Bahia Street and how I got empowered

It started with a salsa dance class. Barry and I had been taking salsa for a year, repeating the intermediate class for months until we were ready for the advanced. A few weeks later, Margaret Willson waltzed into the advanced class and turned our lives upside down. In a good way.

Margaret had never taken a salsa class, but she knew how to dance. She jumped right into the advanced class with confidence and aplomb.

At the time, she had just returned to the States from Brazil. My first impression was of a statuesque blonde with an intriguing accent. It wasn’t quite British, but she said “holiday” instead of “vacation.” Margaret was an anthropologist, originally from Oregon, who had lived all over the world, hence the accent I couldn’t place.

Our friendship formed around dancing, walks, and swims in chilly Lake Washington. With her Ph.D., several universities wanted her to teach anthropology, but she wanted to leave the academic world and do something else. I now know that what she was considering is called practical or applied anthropology.

At the time, I was a graphic designer at Arthur Andersen. Although I’d previously had my own editing and design business, at AA, I was a second-class citizen. The company valued employees who worked directly for clients and brought in revenue. My position was considered overhead and less valued. As a result, my self-esteem was low.

So I was surprised and honored when Margaret told me one day that she was starting a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and she asked me to be on the board of directors.

I had no idea what I was taking on. None of us did.

Margaret described to me the grueling poverty in the shantytowns of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. She had lived there for several years and had worked with a remarkable research assistant, a woman named Rita (pronounced HEE-ta) who had graduated from college in spite of her shantytown upbringing. She and Rita had decided to address the poverty by helping girls get an education.

In Seattle, there were four of us on the original board, one for each position. Margaret was president. Eduardo Mendonça, a Brazilian musician, was vice president. He was the one who came up with the name, Bahia Street. Pat Ingrassia brought years of social activism experience, but it was the first time he’d ever been a treasurer. Margaret had met him while riding the Metro bus he drove on Vashon Island.. I was secretary, responsible for taking notes at the meetings.

I vividly remember the meeting at the corner booth in the Jackrabbit restaurant, in downtown Seattle. The four of us put our hands together on the table and committed to one year of funding. We agreed to be responsible for the education of one girl, an orphan named Juliana who lived with her sister. Our bank account had about $45.

It was a overwhelming commitment. To pay for Juliana’s private school tuition alone, we needed several hundred dollars a month. We also needed to pay for her books, school uniforms, bus fare, and a small stipend to her sister.

I was so panicked at the thought, I never stopped to think about the level of commitment Rita was taking on.

At the time, I thought of her as another friend of Margaret’s, someone who’d been talked into this project by my earnest and persuasive friend. Nothing was further from the truth. In the beginning, Rita had been the persuasive one. She had talked Margaret into starting the project.

Thousands of miles from Brazil, I jumped into the challenges of starting a non-profit. I designed a Bahia Street logo and a fancy brochure and we had our first mailing party, using a mailing list loaned to us by Eduardo. We had house parties and dances and sold beer at Carnival. We put on a summer festival, São João, with a day and a half of activities. We even had a rummage sale at my house, although most of the volunteers would like to forget that one.

Meanwhile, Margaret was doing what she does best, connecting and inspiring people to get involved. She raised substantial sums from wealthy friends in England, wrote grants, and turned the supporting community into a real community. The money began to trickle in, not the big grants we expected, but many small monthly checks from individuals.

In Brazil, Rita found four additional girls to add to the program. They were bright, but the public schools had left them illiterate. One, Renata, was 7 years old and had never been to school. Rita hired a tutor to work with them, and our first student, Juliana, began attending the tutoring sessions as well.

Rita and Margaret were working full-time hours on the project, but neither of them was paid.

I put many hours in, too, designing flyers and brochures, editing letters and grant applications, organizing events. I wanted to craft an image for Bahia Street that looked professional without being slick. I cranked out amazing things on laser printers at work, since there was no budget for printing. Every penny we raised went to Brazil.

It was amazing how much Rita could do with so little. She expanded the tutoring program to the point where it was as good as any private school. Since the school day in Brazil is only four hours, the girls could then go to public school for a half day and then go to Bahia Street for a half day. Not only did this allow her to admit more students, it improved the public schools.

As the number of girls in the program grew, so too did the number of volunteers in Seattle. I jokingly call Barry “Volunteer Number One,” because he was there all along. Margaret was not technically savvy, so when Barry and Pat and I told her we needed a database, she just nodded and tried to look knowledgeable. The same happened when we launched our first website in 1998.

