When I was 16, I left quiet Syracuse, New York to spend the summer as an exchange student in Brazil. I arrived to find my host family lived in a huge, modern duplex apartment with a gigantic terrace and panoramic city views. For help they had two live-in maids and a cook. Somehow I’d left middle-class American life and landed in unimaginable Brazilian luxury.
Newly arrived, I wanted to walk around and explore. My host father explained that just up the hill from our apartment building was a favela — a slum. It wasn’t safe for me to wander around. I wasn’t used to such restrictions, so I insisted. He acquiesced and mapped out a route — down the hill. He also sent my host brother with me, who made sure I didn’t carry my camera where people could see it.
That summer I tasted crazy tropical fruits and listened to gorgeous Brazilian music. I swam at private swim clubs with pools the size of lakes and spoke lilting Portuguese. I also walked streets lined with beggars and kids who never went to school. I discovered the favela next door was considered upscale because some of the houses had running water — although none had electricity. I saw how people live in a country where a few are very wealthy, but most are very poor.
I loved Brazil. It was warm and casual and sensuous in a way that upstate New York never would be. But what I most took away from that summer were the walls. Tall, concrete, topped with broken glass and razor wire, the walls surrounded our apartment building, our private school, our swim club and everywhere I went.
At summer’s end, I flew home. Starting senior year at my town’s functioning public high school wasn’t glamorous, but after Brazil, it felt like a civic miracle.
Electricity, running water, public schools — I think the job of government is to provide the foundation upon which a society can peacefully coexist. I want the people around me to have opportunity — partly because I think it’s just, and partly because I want everyone to have a stake in the outcome. I’ve seen what it looks like the other way, and I never want to live surrounded by those concrete walls again.
With a Perspective, I’m Evan Sagerman.
Evan Sagerman is an architect and author living in San Francisco.