Theresa Williamson’s Bio

Theresa Williamson, Ph.D. is a biologist and city planner and founding executive director of Catalytic Communities, an NGO working to support Rio de Janeiro’s favelas through asset-based community development since 2000. CatComm produces RioOnWatch, a local-to-global favela news platform, and Rio’s Sustainable Favela Network and Favela Community Land Trust program. Theresa is an advocate for the recognition of the favelas’ heritage status and their residents’ right to be treated as full citizens. She received the 2018 American Society of Rio prize for her contributions to the city and the 2012 NAHRO Award for her contributions to the international housing debate. CatComm was winner of the 2022 Brazilian Federation of Architects and Urbanists Prize for its contribution to Brazilian cities and RioOnWatch received a 2022 Silver Anthem Award and Brazilian Megafone Award for its anti-racist reporting work.

Mid-Length Bio

Theresa Williamson, Ph.D. is a city planner, community organizer, environmentalist and founding executive director of Catalytic Communities, an award-winning NGO providing strategic support to Rio de Janeiro’s favelas since 2000. She is an advocate for the recognition of favelas’ heritage status and resident rights, with multiple book chapters and four op-eds in The New York Times. Dr. Williamson earned her B.A. in Biological Anthropology from Swarthmore College and PhD in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania. CatComm’s asset-based programs, created and maintained in close partnership with favela partners, include RioOnWatch (bilingual favela news platform), the Sustainable Favela Network (socio-environmental solutions in over 100 favelas), Favela Community Land Trust (land and development rights), and Favelas Unified Dashboard (crowdsourced community research from Covid to water/energy rights). Awards include: Brazilian Federation of Architects and Urbanists prize for contribution to Brazilian cities, Megaphone Award for independent investigative reporting, Anthem Award for Best Local Awareness Program, American Society of Rio prize for contributions to the city, NAHRO Award for contributions to the international housing debate.

Long Bio

Winner of the 2012 National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) John D. Lange International Award for her contribution to the international housing debate and the 2018 Ralph Greenberg Award from the Rio de Janeiro American Society for her “unselfish contribution of time and effort to the betterment of the Rio de Janeiro community,” with four Opinion pieces published in The New York Times in 2012, 2013, and 2016, and Americas Quarterly, urban planner and Catalytic Communities (CatComm) founder Theresa Williamson is an outspoken and respected advocate and informant in support of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

She has been featured in Guernica, O Globo, Marie Claire, Yo Dona (Spain), and Tricycle, and quoted in The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Le Monde, NPR’s On the Media, Rádio CBN (Brazil), SBS Dateline (Australia), The Atlantic Cities, BBC World Service (UK), CBC TV (Canada), Next American City, The Independent (UK), El Mondo (Spain), Folha de São Paulo (Brazil), O Globo (Brazil), Places: The Design Observer, Architectural Record, Revista Piauí (Brazil), 45 Minuuttia (Finland), The Washington Post, NBC, and numerous other outlets.

Watch Theresa’s August 2016 participation on NBC’s Today ShowBBC World, and TRT World (Turkey), as well as July’s HBO Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and Vox short doc.

With a small and agile team coordinating a network with hundreds of close collaborators at efficiently-designed Catalytic Communities, since 2000 Theresa has worked as the organization’s Executive Director to promote a more creative, inclusive and empowering integration between the city’s informal and formal communities, in which the city’s favelas are recognized for their heritage status and their residents fully served as equal citizens.

Theresa is also Editor-in-Chief of RioOnWatch, CatComm’s internationally recognized hyperlocal-to-global watchdog news site and favela news service with 2016 accolades in the form of a Webby award honoree recognition, a The Development Set piece proclaiming RioOnWatch “changed reporting on the favelas during the Olympics,” and recognition for its work in preparing journalists for the Olympics from the International Journalists’ Reporting Network. Since 2010 RioOnWatch has been tracking the increasingly intense impacts of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games on Rio’s favelas, providing a global platform for often-ignored community perspectives that hold valuable insight for cities across the world. The site has established itself as necessary tool for community organizers in Rio, reporters from around the world covering the city, and researchers on Latin America and is now being documented in a RioOnWatch Replication Manual for Organizers.

While launching and running CatComm over the past two decades, Theresa has also worked to bridge the academic-practitioner divide by producing academic pieces and working with researchers in the city’s favelas. In May 2004 she received her Ph.D. from the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. Entitled Catalytic Communities: The Birth of a Dot Org, her dissertation won the 2005 Gill-Chin Lim Award for Best Dissertation on International Planning and was one of three finalists for the 2004 Barclay Gibbs Jones Award for the Best Dissertation in Planning. Theresa is an advisory board member with the University of Warwick’s Understanding Risks and Building Enhanced Capabilities in Latin American Cities (URBE Latam) program, the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization and a board member with the Center for Community Land Trust Innovation.

Raised in Rio and Washington, DC, Theresa is a dual Brazilian and British citizen and lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Theresa is available for public lectures in Rio de Janeiro or during her annual North American University Tour. Her email is theresa [at] catcomm [dot] org.



