Porto Alegre, Brazil. Image courtesy of Shift Collaborative.

In 2012, Brazil’s IT industry surpassed China’s to become the seventh largest in the world. And Porto Alegre, the capital of Brazilian state Rio Grande do Sul, has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country.

But on the outskirts of Porto Alegre sits the Fourth District, a post-industrial place that’s still catching up with the world’s tech-friendly future. It’s currently undergoing a major transition into a technology-driven economy — an experience Eric Sloss believes Pittsburghers know well.

“What’s happening in the Fourth District is like what was happening in the Strip in the Eighties and Nineties,” says Sloss, a partner and creative strategist with the full-service marketing firm, Shift Collaborative.

Later this spring, Sloss will travel to the Fourth District to share lessons on how the city can embrace rapid growth without leaving any of its citizens behind.

“Homeowners, renters, artists, small and medium-sized business owners, churches and synagogues and nonprofit organizations are among those who will be most impacted by a given development,” he says, “and they deserve to be heard.”

Shift is among 45 entities chosen nationwide to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) Professional Fellows Program, which empowers entrepreneurs across Latin America and the Caribbean to contribute to social and economic development. Through the fellowship, Shift will take its strategies abroad and engage government officials and residents of the Fourth District through its exerciseSHIFT research initiative.

“What we’re hoping is that the different groups in Porto Alegre feel like they’re part of the community in a real way and if they see development happening, they don’t feel excluded,” says Sloss. “Any city can benefit from an inclusive approach with as many citizens as possible having a voice in the process.”

Shift staff will work with Rafael Perez, founder and managing director of Point – Facilitação Criativa, which trains people in effective communication, presentation and meeting facilitation skills. A “reverse exchange,” of sorts, the program offers an opportunity to extend Shift’s work with Perez, a YLAI alum who helped the agency refine exerciseSHIFT during a five-week fellowship last fall.

Perez believes working with Shift will bring a fresh perspective to the Fourth District’s challenges, including homelessness, public safety concerns and the threat of gentrification.

“What exerciseSHIFT brings is a collaboration — a sense of co-creation — that we need to bring the community together to build new solutions for the neighborhood,” he says.

“It is always interesting to work with people and organizations from other parts of the world — other cultures — that can bring new habits to our routine,” adds Perez. “This is how I see Shift helping us through a well-designed process and references from outside the country.”

One June 2 and 3, Shift and Point will implement a two-day “Hackatown” to find solutions to the Fourth District’s most pressing problems. During the program — modeled after collaborative computer programming “hack-a-thons” — government officials, business and nonprofit leaders and community members will come together to create a shared community vision for the neighborhood.

As part of the project, citizens are encouraged to send letters to Pittsburgh and Porto Alegre residents through an art project called “cartas para o rios” (“letters to the rivers”). Each letter writer will receive a response from someone living and working in each city, and Sloss will translate the Portuguese letters in order to learn the language.

The YLAI program is sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and implemented locally by GlobalPittsburgh.

Gail Shrott, director of GlobalPittsburgh’s International Leaders Program, placed Perez with Shift last fall.

“From the outset of their placement, it was clearly evident that Rafael and Eric were a great match as fellow and mentor, and would no doubt develop an ongoing linkage — both outcomes that the YLAI project hopes to achieve,” says Shrott.

Sloss says he looks forward to learning to apply an international lens to his facilitation and communications consulting skills. He’s particularly interested in learning how to navigate the “complexities of embracing modernism” that face indigenous populations in Brazil.

But, he says, at the core of his approach is one universal truth: “It’s about empowering those who live locally to have a strong voice in the future of their community.”

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications....