Phase I: 2000-2008
Catalytic Communities was founded in 2000 in recognition of the abundance of community solutions across Rio’s favelas and with a mission to administer virtual and physical spaces designed to empower and inspire a global network of community-generated solutions, with Rio’s favelas as the catalysts. In 2001 we launched our first major project—the Web’s first open-access Community Solutions Database which, prior to Web 2.0, offered communities around the world perhaps the only free online space to organize and describe their localized solutions in detail and in ways that others could emulate and support. This database was recognized with a Tech Award in 2006, in the Equality category.
In parallel with this database, CatComm ran a physical community tech center—our Casa Community Technology Hub—for favela-based leaders and organizers in Rio de Janeiro, which were also the focus of the database’s solutions. Our Casa was recognized that same year by the UN as an ‘actionable idea’ for other cities. From 2003 to 2008 this community center supported over 1050 grassroots leaders from 215 favelas with strategic networks of support, peer-to-peer training and technology access, always in support of community solutions to collective challenges in Rio’s favelas.
By 2008 both programs had served communities with critical and unique timely tools, strengthened community programs and movements, and had served their purpose. By this point the Internet had become interactive, allowing communities to publish information on their initiatives in a range of open access online platforms; the Internet had reached every single one of Rio’s 1000+ favelas, meaning the anchor our community center provided via free access was no longer critical; Rio’s communities were now comfortable sharing information online and interacting via social media; and other Web-based solutions databases had popped up.
Phase II: 2008-2016
With this, from 2008-2010, we carefully transitioned to CatComm’s second of four planned phases. We did this by researching, partnering, supporting, and transferring the transition of our Community Solutions Database to the WiserEarth platform, which we translated to Portuguese and trained Rio communities in; by carefully evaluating our Casa’s accomplishments with a community advisory board, and hosting a five-year celebration and closing of the facility; and by providing carefully designed Strategic Use of Social Media Trainings to over 180 community leaders from dozens of favelas located across Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region in 2010, introducing them to a range of platforms from Facebook and Twitter to Flickr, YouTube and WorldPress.
At this point we also revisited our early mission. Our work had evolved based on the conditions and needs of Rio’s favelas, our own learning about how to effectively serve them, and the global growth of informal settlements. As a result, Catalytic Communities’ updated mission became (and continues today to be) to create models for effective integration between informal and formal settlements in cities across the globe, based on the experience of Rio de Janeiro. We develop and implement innovative and inexpensive (i.e. easily replicable) hyperlocal programs with Rio’s favelas, making our approaches publicly accessible to be taken up by other organizations.
In addition to the technological changes cited above which we identified in 2008, another major shift occurred at that time: Rio de Janeiro’s economy began to grow again, new politicians took office, the city was selected to host the 2016 summer Olympics, and the favelas that had been kept chronically marginalized and underserved over a century were now told they would finally be receiving long sought-for investments from federal, state and local programs. And a final shift: with these changes to Rio came the global spotlight—we learned early on that everyone from freelance journalists to global media outlets were moving to Rio, establishing themselves for the media-filled years that would come in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games.
In our customary experimental fashion, we launched RioOnWatch—Rio Olympics Neighborhood Watch—initially as a collective blog that community leaders taking our 2010 social media trainings and 2011 community journalism trainings would casually contribute to, offering an opportunity for them to develop skills with WordPress. But by networking a diverse subset of favela organizers on social media strategically through our trainings, and given our large network and reputation from the development of the Community Solutions Database and Casa community technology hub, we began, already within one year of Rio being announced 2016 Olympics host, to receive alerts from communities facing severe and questionable issues with regard to public sector investments across the city. From forced evictions to police violence, we found ourselves in a position to bring global attention to traditionally isolated favela voices, at a time when the world would be paying more and more attention to Rio de Janeiro. This would offer Rio’s favelas a crucial and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift the narrative that had for so long kept them from realizing their potential.
In late 2010 RioOnWatch was the first platform to report on forced evictions in Rio’s favelas in the name of mega-events, followed by our video-reporting in early 2011 which caught the attention of the Associated Press, leading eventually to a vast number of major international and domestic news outlets to use RioOnWatch as a key source of favela information, story ideas, and community contacts. This put us in the fortuitous position of helping set the global debate on Rio de Janeiro and its favelas during these critical pre-Olympic years.
RioOnWatch ultimately became a go-to news source for community organizers in Rio and around the world, journalists, researchers, urban planners and a variety of other groups interested in equitable urbanism, mega-events and human rights, and grassroots solutions. It is the world’s first hyperlocal-to-global news platform, strategically taking traditionally isolated communities and making their stories, personalities and experiences globally accessible and followable on a daily basis, thus forcing local media to pay attention and local authorities to change their behavior.
