Miles ahead, the Two Brothers mountain looms protectively. Over a hill to the right, a tourist-loaded, white-sand beach glistens. Directly in front, pre-teens puff on blunts and twirl handguns. Older boys cradle their AK-47s as they watch Jesus M. Salas walk into Rocinha.
As president of the Two Brothers Foundation since 2008, Salas understands life in Rocinha, the largest of roughly 40 slums in Rio de Janeiro.
Two Brothers was founded in Rocinha in 1998 by Paul Sneed, a friend Salas made through a number of educational transitions that led him to Lehigh, where he is the Francis J. Ingrassia ’75 and Elizabeth McCaul Endowed Professor in Finance.
Two Brothers is an educational, nonprofit organization that aims to inspire Brazilian youth to follow a path that offers a more promising future than the local gangs.
Originally, the program taught only language classes—predominantly English and French, since a bulk of the volunteers come from the U.S., U.K., France and Australia.
Since its start, Salas says, Two Brothers has turned more into a cultural exchange.
“Our big goal is for everybody to learn. Volunteers learn about community living in rustic conditions, the importance of helping others and the importance of education. And the kids learn that many people from outside the slums want them to succeed.”
Since Salas took control of Two Brothers four years ago, he has encouraged it to save and invest money. He is raising money for a new building that will include housing for staff, classrooms and meeting space for other local groups. He is also creating a database to track classes, students and outcomes.
“Right now, we can’t tell how much we did and we can’t tell if what we did mattered, and to me, that’s critical,” he says.
Salas hopes to start sports teams to draw more local boys into the program and to launch a program to help solve the rampant problem of teen pregnancies.
Earning college credit
The foundation has been attracting as many as 100 volunteers a year, usually for terms of six months to one year. Many universities give class credit for internships abroad, and students from all over the U.S. have earned credits through Two Brothers. In addition to language classes, volunteers have taught dancing, boxing, finance and hygiene.
Salas says gangs and guns are not usually a problem for volunteers in Rocinha.
“The gangs in Rocinha want the community to know that they want only the best for Rocinha,” he says. “They organize many free community events. They do not commit crimes against residents and sometimes take it upon themselves to punish those who do.
“Problems usually arise when SWAT-like police units or outside gangs enter Rocinha to take over, but these are usually announced and have become infrequent in recent years.
“The reality is that Rocinha is a safe neighborhood, especially when compared to wealthier tourist destinations surrounding it, such as Ipanema and Copacabana. In addition, gangs know us and support our general mission.”
“An inspiring example”
Salas’ background is in mathematics, and he conducts research in corporate finance, governance and risk management. Paul Richard Brown, dean of the College of Business and Economics, says Salas is an inspiring example for students.
“His expertise in finance, combined with his compassion for those who are less fortunate, makes Dr. Salas an effective leader in improving the lives of at-risk youths in Rio,” Brown says. “His commitment to service is exemplary.
“Just like so many of our students, Dr. Salas’ interests and passions are wide and varied, and it’s exciting to see talents utilized to address important societal challenges. And because of the generosity of Frank Ingrassia and Elizabeth McCaul and their tremendous commitment to service to the university, it was especially pleasing to recognize Dr. Salas’ contributions to Lehigh by awarding him their professorship.”
Although his work with the foundation is not directly connected to his teaching at Lehigh, Salas says, “It influences me as a person.
“Many people in finance are into investment banking, and the fact that I have this other side softens me. It makes me a different teacher, and it may even motivate students to see the value in helping others.”
Emily Groff also contributed to this article
Photo of Jesus Salas by Douglas Benedict