Speaking Engagements

2012-2020 University Tour talks given on the following campuses across the United States: American, Augustana, Berea, Brown, Carroll, Claremont McKenna, Columbia and Studio X, Georgetown, Georgia State, Goucher, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Kalamazoo, Marquette, McGill, MIT, NYU, Pacific, Pomona, Pratt, Ramapo, Roger Williams, Smith, Stanford, St. Joseph’s, Swarthmore, Syracuse, UCLA Luskin, U. Chicago, U. Colorado-Boulder, U. Delaware, U. Maryland, U. Pennsylvania, U. Richmond, U. Wisconsin-Madison, Vanderbilt, Vassar, Villanova, Virginia Tech, Wellesley, West Chester, Western Michigan, Worcester State, and Yale.

  • 2019 On Cities Workshop at Norman Foster Foundation (Madrid, Spain)
  • 2019 Conferencia Internacional: Recuperación, titularidad y desplazamientos: Reflexiones desde la gestión comunitaria at Colegio de Arquitectos y Arquitectos Paisajistas de Puerto Rico (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
  • 2019 Why Cities? Informality as a Way of Life: Challenges to Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, USA)
  • 2018 ColaborAmérica (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2018 Celebrating Commons Scholarship at Georgetown University (Washington, DC, USA)
  • 2018 Grounded Solutions Annual Conference (Pittsburgh, USA)
  • 2018 Slums: New Visions for an Enduring Global Phenomenon at Harvard University (Cambridge, USA)
  • 2018 American Society of Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2018 Innovative Informality: Business, Society and Sustainability in and of the Informal Economy at University College London (London, UK)
  • 2017 Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (Cambridge, USA) 
  • 2017 EcoCity World Summit (Melbourne, Australia)
  • 2017 Comparative Approaches to Informal Housing across the Globe at University College London (London, UK)
  • 2017 Art, Aesthetics and the Future of City Life conference at Marquette University (Milwaukee, USA)
  • 2017 CIEE (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2017 Inter-American Development Bank Working Group on Barrio 31 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
  • 2016 CIEE (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2016 Urb Favelas (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2016 Placar Final (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2016 The Global Summit (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2016 World Planning Schools Congress (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2015 EcoCity World Summit (Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.)
  • 2015 Conference on World Affairs (Boulder, CO, USA)
  • 2015 CIEE (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2014 CIEE (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2013 International Finance Corporation Emerging Managers’ Training (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2011 International Club of Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2011 UN Habitat (New York, USA)
  • 2011 American Society of Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2011 University of Virginia (Charlottesville, USA)
  • 2010 University of North Carolina (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2009 University of North Carolina (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2008 Wood Music Festival (Oxford, UK)
  • 2008 Substance Coop Conference: After the Event (Manchester, UK)
  • 2007 Swarthmore College Lax Conference on Entrepreneurship Conference speaker and roundtable coordinator (Swarthmore, PA)
  • 2007 Rotary Club of Rio de Janeiro – Laranjeiras presentation on Catalytic Communities (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2006 Tech Museum Awards Showcase presentation (San Jose, CA)
  • 2006 National Community Reinvestment Coalition lecture “A Peak at an Unassisted Community” (Washington, DC)
  • 2006 Rotary Clubs of Clinton, Normal, and Sunset: multiple presentations on Catalytic Communities (Bloomington, IL)
  • 2006 International Honors Program class visiting lecture (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2005 PlaNetwork presentation on Catalytic Communities (Washington, DC)
  • 2005 Swarthmore College Political Science Department daytime and evening talks: “The Power of Grassroots Communities in Brazil and Around the World: The Potential of Connecting Them through New Technologies”
  • 2005 Virginia Tech City and Regional Planning Department daytime and evening talks: “Poverty, Development and the Internet”
  • 2005 Rotary Club of Rio de Janeiro – Saúde presentation on Catalytic Communities (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2005 American Collegiate Schools of Planning talk “Catalytic Communities: The Birth of a Dot Org” (Kansas City, MO)
  • 2004 Community Technology Centers Network (CTCNet) Conference “Connecting across Borders” roundtable presenter (Seattle, WA)
  • 2004 World Social Forum Workshop presenter (Mumbai, India)
  • 2004 American Collegiate Schools of Planning talk “Introducing Protagonist Action Research” (Portland, OR)
  • 2003 Association of European Schools of Planning presentation “Virtual vs. Face-to-Face Relationships with Communities in Developing Countries” (Leuven, Belgium)
  • 2002 American School of Rio de Janeiro Economics class visiting lecture (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • 2002 American Collegiate Schools of Planning talk “Good Intentions Gone Bad: Unforeseen Consequences of Community Capacity-Building Programs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil” (Baltimore, MD)
  • 2001, 2002 and 2003 World Social Forum Workshop presenter (Porto Alegre, Brazil)
  • 2001 Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) Conference lecture “The Internet as a Community Catalyst” (Mexico City, Mexico)
  • 2001 University of Maryland Graduate WebShop participant and graduate research presenter (College Park, MD)


Radio & TV stints, Op-Eds & Opinion Pieces with/by Theresa Williamson