Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Camila Jordan

08.02.2022, Nayla Saniour

Camila Jordan is an environmental engineer turned urban planner, policy researcher and community advocate. While initially working as an environmental analyst, she volunteered for several years at TETO, a Latin American NGO that builds emergency housing for underserved communities. She then obtained a Master’s in Public Administration in Development Practice at Columbia University, New York City, where she led a pilot program to create more social housing. Camila is currently the executive director at TETO Brazil. # CHALLENGING CAREER CHOICE When I had to choose what to study in university I initially thought about going into architecture, as it was the only career I understood that dealt with the built environment. At that time I was not familiar with the discipline of urbanism. I did an internship in architecture where I worked on AutoCAD and building models. But I hated it and decided against this career path. I also thought about landscape architecture because I loved nature. I eventually went for a [Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering](, which I did at the [Universidade Nova de Lisboa]( I had never been good at math or physics but I was very interested in sustainability, so I decided to take on the challenge. # WORKING IN THE CEMENT INDUSTRY I was born in Portugal from two Brazilian immigrant parents. I lived in Brazil when I was younger and after university I wanted to go back to reconnect with my roots. For my first job out of college, I took a position as an environmental analyst in Rio de Janeiro at the [National Union of the Cement Industry]( (SNIC). Cement is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and my role was to draft the roadmap to reduce the carbon emissions of the cement industry in Brazil until 2050. But what I really wanted was to be more on the ground and work with social issues. # URBANIST BY CURIOSITY Early on in my life, my mother instilled in me an understanding and appreciation of public spaces. She taught me to pay closer attention to the sidewalks, the places to sit in public spaces and the parks. My mother is a poet, but I would also like to think that she is an urbanist. I believe that if you enjoy understanding the spaces and their dynamics, you can call yourself an urbanist. {{Pic1: Favela city in São Paulo. Photo by volunteers of TETO.}} # VOLUNTEERING IN RIO DE JANEIRO As I was living and working in Rio, I quickly realized that the city was deeply segregated, as are many cities in Latin America. I was curious about it and wanted to understand the issues of segregation and inequality. At that time I also discovered [TETO](, a Latin American NGO that mobilizes thousands of volunteers who work with residents in vulnerable communities to build housing and improve habitat conditions. They are mostly known for emergency housing, but they do a lot more with local communities. TETO is part of [TECHO](, a network of 18 countries in Latin America working on these issues. I immediately fell in love with the organization. A few months later I volunteered in one of their construction projects and I have been part of TETO ever since. # WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES TETO works with the communities in a continuous process with deep involvement. We start by understanding the dynamics and asking the community if they want to participate with us in a project to improve their habitability conditions. We then conduct censuses and diagnostic studies. We also do participatory mapping with the residents, asking them what their needs and aspirations are. From there we draw an action plan for the following year, to guide the work of the volunteers and the residents. # DAY JOB VS. VOLUNTEERING For three years I worked as an environmental analyst, but what I was really passionate about was my volunteering at TETO. I worked in different aspects of the organization, from fundraising to conducting censuses with the communities and organizing construction projects. Meanwhile, I had been applying for paid positions at TETO a few times, but to no avail. After my last unsuccessful attempt, I decided it was time to change course and pursue higher education. {{Pic2: Resident of a favela in Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, talking to TETO volunteers. Photo by volunteers of TETO..}} # MASTER’S IN DEVELOPMENT PRACTICE Working in TETO taught me to understand the emergency of habitability situations and how to take action. At that point, I wanted to go further and understand how to change the systems that support the action. So I decided to pursue a Master’s degree. The search for a program was overwhelming because there were so many options and I was not sure of what I wanted to do. I wanted to get an international perspective and go to the United States because people from all over the world go there to teach and study. I eventually chose the [Master’s of Public Administration in Development Practice]( (MPA-DP) at [Columbia University]( in New York City because the program allowed me to explore different topics while taking several elective classes in housing and urbanism, which were my passions. # NEW YORK CITY’S EXTREMES While I was studying in Columbia, I fell in love with NYC. It has so much history related to housing and urban policies: the city went from a massive exodus due to [severe fires in the 1970s](, to a population boom in the