Catalytic Communities is a nonprofit organization based in Rio de Janeiro dedicated to destigmatizing Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities and integrating them into the wider society, generating global recognition of their heritage status through education, research, training, communications, technology, networks, participatory planning and advocacy. Our mission is to improve quality of life for all Rio de Janeiro residents by driving a more effective integration between the city’s informal and formal communities, and in this way develop a model for replication in developing cities worldwide.
In the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, CatComm is the only organization in Rio working at the intersection of community development, social media, and global networks. Realizing this important and timely position, in 2010 we launched www.RioOnWatch.org (Rio Olympics Neighborhood Watch), Rio’s only English-language community news site. RioOnWatch serves to (1) inform local and international public opinion by publishing favela perspectives on the transformations Rio is experiencing in the lead-up to these mega events; (2) influence public policy through bringing visibility to strategic news stories and opinions; (3) inform journalists who cover Rio both from local and international media organizations, so they incorporate favela views, nuance and detail, into their stories; and (4) combat the stigmas associated with Rio’s favelas, since poor public policies towards these communities have been made possible due to widespread misinformation about these communities, denying their diverse attributes and accomplishments.
Our recent work with social media, journalism and video trainings for community organizers has built capacity across the city’s favelas to communicate and attract visibility to community actions and perspectives in the lead-up to these mega-events. In 2013 we are leading community organizing workshops teaching resistance and advocacy practices to community leaders across the city. Click here to learn about our accomplishments in 2012 and plans for 2013.
Favelas are mistakenly translated to English as ’slums,’ ’squatter communities,’ ’shantytowns,’ or ‘ghettos’ when in fact they are none of these. Though initially occupied through squatting, most favelas have long since passed legal requirements for receiving formal property rights. Though in some places characterized by slum-like conditions of squalor, the vast majority of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are well developed. Though initially occupied using precarious shanty materials, today Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are characterized more often by quality building materials and knowledgeable building strategies, whereby homes are normally 2-3 stories high. Finally, unlike ghettos, in most cases residents of favelas have a positive view of their neighborhoods, which they developed over decades providing for their own services when the government neglected its responsibility, and simply want upgrades and integration into the city, along with recognition of their important historic role in building the city. Favelas are, simply put, “unserved neighborhoods,” whereby the public sector has abdicated its responsibility to provide public services. As a result, these incredible communities have done it for themselves, to the best of their ability. Imagine this situation applying to 22% of a city’s population, and you have the critical situation that is Rio de Janeiro.
Catalytic Communities’ programs include training favela leaders and unserved youth in communications and strategy, conducting educational community visits, lecturing at universities, conducting opinion and impact research, educational publications, and advocacy campaigns.
CatComm is classified as a 501[c] not-for-profit organization in the United States, in addition to its not-for-profit status in Brazil, because of our commitment to education and free services that empower those most at-risk. The organization scales its activities by disseminating its approaches to local, regional and global partners, after incubating and pioneering its programs in Rio de Janeiro.
Since 2000 CatComm has incubated pioneering local projects that strengthen and recognize Rio’s favela communities through education, training, communications and networks, with an eye towards developing sustainable models for worldwide replication:
From 2001-2009 we developed the Web’s first open database of grassroots projects, the Community Solutions Database (CSD), recognized by the Tech Museum of Innovation in 2006. The CSD is a collection of over 250 grassroots solutions across a range of issue areas from Rio de Janeiro and over 20 countries. Today it is housed and grown on WiserEarth, an organization CatComm represented in Brazil from 2010-2011.
From 2003-2008 we ran a UN-recognized community center and technology hub for local civic leaders in Rio called the Casa do Gestor Catalisador (Casa). During this period, we provided more than 1000 community leaders from 215 Rio neighborhoods, 23 Brazilian states, and 22 nations a range of services, helping them open their first email accounts, write project proposals, develop and engage in workshops, gain access to RFPs and trainings, and leverage the resources available on the Internet. The Casa provided them with an opportunity to connect with each other (view photo archive), something rare in Rio at the time.
- In 2009-2010 we developed then implemented Brazil’s first Social Media Trainings for community leaders, training 180 leaders from 50 neighborhoods to produce stories and video, publish them online, then develop networks to disseminate this information.