Margaret still chuckles about Barry and the database. He told her he was bored with computer games, and he thought developing a database would be “fun.” We have over a thousand people in our relational database now, with tens of thousands of records on donations and volunteer activities, and because of Barry, it never cost us anything.

After about five years, Margaret insisted that Barry and I go to Brazil on Bahia Street’s first study tour. It was in the Salvador airport, feeling grubby and exhausted after the long flights from the U.S., that I finally met Rita. I recognized her huge smile from dozens of photographs.

From the windows of our 12-passenger van, I saw the horrific shantytowns where our students live, some in houses made of cardboard and poly tarps. I saw the conditions that turn girls into prostitutes or domestic servants before they’re even teenagers.

At the Bahia Street Center, I saw the solution.

There were fifty girls there, vibrant, happy, excited, and loud. They gave off an aura of self-confidence and assurance. Their artwork and projects covered the walls. They danced and sang and played. The teachers, who all come from shantytowns or rural villages themselves, were proud of what they’d accomplished.

It was the last day of school for them, and the girls put on a program for us. Their excitement was not because school was ending for the year, but because there were visitantes — visitors. Some of the girls’ parents came, too. They seemed shy and overwhelmed.

To this day, I can close my eyes and hear the music and feel the exuberance.

I don’t have any children. I could never work every day with difficult kids in that environment. And despite all I know about Brazil, I’m not a “Brazilophile,” a non-Brazilian with an interest in Brazil. So why have I been passionate about this for so many years?

My goal is empowering women. My work with Bahia Street has done that.

Most of the girls in the program have single mothers. Some of their mothers look barely old enough to have children. In addition to almost no money, they have limited parenting skills. Through education, we keep their daughters from getting pregnant and help them develop self-esteem.

Regardless of whether they go to college or not — and three of the first students have gotten university scholarships — by the time our students reach high school, we’ve already done an enormous amount to break the cycle of poverty in each family.

The Gates Foundation is right across town from me. They’d like to break the cycle of poverty, too, with their billions of dollars. But we have something they don’t have.

Rita and Margaret.

How can the Gates Foundation staff understand the needs of impoverished people? As former bankers and politicians, they’ve never suffered hunger or struggled to stay alive.

Rita came from an impoverished background, and she took her chance for a better life and used it to improve her community. To change the world, we need more amazing, dedicated people like her.

But Margaret’s story is just as amazing. From the very beginning, I knew her as a strong, powerful woman. Yet over the years, she has deliberately given all the organization’s power to Rita and others in the shantytowns. To say she empowers them is reality, not just a buzzword.

All those powerful people at the Gates Foundation could learn a lot from Margaret.

A few weeks ago, I saw Rita again. She had come to the United States for the first time in her life, to celebrate Bahia Street’s tenth anniversary. Like the girls in the school, she is more confident. She is no longer Margaret’s friend in Brazil. She is the driving force behind Bahia Street.

Rita seems much taller now. I introduced her to my friend, Brett, as “a dignitary.” At several events, people gave her standing ovations.

Over Rita’s two-week visit, Margaret served as interpreter and introduced Rita, but her role was that of facilitator, not star. People who have just met Margaret have no idea how much she has done to inspire and mobilize thousands of people and raise tens of thousands of dollars.

Mentorship is one of the biggest parts of the Bahia Street curriculum. Every one of the girls we’ve had in the program has gained confidence and self-esteem. We’re especially proud of our first student, Juliana, currently attending the Federal University of Bahia.

But it’s a little known fact that even before we had even heard of Juliana, Margaret had already empowered two women and changed their lives: A one-in-a-million social activist named Rita. And myself.

For more information about Bahia Street, see the website at

3 thoughts on “Bahia Street and how I got empowered

  1. I didn’t intend my comments about the Gates Foundation to come across in such a negative light. What you’re seeing in my words is simply frustration. For ten years, Bahia Street has struggled to get recognition for our accomplishments, and we have been too small to attract attention from the Seattle news media. Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation and the causes they fund get a writeup in the paper almost every day. On the day this piece was written, the Seattle Times published a lengthy piece about the foundation’s high-powered new staff members. (See Want to work for the Gates Foundation?)

    It just makes their job seem much easier, while in truth, the work they are doing to alleviate poverty and bring social justice is just as arduous as what we do. We could actually work well together, and someday, perhaps we will.

  2. Powerful story. Only quibble is the potshot you took at the Gates Foundation. There is more than one way to fight poverty and empower the disadvantaged. Bahia Street does it one way — very effectively, it appears. That is not to say that the Gates Foundation’s “approach” is ineffective.

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