Interview with Maron Emile Abi-Abib, national director of Sesc

Interview with Maron Emile Abi-Abib, national director of Sesc

Operating in the realm of arts funding, health provision, leisure and education, Sesc was created by and for the service industry in the 1940s, and Maron Emile Abi-Abib has worked at the social service for 48 years. As national director for the last 12 of those years, Abi-Abib has turned his focus on the organisation’s capacity to act as a social glue and shaper of citizens, bridging the gap between the public and private sectors by combining dynamism with an ability to inform public policy. He spoke to The Report Company about Sesc’s role in education as Brazil tries to come to terms with the effects of universalisation and concentrates on the pursuit of quality.

The Report Company: It has been suggested that Brazil’s current model for economic growth is no longer valid and that a new approach is required. What is your view of the current situation?

Maron Emile Abi-Abib: I believe that the service sector can rise to prominence, and as an institution that is coordinated by businesspeople, we can play a major role. We were established after the Second World War to act as conciliators between labour and capital, balancing the two forces and establishing social peace. Sesc was created to help workers and improve their living conditions and both Sesc and Senac are the social face of the productive sector. We are an extension of companies; we are their social work, operating in education, health, culture, leisure and assistance. The productive sector alone would not have been able to do it, so it coupled with the government, which created the National Confederation of Commerce to create the two organisations.

TRC: How has SESC funded its continued growth?

MEA: Our organisation works with public resources but from a private perspective. In this way we are able to be more dynamic, better managed and economically and politically democratic. The DNA of the company speaks of social happiness and we want it to be taken as a model for the country. Although we do not have the resources to solve the educational problem outright, we have an exemplary model which could be copied.

TRC: There is a new, dissatisfied generation demanding better health and education from this government. How do you view these demands and how have you had to adapt to them?

MEA: I'm glad there are such protests otherwise the country would be going into stagnation or not listening to its people, which is not democratic. If democracy is the goal, protest is crucial. We are in the middle of a crisis, not just in Brazil but in Europe and the Americas. The youth demanded change and this showed that, although Brazil still has serious social issues, our democracy is advancing greatly.

TRC: How did the protests change your priorities with regard to investments in culture, health and education, and how do they vary from a regional to a national level?

MEA: We are closely tied to the federal, state and municipal government’s policies, such as the reading programme we implemented as part of the Fernando Henrique government’s efforts to fight illiteracy in the same way that we supported Lula's government in the fight against hunger and waste. We set up these programmes across the country, from pre-school to high school, with the idea that we can create an exemplary model that can then be recreated or improved on. This way we are able to achieve a lot with limited resources.

We created the Sesc High School with the expressed goal of shaping young people from all over Brazil not just academically, but also for the reality of life. We want to train future leaders. We also created national and international programmes and events, including our latest initiative, Education 360 with InfoGlobo. This is an international event that invited great educational figures to discuss the challenges we face in the system today, with the idea that the debates inform future public policy. We are well aware that education is critical in Brazil, even more so than the health system.

If democracy is the goal, protest is crucial.
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TRC: What is special about the Sesc approach and what have been your key success stories?

MEA: The High School, one of our most important examples, was created after a diagnosis of what was wrong in education in the country, so as never to repeat it. The Sesc school is not a magic solution for the country because there still aren’t the required resources, whether financial, material, human or management, apart from the lack of political willingness. Nevertheless, it can certainly provide and encourage changes in pedagogical models and the management of educational institutions, particularly relating to the model of full-time education, the education of responsibility that young people need. The principle behind it is preparing kids for life, to work, to participate in the development of the country. Without that, no school can succeed.

TRC: You have a very specific model here, with the students disconnected from their families and communities. Thus citizenship and core values are also your responsibility, but can you successfully cover all these bases?