- In 2010 our international observers combined with community members shooting video effectively delayed evictions proceedings in Vila Taboinha, demonstrating the power of marrying community journalism with international attention. The community has since been able to stay.
- In 2010 we coordinated 24 Educational Community Visits with international journalists, researchers and advocates.
- In 2010-2011 we launched then established RioOnWatch, the only English-language site dedicated exclusively to publicizing community voices from Rio on the transformations Rio is experiencing in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. In 2010 we published 111 articles covering events in Rio’s favelas.
- In 2010-2011 we took Rio’s community evictions from obscurity to mainstream in the international press. Nine months after launching RioOnWatch and RioOnWatchTV, we were contacted by the Associated Press for the first story on evictions to hit the mainstream media. This story, featured in USA Today, was followed by stories in the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, Al Jazeera, cyberpresse.ca, The Independent, Al Jazeera’s The Stream, and CBC Radio Canada, the last four of which quoted CatComm.
- In 2011 we launched our Monthly News Digest providing condensed information on how Rio’s favelas are being perceived by the international media over time, with CatComm’s RioOnWatch.org lens offering a more acute local perspective.
- In 2011 we undertook in-depth training of 30 underserved youth in Community Journalism and 8 in Video Journalism from communities strategically located across Rio de Janeiro, preparing them to report for RioOnWatch.org in 2012. We also introduced 50 youth from 3 traditionally unheard-of communities (Sepetiba, Parque da Cidade, and Muzema) to video through our course “Video Journalism: Youth Voices” a partnership with Adobe Youth Voices.
- In 2012 we led a number of activities during the Rio+20 UN conference including launching our documentary film “Favela as a Sustainable Model” which won Best Mid-Length Film Award at the Cine Periferia Pai D’égua Film Festival in Belém; the public debate on “Composing a Collective Narrative of Rio’s Favelas“; and co-hosting the Favela X City Exchange Workshop between community leaders and ETH Zurich architecture school at Columbia University’s Studio X in Rio.
- In 2012 we undertook our first annual Favela Perceptions Survey in 5 North American cities plus Rio de Janeiro, to gauge and follow international opinions on favelas over time.
- In 2012 we perceived the importance and thus threw a spotlight on Morro da Providência, Rio’s first favela whose dismantling had not attracted any prior media attention, when CatComm’s ED Theresa Williamson used an opportunity to write an Op-Ed for the New York Times to work with local activist photographer Maurício Hora to call attention to the situation in that particular community, with such a compelling history contrasting with a severely undemocratic ‘development’ process. The resulting article “In the Name of the Future, Rio is Destroying its Past,” attracted widespread attention in Brazil, where dozens of newspapers spun off related articles, calling attention to the situation in Providência. As part of its strategy, CatComm also committed two interns to projects in Providência: NYU filmmaker Haimy Assefa produced the widely watched “Providência: 115 Years of Struggle” film, and UNC Chapel Hill artist Diego Camposeco recruited and worked with graffiti artists from across Rio to design a graffiti resistance mural for Morro da Providência.
- In 2012 RioOnWatch continued to expand and was mapped, with 176 new articles throughout the year covering a range of topics and triggering an increase in our monthly reach from 14,000 to approximately 40,000 people. We launched our Community Journalism Initiative whereby community-based journalists are funded to produce stories and videos.
- In 2012 in addition to the Op-Ed on Providência for the NYT, CatComm became an increasingly visible and respected voice featured by the international and domestic media in their coverage on evictions and favelas generally speaking. Ranging from her article “A Missed Opportunity in Rio” published in the NYT debate pages in April, to articles where ED Theresa Williamson was quoted across the international and domestic media (The New York Times; Huffington Post;Christian Science Monitor; The Nation; NPR; NewsTalk Ireland; Edge of Sports; FM4 Austria;Harvard Review of Latin America; Next American City; UN MediaGlobal News; The Rio Times;Urb.im; Chicagoano; Rio Real Blog; Folha de São Paulo; O Globo; Meia Hora; O Dia; UOL; Yahoo! Notícias; Agência Brasil; Destak; EMBARQ; and Direito a Moradia), topped off by her winning of the NAHRO International Award in November, 2012 represented for us an important turning point in realizing our ability to influence the discourse and impacts of Rio’s municipal decisions on the future of the city’s favelas.