After WeWork Paulista opened in São Paulo last year, community manager Nátaly Bonato started to get some troubling complaints.
“When we opened in July, we had 40 member complaints about cleaning,” Bonato says. “The cleaning schedule wasn’t being followed. Something really wrong was happening.”
Bonato made a report to the team, but the problem only worsened. She decided that pushing the team more wouldn’t help. She needed to listen. So she created a safe space within the office to set the scene for open conversation. Initially everyone held back, but eventually they got to the heart of the issue: Half the cleaning staff couldn’t read or write.
“It would have been really easy to say, ‘Since you can’t read and write, we have to replace you,’” Bonato says. “But I saw my dad in them. He has an education only to the fourth grade. He can read and write, but he has no proper education. I didn’t want them to feel that they were being dismissed because they hadn’t had opportunities in life.”
São Paulo is a city of 12 million, where many immigrants from northeast Brazil come to seek new opportunities. While the national literacy rate is above 90 percent, not everyone has the same educational opportunities.
Bonato saw two options: Let them go or teach them. “Giving up without trying is not an option,” she says. Reaching out to the WeWork Member Network, Bonato found a kindergarten teacher experienced in early reading and writing skills who was willing to volunteer with these adults twice a week for 90 minutes. Bringing this opportunity to the staff members, Bonato says, all four enthusiastically signed on.
Over the next few months, the students saw a new world opening up. One woman in the class realized reported she could now read the name of her bus and would practice her new skills as she read signs along the street. As the four pupils progressed, the group made a trip to a local bookstore to read their first book, The Little Prince (O Pequeno Príncipe).
After five months of classes, they could read, write their names, and sign contracts. The complaints went from 40 to virtually zero. “I had no issues about cleaning ever again,” she says. “They now feel more confident talking to members. Now everybody knows them. They feel confident when someone is talking to them and answer as equals.”
The group held a special graduation ceremony, celebrating how far they’d had come as well as their new chapters taking formal literacy classes at a nearby school. During the ceremony, the oldest student of the class, Irene, took mic and declared, “Today I am 68 years old, and finally I can write my name.” It was an emotional moment for the room of friends and colleagues.
The story also resonated with people across Brazil, as 20-plus news outlets picked up the story, including the leading newspaper, Correio Braziliense.
Bonato says her approach of listening first is something anyone can replicate, with the right mind-set.
“Many of the things I see happening with people with less privilege in life is they are invisible,” she says. “Nobody talks to them, nobody knows that their needs are. My advice is stop and listen to them. Then they can feel like they are human beings.”