decades that followed. It has therefore gone through extremes of policy, making it a very interesting place to explore. There are so many different neighborhoods and cultures, and people really take control of the urban spaces in various ways. # RESEARCH WORK While I was figuring out my visa paperwork after graduation, I took two part-time research jobs. One was with a former professor of mine, [Cassim Shepard](, who was writing a book on incrementalism in housing. Since I also speak German and he was researching housing in Germany, I did a lot of the research for him. I was also aiding [Janice Perlman]( on her book about the impact of mega-events in the favelas in Rio. # PROGRAM FOR HOUSING RENOVATIONS Finally, I got a job offer as Program Director with [Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation](, a NGO leading the [Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program]( The goal was to help low-income residents in Brooklyn to convert their basements, so that they could rent them out at affordable prices and earn extra income. Many homeowners have been renting these extra rooms in sometimes unsafe conditions, and the NYC building code was often too complicated and expensive for people to comply with. After many years of work by a [coalition of organizations]( pushing for change, the city finally invested in helping 40 homeowners to renovate their basements, and turn the learnings of the program into policies for the city. Due to COVID, unfortunately, the program has been reduced to 8 families. {{Pic3: Presentation of the Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program at a local community gathering in Brooklyn, NYC 2019. Photo by Camila Jordan.}} # WORKING CLOSELY TO REALITY I believe I got the job with the housing program because I shared my experience in volunteering with TETO during the interviews. What I had to do for the NYC program was very similar to my work in Rio: I selected the homeowner families and accompanied them through the process. In NYC I also had the opportunity to design the program, hire and train the team. I was both making decisions and working on the ground, having a real connection with the people and the territory. I really enjoyed this job because I was never interested in working in office positions that are remote from reality. # RETURNING TO BRAZIL – AND TO TETO After several months on the program, my visa was not approved. It was heartbreaking to leave NYC and to return to Brazil. There, I met up with an old friend from TETO who encouraged me to apply for the soon-to-be vacant executive director position at the organization. I was skeptical at first because all of my previous applications at TETO were not successful. But this time I finally got the job. {{Pic4: TETO Brazil's team during the strategic planning for the 2022-2024 Plan. Photo by volunteers of TETO.}} I started my job as executive director at TETO right when the pandemic hit. One month into the position, I already had to lay 10 people off because all the projects stopped and most of our funders retrieved their investments. It was extremely difficult to start with such a change, in addition to the fact that everything had to be done remotely. But we had to go back and support the communities who were being hit the hardest. We retook the work at the favelas with all the necessary safety measures: we worked side by side with the residents on infrastructure solutions that would aid them to mitigate the effects of COVID, such as bathrooms, community sinks, and water collection systems among other projects. # VOLUNTEERING AS A WINDOW TO THE WORLD The volunteering spirit that TETO instilled is deeply ingrained in me and I carry it in all aspects of my life. By working with historically excluded and underfunded communities, you become more aware of the structural inequality around you. In most Latin American cities, the segregation is striking: you could be sitting in a nice apartment in a gated community and be at a very short distance from people living in abject poverty and experiencing all types of daily violence. People in favelas are invisibilized, forgotten, and mistreated by our societies. {{Pic5: Camila and her friend building a house in the Favela Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by volunteers of TETO.}} When volunteers come in to work together with the communities to build their houses, they really put in the time as well as physical hard work. It helps the residents of the favelas feel that they have not been forgotten by society. Building a house is a transformational experience: it is a way to make a concrete, positive change in the world. Raising awareness about issues is very important as well, but being physically present and walking the talk is essential. We know that emergency houses are not what people ultimately deserve, but they are a solution for people living in undignified conditions. With a safe house they are finally able to have more mental space to focus on other aspects of their lives. # MAKING ROOM FOR MISTAKES TETO has 26 employees and relies on more than 600 volunteers for all of its operations: from mobilizing the communities to organizing and building the constructions. There is no perfect way to lead such a large organization. We have to make room for mistakes otherwise we cannot learn. Only if we listen to the communities and try things out together can we reach innovative and adequate solutions for the people who need it the most.