MEA: This is a big issue. How do we bring parents into the educational model? In our schools, the children become our children, in terms of safety, health, in emotional development, and all other aspects. Here, they cut the umbilical cord. We have a Herculean task ahead of us compared to other schools whose students have the parents at close range. This is not a model that could be used in full to solve Brazil's educational issues. However it is a model that entails and bestows a lot of responsibility, in which students are fundamental co-drivers and consequently protagonists contributing valuable lessons for education in the country. Public schools, on the other hand, will never be successful without the proactive participation of parents, whether close by or further away and this is an enormous bottleneck for Brazilian education.

TRC: Is there a greater need for soft skills to be taught in the classroom today, and non-academic content such as entrepreneurialism, in order to be more relevant?

MEA: Yes, our school prepares students to be entrepreneurs too, and Senac helps us with that. They are taken to work-related activities in their community, they are stimulated to have a commitment within society, they deal with arts, they are taught discipline and organisation. They have responsibilities like taking care of their own clothes, cleaning their apartments, they have to wake up and sleep at proper times, and we are very rigorous about that. Such rigour leads them to planning their lives better, to being more organised and proactive. They are better prepared to face and actively participate in how life within society will be.

TRC: What was the most important lesson you learned as an entrepreneur?

MEA: Most importantly, the education I received from my parents and the education received at the good primary school that I was lucky enough to attend. My parents came to Brazil as immigrants to build their lives. It takes some courage to make the decision to live in another country and we absorb this from our parents. Schools back then were better than today, and there was a very intimate relationship with the family. I remember a teacher mistreated me (at least that's how I remember it in my mind!) when I was six years old. Immediately my mother took me out of the school and placed me in another. In turn, the headteacher of the school went to my house to ask why I wasn't going anymore and what she could do to make me return. This would rarely happen today. Entrepreneurship also involves taking risks which you can beat when they appear and threaten you if you have a both a good family and educational base.

We are proud of doing things well, things that produce positive consequences, and we are applauded for that. We may have limited resources, but we carry out our work in a rational and economic fashion, which makes it more profitable and successful.
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TRC: What is the perception of Sesc as a brand, and how are you viewed in Brazil?

MEA: We are proud of doing things well, things that produce positive consequences, and we are applauded for that. We may have limited resources, but we carry out our work in a rational and economic fashion, which makes it more profitable and successful. To complement this work, we keep on doing studies and research based on our experience, contributing to the public policies of the country. Every now and then we send reports and critiques to government entities. This is part of our duty to the nation. If we have a particular perspective on problems involving health, for instance, it is our duty to communicate it to the relevant public authorities.

There are two different perceptions of Sesc. Those who live it and therefore view it as an institution committed to quality, for example a parent whose child is in preschool with us, or if you eat at a Sesc restaurant, you leave with a great impression. The people who experience Sesc have a very positive view, but even those who don’t know us directly are aware of our achievements, especially within culture. Art and culture have a lot of spontaneous publicity and visibility and are also more enticing, but art is also transformational uplifting spirits in society as a whole. We have to help those who most need it gain access to the arts and help their artistic and cultural development, otherwise, they become segregated, consuming valueless art which doesn't raise them to superior levels of the human condition.

TRC: What drives you to succeed and how would you want your legacy at Sesc to be felt?

MEA: What inspires me is leaving behind a legacy for my team of commitment to the institution’s mission. I have been the general director for 12 years, but I've worked at Sesc for 48 years. Out of these, I've spent 25 years working in the field, directly with our clientele, but I've been directing the national department for 12 years. Here we establish political guidelines and guidelines for programmes which are the norms and technical references for Sesc all over the country. Overcoming difficulties that appear and constant self-evaluation are our most important challenges, but we have solved internal issues, making the whole system more unified.

My primary task is to contribute to the maintenance of the unity of the Sesc system throughout Brazil, which involves new management models, improving the dialogue, safeguarding the founding principles that were in our DNA like social happiness, economic and social democracy, and freedom. This has to be in the core of our work and in this way, our rules are a great manifesto for democracy.

We have to help those who most need it gain access to the arts and help their artistic and cultural development.
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This article was published 18 May 2015
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