Climbing away from peril
Rocinha, Brazil, is the last place you’d expect a rock-climbing expedition.
One of Rio de Janeiro’s largest — and most dangerous — favelas (slums), Rocinha is home to 200,000 people, ruled by drug lords and gangs as much as by the police or government. A casual observer will see a mix of precariously built shelters next to military compounds with armor-clad tanks and gun-toting men in bulletproof vests. But when the observer looks up above the settlements of Rocinha, he or she sees something else.
A sheer rock face jutting hundreds of feet in the air beckons even the most experienced rock climber. And that rock face made Asa Firestone MBA ’12 see something else: a way to get the slum’s children away from gangs, drugs and guns, and into an entirely different kind of adventure.
Firestone, a longtime rock climber, is the founder of Centro de Escaladas Urbanas (CEU), translated as Center for Urban Climbing (ceu means “sky” in Portuguese). The center is dedicated to teaching rock climbing and other adventure sports to children in impoverished, crime-plagued communities such as Rocinha.
The organization has received grants from the American Alpine Club and Kiehl’s, a high-end cosmetics company; major climbing companies have donated gear, including ropes, harnesses and helmets. And Firestone successfully negotiated a partnership with a government sports complex in Rocinha that will feature a permanent indoor climbing wall.
Meanwhile, a temporary climbing wall has gained traction.
“About 200 kids climbed the wall in November,” Firestone said. “There’s great support and excitement among the potential students.”
The rock above Rocinha has seen mountain climbers before. In fact, when Firestone and his teammates first climbed the rock, they discovered rusted-out climbing bolts that had been installed in the 1970s.
Eyeing an old climbing route called “Patrick White,” Firestone noted “the lineup has not seen an ascent in possibly more than 10 years due to the serious threat from drug dealers.” However, recent increased police presence has made climbing safer.
When Firestone first visited Rocinha, he was startled to encounter a young teen, grinning ear to ear and slinging a large machine gun over his shoulder. Now, climbing up to Patrick White and the Rocinha wall, he was equally — but this time pleasantly — surprised to find children, some wearing no shoes, climbing on the rock faces at the base of the very steep wall.
Firestone, who is also helping to train children to climb in Peru, is delighted by the enthusiasm young Brazilians have for the sport.
“You’re replacing one kind of risk — joining a gang, becoming a drug dealer — with another risk. This adventure risk is more positive,” he said.
By getting children to be more enthusiastic about adventure sports, they can be ambitious about things that can take them out of the favela culture, if not physically out of the region.
“Climbing also is considered upper-class, unattainable. We’re breaking those cultural barriers,” Firestone said.
He’s done so by founding BeyondGear, a for-profit company. Every purchase of climbing gear from the company is used to send at-risk youth on a day of climbing education. BeyondGear provides products made in local communities, and sales of the products support adventure schools. Current products include chalk bags (used to keep hands dry), climbing hardware, zipper pulls and sports pants, as well as offers on travel and gyms. By 2014, Firestone hopes to expand product lines to include equipment for surfing, skiing and cycling.
Firestone said his experience as a USC Marshall MBA was vital to his development of CEU and BeyondGear. As a fellow at the school’s Society and Business Lab and with a focus on academics at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Firestone was able to blend business with social impact in a way not offered at other institutions.
“My experience was unique and pivotal in giving me the tools and confidence to pursue such a nontraditional path in social entrepreneurship,” he said.
But Firestone knows that he faces obstacles — reincursions by gangs and government red tape remain issues — but to him, the risks are worth it. Even as Firestone has suffered a few bloody scrapes from the “cheese grater” granite of Rocinha’s rock face, he remembers the beaming smiles of Rocinha’s youth looking up to the ceu and down at the favela.