2012 Opus Prize Recipient
Leonora Micheiln Laboissière Mol
Leonora Mol began working in the slums of her hometown of Vitória, Brazil at age 15. Inspired by her early experience impacting young women who had very little money and few options in life, Leonara founded an NGO known as Ateliê de Idéias (ADI) to offer hope and opportunity for people living on the edge of society. Vitória is one of the more prosperous secondary cities in Brazil, but also a place where poor citizens face huge challenges that include drug-related violence and isolation from the general national prosperity. The gulf between the “haves” and “have-nots” is glaringly apparent and most poor neighborhoods, known as favelas, have little access to city or national government support and resources. NGOs fill the void; and ADI has grown organically in various directions in response to poor people’s needs, funded with a patchwork of private resources.
Early on in her career Leonora realized that women desperately needed jobs. She instituted a sewing course for moms as well as a cooking and woodshop program – all three programs produced goods for sale and continue to operate today out of a local Catholic church. When her work groups went to a bank to get a loan to expand their program, they were immediately turned down. A local woman who was part of their church community took a chance on these women and loaned them $250 which they turned into a small profit. Rather than dividing the proceeds among themselves, they deposited it in a bank. After attending a workshop touting community development banks and their impact in poor neighborhoods, Leonora recognized the need, bought a building, and started her own bank. Within a month she had lent $4,500 to small businesses and Vitória had its first community development bank – Banco Bem (Good Bank) – the second community development bank in Brazil and the first to also fund housing loans.
Today, Leonora and her team have assisted in establishing 17 community development banks, each one managed by local people. Her dream is to develop 20 more banks in the next five years. Her staff spends a great deal of time engaged in the arduous task of organizing each neighborhood and identifying local leaders who comprise what they refer to as the “Forum,” the elected leadership for the neighborhood who also act as the bank’s de facto loan committee. Loans are made to start or expand small businesses, to build or remodel homes, and to assist families in emergency situations. Business loans average $1,000 and home loans average $2,000. While there have been some business defaults, 100 percent of the home loans have been repaid. The organizing effort has also led to a community commitment to clean up 216 garbage dumps in eight neighborhoods near Banco Bem. It’s a painstakingly slow process, but one that makes a dramatic difference in the environment, health, and well-being of this poor community.
Leonora is a charismatic, principled woman who is involved in her local church and who has spent most of her life working to address injustices experienced by poor people living in the favelas in Brazil. People respond to her infectious smile, genuine warmth and constant kindness. She is a “big picture” kind of person who has surrounded herself with competent staff people who handle the day-to-day community organizing work and management of various programs.
The work of Leonora Mol and her organization is focused on promoting dignity and the value of all human life, particularly for families who live in extreme poverty. She works as an advocate and voice for the poor, knows almost everyone in the communities she serves, and works every day to move people out of physical poverty, and the poverty of spirit.
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