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.
With this, during 2009-2010,* we carefully transitioned to the current programs CatComm runs, effectively our Phase II. 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.
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 has become the 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, thus forcing local media to pay attention and local authorities to change their behavior.
In support of this seven-year program to change the media narrative on favelas, we undertake an annual Favela Perceptions Survey and a continuous longitudinal ‘Favelas in the Media’ analysis of global media coverage of favelas where we track and provide feedback to international media outlets on the qualities and deficiencies of reporting with regard to Rio’s favelas. 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 to be removed, ignored, or dealt with through violence.
Given the visibility afforded to Rio during this unique pre-Olympics moment, we have worked to take advantage and amplify favela voices to tackle stigma and highlight key issues these communities face, from their perspectives. We recently launched a comprehensive compilation of Olympic Resources for Journalists to support reporters in producing accurate, productive and nuanced coverage of Rio’s favelas and foster connections between journalists and community leaders and residents.
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 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.
A growing aspect of CatComm’s work in recent years has been to promote the sustainable qualities and urban solutions generated by Rio’s favelas, starting in 2012 with the short film “Favelas As A Sustainable Model” and continuing with the Rede Favela Sustentável Facebook page which shares best practices and sustainability news pertinent to Rio’s favelas.
This focus will expand in the projected Phase III of CatComm’s work following the Rio Olympics this August. Later this year CatComm plans to evaluate and consolidate the work of RioOnWatch over the last six years by producing a RioOnWatch Replication Manual to serve as a model and guide for communities and organizations around the world in creating effective, hyperlocal-to-global news sources; publish a ‘Favelas in the Media’ final report; and conduct and publish a final Favela Perceptions Survey report.
Moving forward RioOnWatch will transition its focus from mega-events and violations to sustainability, participation, community organizing, education and favela qualities. CatComm will complement this shift in focus with community workshops and online trainings working closely with specific communities to implement programs along these themes.
*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.