José Edimilson Canaes
WHAT HE DOES
Uses computer education to empower people
Center for Digital Inclusion
where he does It
Brazil and 12 other countries
Travels to isolated and exotic locales establishing computer centers; gets to meet educators and students who are changing their communities
Driving along the dirt roads of the Maré Complex, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest shantytowns, José Edimilson Canaes takes a wrong turn. He finds himself suddenly surrounded by heavily armed members of a local drug-trafficking gang, not quite thrilled to see a man in a suit showing up uninvited.
"I almost became a statistic," he says of the encounter back in October 2009. Two things saved him. First, word reached the gunmen that Canaes—known to everyone as Ed—was there to help set up a computer center in partnership with people from the community. The second is that Canaes, goateed and bespectacled, has the nonthreatening air of an affable professor. The men let him go.
The episode didn’t faze Canaes, a tireless optimist who has an unshaken belief in his work at the Center for Digital Inclusion, known as CDI, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Rio de Janeiro that establishes computer education programs in underprivileged and isolated parts of Brazil and 12 other countries. Its goal is to teach people not only basic computer skills but also how to use technology to solve problems in their own communities and make their lives better. It trained over 68000 people in 2010 alone.
As director of operations, Canaes makes sure that the CDI machine—a rapidly expanding global network of 821 affiliate organizations—runs smoothly. His frenetic 12-hour workdays are filled with meetings, calls, trips, and the occasional adventure, like the visit to the Maré Complex. And he still finds time to squeeze in work toward a Ph.D.—he’s studying electricity usage in undeveloped areas—which he’ll complete this year. It’s a lifestyle that would tax a twentysomething, but Canaes, who is 53, isn’t complaining.
"Is it stressful? Yes," he says. "Do I like it? A lot."
Canaes first learned of the Center for Digital Inclusion in Veja , a popular news magazine. An article described how in 1995 a college dropout named Rodrigo Baggio started the nonprofit to use computers to empower people. "I wished I’d had that idea," Canaes recalls telling some friends. His friends agreed, and they all became volunteers at a local CDI branch in Campinas, a city of 1.1 million in southeastern Brazil.
It was the late 1990s, and Canaes, who has a degree in electrical engineering, was running his own thriving business in industrial automation. Being an inventor and entrepreneur had always been his dream, but he also had a passion for education. He’d grown up in a middle-class household, and as a child he immersed himself in science and history books. "We didn’t have enough money to travel, so I traveled with my eyes."
Volunteering at CDI showed Canaes that with the right educational tools, even people living in impoverished conditions could better their lives. The possibility of really changing society captivated him—and soon the CDI work took over his life.
Canaes rose to become the coordinator of the Campinas branch, running it from 2002 to 2009. Later that year, CDI invited him to become a fulltime employee and manage the Rio de Janeiro branch, CDI’s largest. Last year, he took charge of overseeing all of CDI’s activities in Brazil and abroad.
When I contact him to say I want to learn about his work, he suggests we go see the most important part of the CDI operation: the classroom.