Maria Teresa Leal – Brazil
Maria Teresa Leal founded Coopa-Roca, a sewing cooperative located in Rocinha, the largest favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, in 1981. Nicknamed “Tetê,” Leal has a college degree in social science and a license to teach elementary school. It is unusual for a middle-class or wealthy Brazilian to set foot in a favela. But when Leal visited the favela with her housekeeper, who lived there, she saw that many poor women in the favela were skilled seamstresses — yet they had no opportunity to use their skills to generate income. So she got the idea to start a co-operative, which would recycle fabric remnants to produce attractive quilts and pillows. Gradually, as the women gained experience and developed skills in manufacturing and marketing, the work grew more professional. In the early 90s Tetê attracted interest from Rio’s fashion world, and in 1994 Coopa-Roca began producing clothes for the catwalk. In order to acquire the luxurious fabrics for high-quality designer clothes, Tetê sought out donations. She also convinced fashion designers to teach the women about production skills and trends. Coopa-Roca started getting media attention, which helped Tetê get more fabric and more contracts. Pieces produced by the co-op are unique, combining a particular type of craftsmanship originated in northern Brazil with luxe fabrics found in couture fashion. Tetê recently signed a contract with the European clothes manufacturer C&A, which she hopes will allow the co-op to expand its offerings and multiply the number of women who benefit from it. (Read more on pbs.org).
Tetê was strongly influenced early in life by three family members. Her father, a leading physician, was one of the first doctors to volunteer every Saturday in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Her mother, a teacher, encouraged her to broaden her education to understand all of society’s ills and opportunities. Her oldest sister founded Rio’s first Arts Education School, the first school to teach education and the arts to mixed classes of wealthy, middle-class and favela children. The school, which opened in 1960 and still operates today, grew out of her sister’s civic work.
From age nine to seventeen Tetê attended classes at the school, and later taught there on weekends. When she attended the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, she sought out the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, for special tutoring. She started visiting Rocinha with her family’s housekeeper, learning about the reality of the favela and thinking about how she could implement Freire’s ideas about popular education and solve the economic difficulties of the women she met. Tetê graduated with a degree in social science and a license to teach elementary school–-a combination that prepared her well to launch Coopa-Roca.
Since then, Tetê has constructed a social and economic bridge between the two disparate worlds of favela and fashion. Tetê’s innovative idea of “creating value NOW!” plays with common perceptions: she takes design and labor that are perceived as “poor” (but which really are culturally rich, e.g., migrant women) and juxtaposes them with materials perceived as “luxurious” (but which are really free, e.g., fabrics that are donated, recycled, or provided by the client). (Read all on ashoka).