The work was exhaustive and they had to make calls and send emails for months without stop until hours before the actual day, so that the largest number of candidates could come. According to the law, if the candidate declined we could still hold the event, but we needed an official document to prove that the candidate was not willing to come and that was also hard to get.

Because of Radio USP, we could reserve the largest and most beautiful auditorium of the University, the  Center for International Diffusion. But that was just one part of the challenge. In the months before the event, we designed flyers, posters, we sent emails, made phone calls, glue posters throughout the campus, planned every step of the big day of the debate in a format that was never ever done in TV or Radio. We were definitely overwhelmed, not to forget we were still students and we had to attend classes and take tests in the meanwhile.

For me, a large part of my hardship came from what should be a simple role. I had to get the coffee break for the candidates. I called about 50 companies that could give us the coffee break for free, because we had no money. However, at this time, the economic crisis was already at a very bad point and I had to hear a NO from all the companies I called and visited. That was frustrating. To worsen our stress,  we also found out that Radio USP was using the name that we created for our event – Jornada eleitoral (Electoral journey) – to other events they were organizing based on our event without consulting us! Our blood boiled a little when credit was due. Still, we had to communicate our discomfort without putting in risk the whole partnership and chose to do it after the event. Afterall, it was only possible because of Radio USP and we were very thankful.

The last preparations for the debate of the candidates to São Paulo city elections.

Would anyone come?

We never in a thousand years thought this would happen because the candidates were very well known and because the week before there was one event at the university with one of the candidates that had thousands of people. Also, we did hundreds of posters and flyers and glued them in all institutes of the campus.

Bruno and I took flyers and went to the cafeteria because that is where we hoped to find more people. We gave flyers and screamed (literally) about the event until we had to go back because the event was about to start.

People arriving to the debate. Picture: Cecília Bastos/USP Imagens.

Then, the event happened.

It was perfect.

Probably not perfect, but I don’t remember of any major failure. We were worried some of the candidates would use harsh words or that the question of the students would be impolite but it didn’t happen. I think that because we treated everyone so fairly, the small and big politicians alike, and made clear again and again that it was a fair game, that everyone was thankful and respectful. The university dean also came with a last minute confirmation and made a speech. At the end of each talk, the candidates received an acrylic paperweight of the USP|Debate that I had handcrafted one by one in the previous night. Then, the event ended and we felt a sense of relief that was unmatched to any other. We were extremely proud.

We had spent our own money in the event and we have done something that would have taken a full company and probably thousands of dollars to do it. And only 8 people did it.  I am still amazed of how we were able to bring the candidates together at this gorgeous building and to broadcast it for the whole state. Yet, we had no money to serve a coffee to the mayor of São Paulo. PS: he was a candidate for a second term and came to the event. PPS: He did ask for a coffee.

The group from USP|Debate that organized the Electoral Journey. Felipe, Gabriel, I, Bianca, Lucas, Renato, Bruno from left to right. Henrique is not in the picture. Picture: Cecília Bastos/USP Imagens

The autograph of the candidates that came to the Debate.

Some days after the high had passed, we realized there was still so much to do. The event didn’t mean USP|Debate would be successful from one day to the other and at the time we were so exhausted by the event that we didn’t use all the lever we had access right after the event. I had to leave Brazil and soon other members were leaving and new ones were coming. USP|Debate still had a lot of work to do to become a household name at the university, but I had the feeling we redefined what a debate group can do. USP|Debate is still smaller than other debates groups in Brazil, but now it has gained new vitality and it is being coordinated by Kleber Henriques.

I hope that in the future debate will be a common activity in the schools and universities in Brazil. And I still hope that USP|Debate  can organize an election event again to show that – even – the politicians can be brought together and find common ground.

Things we did right at first try

  • Make a partnership with established institutions from the university, the USP Radio and USP newspaper that could provide us legal and institutional support
  • Establish a friendly contact with the PR of the politicians
  • Establish strict deadlines and goal oriented meetings
  • Make a consistent visual identity for the event (posters, flyers, backdrops, souvenirs) and make sure our brand USP|Debate is visible
  • Organize the event with ultra-low cost limitations

Things we should improve for a next event

  • Guarantee financial support from the university on an early stage based on the previous successful event
  • Use other approaches of marketing so more people attend the event and that it is reported in other media, not only the radio and newspaper from the university
  • During the event, use any lever possible (without being importunate or persistent) with the dean and other people from the university to secure more resources and space for the USP|Debate project and for the next events

Links

USP|Debate website

Links about the event (Portuguese)

Interviews with the candidates (Youtube)

 

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