We also set out to provide a number of tools to hasten improvements in coverage beyond RioOnWatch. These included: our RioONWire favela news wire; World Cup press resources; Olympic Resources for Journalists including story recommendations, community contact lists and maps; regular analysis of the Best and Worst reporting on favelas; and alternative press conferences, reality tours, and one-on-one support for journalists covering Rio. Over time this multi-faceted communications strategy resulted in thousands of reports in dozens of countries supported or facilitated by the CatComm team. Quite a few of these also quoted the organization as an expert on Rio, urban planning and favelas.
In support of this program to change the media narrative on favelas, we undertook an annual Favela Perceptions Survey and monitored international media about favelas. As 2016 came to a close, we finalized, published and launched our 8-year longitudinal analysis of how media coverage did and did not in fact change during those critical years in a report tilted “Favelas in the Media: How the Global Narrative on Favelas Changed in Rio’s Mega-Event Years” (and a more detailed comparison across eight major global outlets) where we tracked and provided feedback to international media outlets on the qualities and deficiencies of reporting with regard to Rio’s favelas. This report has been cited by Vice and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, among others.
The image of favelas portrayed in the media matters because productive reporting enables productive policies, whereas lazy journalism can perpetuate policies that treat favelas as “the dark side of the city” to be removed, ignored, or dealt with through violence.
Also related to the Olympic legacy, Executive Director Theresa Williamson published a book chapter, “Not Everyone Has a Price: How the Small Favela of Vila Autódromo’s Fight Opened a Path to Olympic Resistance,” in Andrew Zimbalist’s latest book Rio 2016. She was also interviewed by NPR about the Vila Autódromo story.
Alongside promoting favela perspectives to a broad international audience, CatComm has worked to stimulate awareness and dialogue within favelas themselves, partnering with community organizations to strengthen local resistance to increasing threats such as eviction, police violence and gentrification. For example in 2013 and 2014 CatComm partnered with the Vidigal Neighborhood Association to host a series of workshops and debates on gentrification in the community which were widely attended by residents and covered in the local and international press.
This second phase was contemplated in evaluation researcher Kayla Boisvert’s 2017 study of CatComm’s role in supporting favelas facing evictions in Rio’s pre-Olympic years.
Phase III: 2016-
Since 2016, we have been building on RioOnWatch’s momentum, launching a new editorial line focused on realizing the potential of favelas as sustainable communities and publishing so far over 600 articles in English and Portuguese thanks to dozens of solidarity reporters, community journalists, and volunteer translators. The site is increasingly publishing articles promoting proactive green community urbanism rooted in Rio’s favelas. At the same time, RioOnWatch stays connected to its roots and maintains a responsibility to publish a subset of articles committed to ‘watchdog’ activities tracking policies directed towards favelas, the Olympic legacy and human rights. We reach 250,000 people monthly directly through our publications and social media.
As a second pillar of our third phase, CatComm is now developing its Sustainable Favela Network. We’ve identified over 100 favela sustainability and resilience initiatives across Rio, now mapped and analyzed to detect opportunities to leverage this network for fast-paced grassroots development in a period characterized by a vacuum of productive policies. This project actually began in 2012 with the short film “Favela as a Sustainable Model” produced for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio. Surprised by the overwhelming positive response to the idea that favelas were often rooted in sustainable principles, CatComm is now making the Sustainable Favela Network a major program moving forward, preparing a series of community exchanges in September 2018, while developing a Sustainable Favela Indicator based on environmental footprint, well-being and basic service measurements so communities can self-benchmark and advocate for policies that will allow them to develop in truly and thoroughly sustainable ways.
Our third major program of phase three ventures into entirely new territory, as we work to develop legislative proposals at the federal level and pilot communities at the local level to explore the possibility of Favela-Community Land Trusts (F-CLTs) as a solution to tenure security in Brazil and, as a consequence, globally. Favela CLTs have the potential to offer a model for land titling in informal settlements around the world (1/3 of humanity by 2050 who would otherwise have precarious access to land or be at risk of speculative displacement). This model allows residents to individually own their homes while they collectively own the land under their homes and manage it for perpetuity, thus providing the highest possible level of tenure security while also offering residents the right to develop their neighborhoods as a community or sell their homes as individuals. Our Executive Director spoke about it at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge in 2017. We are currently both developing a legislative proposal to make this a viable possibility in Brazil and with communities in Rio de Janeiro interested in piloting a CLT. Workshops will be held in August 2018. This project involves a partnership with the Caño Martín Peña settlements in Puerto Rico who have successfully modeled the potential of Favela CLTs, and LEDUB, the Brazilian Urban Law Laboratory. Our work on this (and theirs) was recently featured in a CityLab article on this growing movement.