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 went to some of the discussion of the students about decisions at the university. 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 were lost and bad ideas that could capture the mood of the crowd would be carried on.
Also, 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, but 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 be question their peers.
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 economics 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 was introducing the debates in Brazil 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 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, but still our resources were extremely limited.
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 debate, it is not common at the schools and it is perceived as a bad thing because of the way debate is carried on by the politics. 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!”.
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 she was responsible for arranging a perfect place for our meetings, a room in the new library in the campus, one of the most beautiful and most coveated places to be.
Then, there was a feud between the 3 founders of the group, splitting it in two groups. 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 poins. At one moment, we had a core of 8 people that always came to the meetings: Henrique Vitta, Bianca Checon, Felipe Bragança, Lucas ***, Bruno Fochesato, Renato Bispo, Gabriel Vieira and I (Marcos Masukawa).
Then, Henrique Vitta proposed that we make a debate with the candidates to mayor of Sao Paulo, the largest city of Latin America. The idea seemed absurd, we couldn’t even bring student 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. 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 printing. 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 olders members of the group After Vitta left, Bianca became the president of the group and this was the right decision. Our strategy was to do a partnership with the radio of the university. Radio USP. It was a great decision. 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 radio could record and broadcast the debate, making it more attractive for the candidates. Also, the radio could ask the lawyers of the university what were possible legal risks of what we were trying to do.
After a meeting with the Radio, we, from the USP|Debate were responsible for everything. We started calling the candidates and we mostly were politely ignored at first. Lucas *** and Bianca Checon were responsible for calling the Personal Relation 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.
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, plan every step of the big day of the debate. One of my roles was to get the coffee break for the candidates. I called about 50 companies that could give us the coffee break for free. 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. Then, we also found out that Radio USP was using the name we created for our event – Jornada eleitoral (Elector journey) – to other events they were organizing based on our event without consulting us. Also in some occasions they failed to mention us (the creators of the event!), and 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.
One the week before, we had the partial confirmation of most of the candidates. A partial confirmation meant the candidate would go in case there was not another event for the day. However, on the day before, one of the candidates announced she was not going and on the day of the event another candidate decided not to go. On the top of that, just a couple hours before the event, the place was empty. Would anyone come? Bruno and I took flyers and went to the cafeteria because that is where we hopes we would 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.
Only about 1/5 of the auditorium was full. We didn’t think 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 thousands of posters and flyers and glued them in all institute of the campus. Quickly, the workers from Radio USP helped us to sit people only at the center of the auditorium. Besides, the main goal of the event was for it to be recorded, so we tried to give the impression to the candidates that it was purposeful that the room was not so full.
Then, the event happened. It was perfect. Probably not perfect, but I don’t remember of any major failure. The University dean came, made a speech. At the end of the talk, the candidates received acrylic paperweight of the USP|Debate that I had handcrafted one by one. 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 7 people did it. I am still amazed of how we were able to bring the candidates together at this beautiful building and to broadcast it for the whole state. Yet, we had no money to give them coffee.
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. It is still smaller than other debates groups, 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.